On Memorial Day, a wounded vet's journey back

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Ray Hennagir puts on his legs at his fiancee's house in Woodbury as his friend Kevin Hardin sits at right. Hennagir lost both legs and part of one hand when he stepped on an IED in Iraq. (Peter Tobia/Inquirer)

Raymond D. Hennagir tightened the screws of his prosthetic legs yesterday and adjusted the suction pump so they would fit snugly. Then the Marine corporal from Deptford, injured last summer in Iraq, stood and walked.

He stands 5-foot-9, the same height he was before he was blown up. He says he can walk now for 16 minutes, and he's down to using just one cane. He's determined to shed that one, too, as his balance improves.

Hennagir has also, in the last few months, skied in Vail, Colo., driven a BMW 650 with hand controls at a performance-driving school in South Carolina, been pushed in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade in his wheelchair by another Iraq War veteran who lost both his legs, and been treated to a week in Disney World by the New York Fire Department.

And on June 8, he's getting married.

"Everything's going great," he said yesterday over breakfast at a diner in Woodbury.

Nearly a year has passed since June 16, 2007, when Hennagir, a combat engineer, stepped on an improvised explosive device near the end of his second tour in Iraq and lost both legs above the knee and four fingers of his left hand.

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The young Marine spent July and August convalescing at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., but his goal the entire time was to heal enough to be able to return to Camp LeJeune, N.C., by the end of August, when his platoon was coming home form Iraq.

He felt he had let them down by being injured, and wanted to be there to greet them. He made it, and his story was chronicled in The Inquirer.

He has been living at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, since September, getting therapy every morning. His spirits are good, his convalescence progressing, and he has decided, he says, to become a fourth-grade teacher.

"I want to move back here," he said. "My dad has been looking around for a house for us to buy. Then I'd like to go to college and become a teacher."

Hennagir said he will marry Sherri Baskerville, his girlfriend for about six months before he was injured, in a small ceremony at Walter Reed. He plans to adopt Baskerville's daughter, Kelsey, and was wearing a "World's Greatest Dad" T-shirt yesterday.

Hennagir still keeps up with one good friend from his unit in Iraq, but most of his closest friends now are fellow injured veterans whom he has met and bonded with at Walter Reed. One of them, Kevin Hardin, 22, an Army medic for a platoon of tanks in the First Cavalry, drove Hennagir and Baskerville to South Jersey for the holiday weekend.

Hardin was injured when a rocket hit his humvee, "went through me and out the other side." His hands and arms were disfigured and four pieces of shrapnel have lodged in his brain.

"I had taught them everything I know medic-wise," Hardin said of his squad. "I'm just glad they paid attention because it paid off that day."

Hennagir and Hardin are among the 30,112 members of the U.S. military wounded in Iraq, according to Defense Department figures released last week. At least 4,080 military personnel have been killed there.

Neither Hennagir nor Hardin, during an interview at the diner, said they had special plans for Memorial Day, other than to relax and enjoy family before returning to Walter Reed for therapy tomorrow.

Repeatedly at the diner, guests and waitresses thanked them for their service to their country. The two men said they get that a lot, and don't mind it at all, in fact appreciate it.

Hennagir and Hardin said they still support the president and the war. When asked about the president's loss of support in the polls - primarily because of the war - Hardin expressed their position best: "Let somebody else try being president for a day. He's doing a great job."

Hennagir added: "Every president gets hated by the end of his term."

Later in the day, as he stood on his new legs at Baskerville's home in Westville, Hennagir pulled up his T-shirt and revealed a tattoo under construction on his back. He came up with the idea, and already has endured about 10 sittings, with three more to go.

The tattoo will depict him and fellow combat engineer Scott Norris in a cloud of smoke, getting blown up by the IED.

In the sky above them, on one side, will be the angel of death coming in to sweep them away. On the other side, in the sky, will be four angels in chariots coming to rescue them. Norris was also badly injured in the explosion and is recovering in Texas.

"The tattoo is a memorial for my Alive Day," Hennagir said. He explained that many injured Iraq war veterans call the day they were blown up their Alive Day.

"It's like a second birthday," Hennagir said. "They shouldn't have made it but they did."

 


 

See a slide show about the wounded Marine at http://go.philly.com/hennagir


Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com.