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.”