Veteran amputees overcome odds to race in marathon

When former Lance Cpl. Ben Maenza became a double amputee at the age of 22, he thought his life was over.  But now, two years later, he and one of his closest friends – a triple-amputee and fellow military veteran – are preparing to participate in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on October 7.

Maenza, from Nashville, Tenn., had been in Afghanistan for four weeks in October 2010 working as a combat engineer in the Marine Corps, when a horrific accident resulted in the loss of both his legs.

“We were walking through a cornfield and came to a river we needed to cross,” Maenza explained.  “I felt it was a bad idea, but we did it anyway.  It was my job to clear the trail [using a metal detector].  I was standing on the riverbed, and the guy behind me stepped off my trail and hit a pressure plate that was offset from an improvised explosive device (IED) that I was standing on top of.  The bomb detonated underneath me.”

In the blast, Maenza lost both his legs and suffered deep gashes, burns and nerve damage to his arms.  He also suffered nasal and skull fractures.

Maenza had to be resuscitated in the field, and he was taken to a military hospital in Germany, where he began to recover physically –but the emotional challenges were starting to mount.

“You don’t know where you’re going to go – you just know you lost your legs and emotionally, mentally, life’s over,” Maenza said. “There’s nothing to live for.”

Maenza’s depression lasted through the first six months of recovery until he had a revelation.

“I had a divine intervention with God,” Maenza said.  “This wasn’t what my life was going to be like. Losing my legs was not going to determine who I was going to be.  I died – they had to bring me back to life – I got this second chance, and I wasn’t going to settle for mediocrity.”

The support of his fellow soldiers – especially those who were also amputees – helped pull him through.

“You have brothers in the Marine Corps, and the army, but when you go through a traumatic injury like that, there’s nothing like that bond [with people who have had a similar experience],” Maenza explained.  “Those guys are my family, they’re my brothers.  I’d do anything for them, and they do anything for me…We joked, we cried, we knocked each other over, we really motivated each other.”

Slim hope

One such newfound brother of Maenza’s was Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class John Masson, 41, who worked as a medic.  Maenza and Masson stayed in hospital rooms across the hall from each other in Germany.

Just days before Maenza suffered his injuries, Masson – a husband and father of three from Fayetteville, N.C. – had also had an IED detonate beneath him while on a tour in Afghanistan.  He lost both legs and his left arm beneath the elbow.

“I was expectant – [meaning] they didn’t expect me to live, but there was always that slim hope,” Masson said.

Masson was conscious from the time of the explosion all the way to when they took him to an airfield hospital and put him in a medically-induced coma.  He credits his survival to the quick actions of a junior medic and the other soldiers who were there at the time of the explosion with his survival.

“I had a junior medic there with me…he was able to stop the bleeding in places and give me fluids through an IV to bring my blood pressure up to where he could give me pain meds,” Masson said.

A couple days later, Masson was airlifted to Germany, where doctors pulled him out of the coma.  At the time, his legs were both amputated below the knee, but due to the risk of infection, doctors had to take the rest of his left leg.

“IED blasts are really dirty wounds,” Masson said.  “Even though you’re stable, you can be affected by an infection really quickly.”

While Masson was scared by the severity of his injuries, he was overwhelmingly grateful to be alive.

“I knew when I came to I was an amputee,” Masson said.  “But just being alive and not suffering a traumatic brain injury –I thought, ‘I lost both legs, I lost my arm, but I still have a good arm and my brain is intact.  I’m alive, and I get to see my wife and children.’  That superseded any thoughts of, ‘You lost your limbs.’”

Days later, Masson and Maenza were scheduled to fly back to the U.S. together.

“John stuck his hand in the air over toward me and said, ‘Hey, brother, we’re going to be OK,’” Maenza said.  “I grabbed his hand with my mangled arm and we shook hands.  He was the first person I had that kind of connection with.”

A long rehabilitation

Rehabilitation, including being trained to use prosthetic legs, was a long, painful process for both Masson and Maenza.

Masson, who was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., first needed two months of additional surgeries to flush out his wounds in order to keep his tissues from going necrotic.  During that time, his physical and occupational therapists prepared him for what was to come when his wounds closed up.

“You start with a short [prosthetic] leg, just trying to stand up as much as you can,” Masson said.  “The more work you do, the stronger you get, and you start to walk the new way with the prosthetics.  The better you get, the more they add height until you eventually get up to your original height.  Then they give you mechanical knees.”

For Maenza, it took about six months to get to that point.  “I got my first set of knees in April of 2011,” he said.  “I pushed myself hard.  I wanted to have my knees when my unit returned – but it hurts.  It’s really hard for the body.”

Masson agreed, adding, “For me I can walk; I’m not in my legs every day, but for situations that are important for me and I want to walk, I put on my legs and walk.”

Marathon training

While in rehab, Maenza and Masson were both approached by Achilles International, a non-profit organization aimed at supporting athletes with injuries.  The organization, which was founded in 1983, funds the Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, which allows disabled soldiers to participate in marathons and other running programs.

Maenza and Masson will both be using hand-cycles, which are somewhat like reclined bicycles that are operated solely by the user’s shoulders and chest, for the full 26.2 miles.  For Masson, the goal is to finish without stopping and ‘not to come in last.’ For Maenza, the goal is to beat his time from his last marathon in Boston – 1 hour, 34 minutes.

“There’s some bad blood between us,” Maenza joked.  “John’s in the Army, I’m a Marine – we talk trash.  Needless to say, in my youth and exuberance, I’ll beat him.”

Masson and Maenza have been training separately – in Masson’s case, biking four to five times a week, while Maenza rides around Nashville and lifts weights.  But come Saturday, the two will be at the starting line next to each other.

“The message is, with the right attitude and determination, you can succeed anything that’s put in your way,” Maenza said. “Life’s not over if you lost your legs, or you have diabetes, or you’re overweight, whatever…No matter what you’re faced with, you can do great things.  I just want people to know if we can do it, they can do it.”