He was certain they were all going to die.
Before the initial invasion into Iraq on March 22, 2003, Justin Anderson said the fear gripped him. And he wasn’t the only one.
“When we were getting ready to deploy, we were so young … and we didn’t know what to expect because we were going to be the first ones to go in,” Anderson said. “And (our platoon) hadn’t been together very long. We were pretty worried, pretty scared.
“When that first bullet flew overhead, I’ve never seen a group of guys click and start to move as one as the guys I was deployed with, and I would not want to be deployed with anyone else.”
The Bellevue, Neb. native said he intended to be in the United States Army for life. He had even just re-enlisted while still in Iraq. Two weeks later, massive injuries from combat operations in Baghdad put a grinding halt to his plans.
Shot in his left knee, Anderson was en route to the hospital when he got hit again, this time from a rocket-propelled grenade. Taking shrapnel in his back, Anderson’s situation quickly became critical — he was resuscitated three times before they reached the medical center, his heart failing from blood loss.
After four months, Anderson was cleared for duty, and returned to his unit. He made it another year before his injuries forced him to take a medical retirement, and left the Army a decorated sergeant.
“People always ask me, ‘what was your deployment like,’’ Anderson mused, “and my response is always, ‘It was the best worst time of my life.’”
In some ways, the end of his military career was only the beginning.
After returning home, Anderson tried to ease the transition back to civilian life, first pursuing a career in law enforcement, then returning to college for a degree in project management before attempting a few different desk jobs. The veteran finally discovered his calling in mechanics and earned his certification as a motorcycle technician.
Then, in June 2013, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Adding to this life-altering news, Anderson began experiencing complications from the gunshot wound to his leg.
What happened next was a series of leg amputations and alterations, and simultaneous cancer treatments. Between his leg and back injuries, Anderson had 37 major surgeries — the last one in Sydney, Australia, where he was the first American Iraq War veteran to receive a special procedure that would improve his leg prosthesis. The device — an 8.5-inch rod that was surgically implanted into his femur — is still undergoing trials for FDA approval in the United States.
“It definitely improved my quality of life,” Anderson said. “I move around better, I’m more active now than when I had both of my legs. I’m not in that constant pain, no constant surgeries. It became monotonous. It was too much.”
He also beat cancer — four years in remission as of this month.
Through the tremendous fight for his life, Anderson discovered another passion: Advocating for veterans.
Building extensive knowledge of the Veterans Administration during his lengthy and complex post-combat medical care, Anderson now uses his experience to guide other veterans through the process of VA claims and Social Security disability. He also engages in motivational speaking for veterans through the Independence Fund, and works closely with the Disabled American Veterans organization.
“I had to find out everything on my own, and I don’t want other vets to have to go through that,” Anderson commented. “It’s one thing, being able to have somebody to lean on, but actually reaching out to them … that’s the toughest part. Getting a veteran to understand it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s not that you’re broken.
“I just try to do as much as I can.”
Katy Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.