Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 27, 2012

Meet Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead

At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

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At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.

“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”

That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.

I met Trent last week, at a Salute the Troops event sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At around 5’5″ and lean, he doesn’t match the image of the stereotypical burly Marine. He has a heavy Alabama accent, and does a great impression of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the movie Sling Blade. He also has a prosthetic leg, though his one complaint is that he can’t wear boots with it.

Trent had no legal will when he arrived in Afghanistan in 2010. He’d joined the Marines right out of high school the year before, and, as he says, “I didn’t really have anything.” So when he got there, he just took out a notebook and wrote his parents a letter:

“Hey Mom and Dad, I just want you to know I love you. And if you’re reading this and I’m not there, I want you to know that you all did an awesome job raising me. I couldn’t complain about anything.”

He told me that this mentality of preparing for death is common among new Marines.

“It’s always a constant thought that the next step you’re going to take is going to be your last,” he said. “Because I guess if you believe that and really believe and wholeheartedly accept that fact that you’re not going to make it, it makes it a whole lot easier.”

Fortunately, Trent’s letter never had to be sent. But three months later, he did suffer a severe hit on a foot patrol when he stepped on a six-pound IED.

“Once the ringing stopped…I was kind of confused as to why I was laying on the ground,” he recalled. “The adrenaline lasted just a few seconds and then the pain started setting in.”

Initially, he didn’t realize his right leg below the knee was destroyed in the blast. He tried to tell the other guys he could walk it off. But that was obviously out of the question. To keep him calm and get him onto the medical chopper, his squad leader told him that he’d only lost a couple of toes. The IED had blown off Trent’s right foot and mangled his shin and calf. He had a broken arm, an abrasion on his eyelid and 50 percent hearing loss in one ear.

The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital in Germany. “I see my left foot sticking up, but nothing sticking up on my right side.”

His initial thought?  “I thought it was kind of badass, to be honest,” he said.

The more difficult part, Trent added, was seeing the worry and stress of his parents, who he’s very close to. Another challenge of coming home with an injury was dealing with the guilt of not being in Afghanistan to help his guys as they finished the remaining three months of their deployment.

“The hardest part had to be because my guys were still there and still going to be there for another three months — hearing about other guys getting injured and killed,” Trent explained. “‘Why did I only lose one leg and I’m still alive?’ That kind of guilt. ‘Why am I so privileged?’”

These are questions Trent said he’s asked himself a lot. But he’s also trying to plan the next step of his life. He’s interning at a Texas company that designs outdoor water features, and is planning to start college soon for graphic design. So far, Trent says he hasn’t run into the employment challenges that many young veterans have. “There’s so many opportunities it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve walked into stores with shorts on and had people say ‘Are you a combat wounded veteran? Here’s my card, here’s what I do.’…It’s crazy the support we have right now.”

I asked Trent if he feels that his sacrifice was for something good, and he pauses for a moment.

“I believe in fighting for the country and all that. All the cookie cutter statements and everything,” he said. “But really, just like I’ve more or less surrounded myself with such good-hearted people. I can say I’ve been fighting for my country but, really, I feel like I’m fighting for family.”

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My Week in Vegas With Wounded Troops

Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

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Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

I was able to spend last week with a group of 40 wounded warriors who served in Afghanistan and Iraq at a Salute the Troops event at the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas. What struck me at the beginning was how young some of them looked and how candid they were about their experiences: what it was like to suffer the loss of legs or arms, or permanent control of bladder and bowels; what it felt like to inhale the fire from a suicide bomb or to step on an IED plate; and the sense of guilt some felt because they were unable to go back and continue fighting alongside their friends.

But, for the most part, they didn’t dwell on their injuries. They spent the week hanging out at poolside cabanas, at the hotel sports bar, playing poker and dancing at the nightclubs. They joked around with each other, talked about sports, and commiserated over military hospital bureaucracy.

The four-day event was organized by the Armed Forces Foundation and sponsored by Southwest Airlines, Omaha Steaks and the Palazzo Hotel (which also paid for my trip). Three other bloggers, VodkaPundit, BlackFive’s Bruce McQuain, and Kristle Helmuth, were also on the trip (and I highly recommend reading their coverage as well).

The annual event was the brainchild of AFF founder Patricia Driscoll and billionaire casino mogul and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is someone even prominent politicians have a hard time securing meetings with, but he dropped by for dinner with the wounded warriors every night of the trip, often working the room on his motorized scooter.

“There’s one thing I know,” he told the group in a speech on Friday night. “When you volunteer, you don’t lead from behind. So you guys carry a sense of patriotism that is unbounded…You’re protecting us, and that’s something we can’t thank you enough [for].”

Over this Memorial Day weekend, I will share the stories of three of the wounded warriors I interviewed last week. I hope it will provide some insight into what they experienced in combat and what they’re struggling with and looking forward to as they transition out of military hospitals and return home.

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