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POUGHKEEPSIE JOURNAL MAY 28,2011

 
Three months after he lost his lower legs from an improvised explosive device, Wingdale native Lance Cpl. John Curtin is on the mend.

"I feel pretty good today," Curtin said from his room at the Water Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on Wednesday.

Curtin, a U.S. Marine, was on patrol with his unit, the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, Echo Company, 3rd Platoon, in mid-February when an IED exploded beneath him. Curtin had been guarding an entry point to a compound in which insurgents had been hiding in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

The explosion left him with a gaping gash in his right forearm, a shattered left hand and the loss of his lower legs. He was 20 years old at the time.

Curtin, who turned 21 in March, has since undergone about 20 operations on his legs, right arm and left hand.

Now undergoing a rigorous course of physical and occupational therapy, Curtin works out for almost three hours each day.

The healing process has been steady, but challenging.

"When I close my (left) hand, I can't make a complete fist," he said. "But I can open my fingers almost completely ."

Curtin received two prosthetic limbs earlier this month.

"The first day, I practiced on the parallel bars," he said. "The second day I did better."

On Thursday, Curtin walked 30 feet without support of any kind.

"Everything changes from here," he said.

Although badly injured, Curtin said he was lucky to have had a good portion of his legs remaining. "I still have a complete femur on my right leg," he said.

Curtin's prosthetic legs are lengthened every couple of weeks as he improves.

"With my prosthetics now, I stand five feet, eight inches," he said. "Every couple of weeks they add an inch to the prosthetics. By the end of it, I'll be back to my normal height of six feet."

In a few months, Curtin will have knee joints added to his prosthetics, allowing for more comfort and maneuverability .

"It will take the pressure off the end of his legs," said brother Ben Curtin, 24.

The elder Curtin, who has rarely left his younger brother's side since he was flown back to the U.S. after being injured, left behind a job in Dover Plains to become John's full-time caretaker. He moved into the Mologne House, on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center complex, in February.

"He's doing exceptionally well," said Ben Curtin. "He just gets stronger every day. He looks like he used to."

The prosthetics have been a game-changer in terms of John's recovery, he said.

"They're a gateway to a normal life," said Ben Curtin. "It's great to see my brother back on his legs -- to see him stand up again."

There have been other positive changes during John Curtin's time at Walter Reed. The brothers have made friends with other recuperating soldiers. John Curtin has twice met President Barack Obama -- once when he was awarded the Purple Heart in late February, and again on May 4, when he participated in the Soldier Ride cycling event, organized by the Wounded Warrior Project.

Local and non-local communities have rallied to support Curtin's recovery. Donors report raising tens of thousands of dollars on his behalf.

After reading an article recounting his story in the March 16 Poughkeepsie Journal, members of the Marine Corps League of Dutchess County voted to raise funds to benefit Curtin.

"I called everyone I know," said Moe Baxter, commandant of the league's Carmen Ramputi Detachment No. 861, headquartered in Beacon.

As well as individual donors, seven Marine Corps League detachments contributed to the fund, Baxter said.

Last week, the Marine Corps veteran traveled to Washington to hand John Curtin a check.

"We never leave another Marine behind," he said.

Another Dutchess County donor learned of John Curtin while shopping for groceries. Millbrook resident Ellen Levine was in the checkout line at the Freshtown supermarket on Route 22 in Dover Plains when she happened to notice a flier on the wall.

"I turned and looked at the store's memo board and I saw this big Xeroxed picture of John," she said. "He looked so young."

Looking closer at the flier, Levine learned of a fundraiser being held to benefit the Marine.

"I reached out to the family," she said.

Not only did Levine raise money to benefit Curtin at the time, she said she plans to continue her fundraising efforts. "This is about his future," she said. "I know it could be a long road."

Curtin senses it, too.

"I can't do the things I love to do anymore, like kayaking and swimming," he said. "I have to learn how to do everything again."

The Marine admits to having had feelings of anger surrounding the loss of his ability to walk.

"I felt like I was doing the right thing," he said. "And sometimes I wonder why it happened to me."

With counseling and the support of staff at Walter Reed, Curtin said he has come to accept his fate.

"Sometimes bad things happen to good people," he said.

For now, Curtin said his main goal is to be able to walk unassisted. He said he wasn't sure if he would remain with the Marine Corps.

This month, Curtin is taking placement tests in preparation for college math courses. Asked if he had a particular academic interest, he said he was leaning toward the technical sciences. "I'm thinking maybe electrical engineering," he said.

To learn more about John Curtin, visit www.marinejohngcurtin.com.

Reach Shantal Parris Riley at sdriley@poughkeepsiejournal.com or 845-437-4809.