Marine Sgt. John Peck is one of very few quadruple amputees to survive the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he is preparing for his next mission: an experimental double-arm transplant that will give him, in part, his freedom back.
"No more prosthetics," Peck told Fox News. "I'm going to get cadaver arms from a donor, and they're going to do a 16-hour surgery with 12-16 doctors and reattach bone, using titanium plates, reattaching nerves, blood vessels, tendons, and muscles."
He is not the first quadruple amputee to undergo such a surgery, which remains experimental. Brendan Marrocco, a soldier injured in Iraq, went through the same transplant surgery nearly two years ago. He is now doing pull-ups.
"I'm a very proud person. Very independent," Peck said, while holding his 2-year-old son in the lap of his wheelchair.
"For me to ask for an ounce of help, I'm stubborn. You can ask her," he said, pointing to his fiancee Stacey. "I am a mule. It's 'can you help me open this?' and I kind of put my head down -- it's a jar. Something as simple as a jar. Or a wrapper on a cereal bar, something like that. It's nearly impossible for me to open it."
Peck was injured in Helmand province on May 24, 2010."
We were doing a knock-and-greet mission saying, 'We're the Marines. We're here to protect you. We're here to help you,'" Peck recalled as he retold the story of that day. "Everything was fine. I turned around to my sergeant to say, 'Hey, everything's good.' Took a step with my left leg and just a loud sound. I was instantaneously a triple amputee."
Peck went on to describe in vivid detail what happened next.
"All I could feel was this immense amount of pain and burning. I came back to and I could feel the rotor wash from the helicopter." He said to himself, "I don't want to die here. I can't die here. This is Afghanistan. This place sucks."
He wakes up two-and-a-half months later in Bethesda Naval Hospital. He finds out he flat-lined three times, was pronounced dead once, and had more than 28 surgeries.
"It was just -- a few dark months," Peck recalled.
It got worse before it got better.
His wife at the time was by his bedside, but not for long. They eventually divorced.
"I did not like anyone. There was a lot of depression. It was very dark," Peck said. "I told psychiatrists to get away from me. I told doctors to get away from me. I just didn't care."
At some point he decided to lift himself out of the darkness. He went skydiving, and scuba diving, and decided to live again.
Two years ago he met Stacey on Match.com. They plan to marry in November.
"I think I sent her a really short email saying, 'Hi, my name is John. I'm a quad amputee. Here's what happened. I'd really like to get to know you. Maybe meet for drinks and, you know, talk," Peck said with a devilish grin. "Apparently, it was something a lot better than that. I guess I charmed her or something. I don't know how -- still trying to figure that out."
Stacey, who works as an intensive care unit nurse, already has three children.
"He sent me a beautiful message on Match.com telling me his story being very candid. He told me exactly what happened, and didn't hold anything back, and he was very sweet and very honest," Stacey recalled. "I just couldn't help but be taken by that."
Before John and Stacey marry, he first wants to learn to stand on his prosthetic legs so he can walk her down the aisle.
"Gotta stand at the altar. Gotta stand there and do my vows. I want to put the ring on her finger," Peck said, explaining why he travels to Richmond, Va., twice a week from his home in Fredericksburg to learn to use his prosthetic legs. "The hardest part for any leg amputee is to stand still. Just not move. Because it's easy to walk, but it's not so easy just to stand there. It uses a lot of muscles. More than you'd think."
After the wedding, he will get placed on a transplant list for his new arms.
But it won't be easy, and his family will have to commute to Boston from Virginia for up to two years while he learns to use his new arms.
"I'm going to have to relearn everything -- basic things such as sitting up. I don't know how the heck I'm going to sit up at first."
Right now he does a one-armed push-up with what is left of his arm. It will be a step back to move forward.
"You know, there's going to be a lot of travel since the surgery's up in Boston. There's going to be airfare, going to be food, rental vehicles, hotels. So, we're going to have some hard times. But I think we can make it."
What does he want for a wedding gift?
"We're not taking gifts. We're asking people to donate to charities that have helped us out," Peck said. "We're asking people to give back."
A group of 6th graders at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C., have helped him raise some money for his surgery. They recently held a car wash from which they donated $1,100.01 to the John Peck Fund.
As for what he's looking forward to most when he's got his arms again, Peck answered: Cooking for his kids.
"Me and my boy, we made French toast this morning," Peck said.
"I'm excited for Johnny," Stacey said, as she gazed at him adoringly. "Because I know this will give him a lot more freedom and a lot more opportunities to do the things he wants to do on his own. He's got the heart of a lion."
At a recent change-of-command ceremony at the Marine barracks in Washington, D.C., Peck’s former platoon sergeant Capt. Mark Savile met up with Peck and his family. Savile was with him when he was injured that day in Afghanistan.
"I'd say it was just refreshing to see him, and see how far he had progressed in a relatively short period of time," Savile said, visibly choking up.
"It was -- it was inspiring, to say the least."
To help John Peck and his family, visit http://www.JohnPeckFund.org
WTTG FOX 5 & myfoxdc
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