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Inhaling Fire in Afghanistan

Ask Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Hilton what it felt like to inhale fire, and he’ll say, “It was hot.” Ask him how Afghanistan was, and he’ll say, “I had a blast.” The 23-year-old Marine had stopped to buy cigarettes at a crowded bazaar in Kajaki, Afghanistan when he was hit by what he initially thought was a car. A few moments later he woke up on the ground.

“[The locals] can’t drive very well over there. They drive like idiots,” he told me. “I sat up, saw the blood on my leg, and I realized that’s not from a car accident.”

Eric had been hit by a suicide bomber in the middle of the teeming marketplace, only 10 days before the end of his seven-month deployment. The blast killed two other Marines and left 30 civilians dead or injured.

“We’re supposed to be coming home in ten days,” he said. “You don’t think anything’s going to happen to you.”

At the pool bar outside the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas last week, Eric showed me his injuries. A thick line of stitching scars about 10-inches long runs up his right leg where he took shrapnel; his ear drums were damaged in the blast. He also suffered second-degree burns on his face, abrasions on his arm, and temporary hoarseness in his throat from the fire.

Eric was much more reserved than some of the other wounded warriors I met on the Palazzo-sponsored Salute the Troops trip. He’s tall and tan with closely cropped blonde hair and a habit of responding to questions with terse, sometimes inscrutable, answers (“cryptic” is how he describes himself). When he told me he uses humor as a coping mechanism for his experience, I asked him for a few examples. “I told them I wanted to leave Afghanistan with a bang,” he said, but he didn’t smile.

Eric joined the Marine Corps halfway through his junior year in high school, when he was 18-years-old. Out of a string of ambitions – lawyer, football player, computer engineer – joining the military was the one he’d always come back to. (Why the Marines? “It’s the best…Plus the uniform, the dress blues.”). While he doesn’t come from a military family, he is very close with his mother and siblings, who were with him when he deployed.

“They all cried when I was leaving,” said Eric. “And I wasn’t really able to handle it so I started laughing to keep from crying.”

After he was hit in Afghanistan and taken to a hospital in Germany, he said his family was anxious about how he would respond to the trauma. “They were a little paranoid about what to say, they didn’t know how I would react,” said Eric. “After they realized I would joke about it, they weren’t as timid.”

It took about a week of physical therapy before Eric was walking again, albeit with a limp and crutches. His second day, he tried to go through the physical therapy without pain medication – “That was a bad idea,” he said.

So why did he do it? “I’m a Marine. I gotta try it.”

Still, Eric stresses that he has no desire to return to combat. “Once is enough for me,” he said. “I was lucky to get out. If I go back I might not be as lucky.”

Instead, he wants to go to school for optometry – first to a local community college in Texas where he’s currently based, and then to Ohio State, which is closer to his family. He said he doesn’t expect to have problems finding a job, despite all the news stories about the high unemployment rate among young veterans.

“What are you most proud of about your experience?” I asked as we were wrapping up the interview, and immediately winced at the triteness of the question.

Eric paused for the longest time before answering: “Being alive.”