BALTIMORE — "There was a man in the land of Uz," begins the Book of Job. And now, a latter-day Job sits before me among the ashes of a detonated youth, but he’s not cursing his own conception or calling down the shadow of death — he’s freakin’ laughing!
And why shouldn’t he? All he suffered, that day in Iraq in 2009, was: Amputation of both arms and both legs; Severed left carotid artery; Broken nose, left eye socket and facial bones; Loss of eight teeth; Shrapnel to the left eye and face; Severe lacerations to the face; Burns to the neck and face; and Pierced left eardrum.
Oh, and the loss of 80 per cent of his blood.
"Life always gets better," the young man is saying.
He is, of course, the famously reconstructed Sgt. (Ret’d.) Brendan M. Marrocco, formerly of the 25th Infantry Division of the United States Army.
He was a proud minion of Operation Iraqi Freedom until the day some freedom-hating bastard blasted an "explosive fired projectile" right through the driver’s-side door of his patrol truck — on Easter Sunday morning — and it blew apart a tough little guy who always looked up to soldiers when he was a kid in Staten Island, New York.
Now, legless, he looks up to everyone, and everyone to him.
"Obviously, I won’t be playing soccer anymore," jokes the formerly quadruple, now-double amputee.
On that Easter in 2009, the medics didn’t declare Brendan dead like another soldier in his truck, they got him to an Army hospital in Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit and stopped his blood from spurting all over the walls and ceiling with every heartbeat, and then Brendan was airlifted to Germany, and that was where his divorced parents walked into his room and, his father Alex says now, choking, "the only way we knew it was him was they told us it was him."
"It doesn’t matter what he’s missing," Alex says. "He’s your son."
"What did you think when you woke up and saw how much of you was gone?" I ask the 26-year-old who introduces himself on Facebook as a "verywounded warrior." "I thought, You’re still alive! " he smiles.
We’re at a jammed press conference at a magnificent new tower of The Johns Hopkins Hospital named for (and funded by) the munificent late sheikh of Uz (known today as Abu Dhabi). It has been six weeks since the indomitable remainder of Brendan Marrocco was grafted onto another man’s arms. Brendan can’t feel the new hands yet; sensation should creep southward, about an inch a month, the doctors prophesy.
Until then, he blogs, he can flip some jerk the finger and nothing moves, so nobody knows.
Without thinking, the ex-soldier uses the dude’s left hand to brush the hair from his young-Wayne-Gretzky face.
"Worst-case scenario: if I lose the arms, I go back to what I was," he reasons.
"What did you think when you looked down and saw your new hands?" a reporter queries.
"I’m me again," says Brendan Marrocco.
(Unmentioned at this public hallelujah are the limbless nights, the dependency and immobility, the dreams of women and sports cars and summers at the beach, the excruciating daily toilette, the unimaginable solitude, even with a doting brother/roommate at his side, teasing the hero to hell.) Hearing this man, seeing this man, I look down at my own fingers and legs and pray that they still will be with me after I drive home down Interstate 95. And I wonder if I could endure what Brendan Marrocco has endured, and come out of it smirking and sardonic and Tweeting with a dead man’s thumbs.
Hell, I barely broke my nose once, boxing in Australia, and bragged about it for weeks.
Now I slide over to the father and ask Alex Marrocco, who works for the Hess oil company, if he was one of those hotheads I interviewed back in 2010, when a posse of locals took to the streets of Staten Island to protest the conversion of a disused Catholic convent into a Muslim mosque.
Was that you holding up the sign that said STEREOTYPES ARE BASED ON SOME TRUTH? I inquire. But Alex Marrocco says that his was never a very political family, even after one of his friends got killed on 9/11.
Everyone wants to know about the reports that Brendan’s new house was inundated by Superstorm, which in New York City equaled or surpassed the "great wind from the wilderness" mentioned in the Book of Job. The damage is being repaired, the father assures us.
Seated next to Mr. Marrocco, in apparently cordial reunion, is Brendan’s mother, a nursing supervisor named Michelle who is wearing a crucifix above an Easter-purple sweater as she listens to her son and his doctors explicate the surgery, unthinkable even 20 years ago, that was performed in the operating theatre of one of the world’s paramount medical institutions.
"He’s the king of underachiever," Michelle says. She runs down the manifest of Brendan’s earlier, smaller mishaps: a leg broken playing soccer, numerous concussions, a broken arm suffered falling from a tree. Yet never then or now did she hear his lamentation, as cried the man of Uz, "Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?"
Now Brendan is wheeling himself out of the interview room with a stranger’s paws.
"Has this made you more or less religious?" I ask.
"Much more," the mother says.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington D.C.