For Staff Sgt. Ryan Major, a veteran's tale of pure determination

It's a bright weekday morning, and Ryan Major (right) has just emerged from the indoor pool at a Takoma Park recreation facility.  Once a strong swimmer, the 25-year-old Army veteran is now re-learning the basics, like how to float using an inflatable device strapped to his chest and arms.

"For a few seconds, I was scared," reveals Major, a double amputee who chatted afterward with a reporter on his phone, describing how he used upper-body strength to propel his frame through the water. "I laid my head back and that worked pretty well," he said. Later, he removed the props and swam a few laps unaided.  He chuckled. "No more floaties for me!"

A morning swim on a hot June day may not seem remarkable. But for Major — a Towson High graduate critically wounded in Iraq more than three years ago — ordinary activities have become extraordinary acts of courage.

Major has come out of a coma, battled constant pain and endured dozens of surgeries. Today, he is driving again, has completed several hand-crank bike marathons and is making plans to attend college.

"I am really happy with the progress I've made," says Major, flashing a warm, infectious smile. "It took me a while to recognize the difference between when I first came home and where I am now."


That journey began in November 2006, when an improvised explosive device was detonated in Ramadi, Iraq. In an instant, Major became one of the more than 31,000 military personnel wounded in combat since the Iraq war began in 2003.

"Ryan and his unit of five others stopped to cover fire in case anything happened," recalls Major's younger brother, Michael, 24. "But there happened to be an insurgent on top of the building watching, [who] blew the mine. My brother just happened, unfortunately, to be 2 feet away."

The roadside bomb tore off one of Major's legs; the other was later amputated after infection set in. Both arms were broken and muscles damaged. Fingers were severed. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. While another comrade lost an eye in the harrowing blast,  Major bore the brunt of the injuries among his unit-members that day.

"Ryan was in a coma for about a month and not expected to live," says his mother, Lorrie Knight-Major, a nurse who has devoted herself to her son's recovery. "But I told [military officials], 'I will not be bringing my son home in a body bag.'"

First treated by military doctors overseas, Major later spent more than a year in hospitals on the East Coast. They include Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Rehabilitation Hospital in D.C., and the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.     

"When Ryan first came here, he was in so much pain you could barely touch him," recalls Dr. Sharon Henry, a surgeon at Shock Trauma. Major, an exuberant guy who friends say loves to cut up and laugh, was also dealing with psychological wounds.

"He was barely communicative — which could have been the head injuries," Henry says of her patient. "But it was also depression."

Early on, heavily sedated and connected to tubes in his hospital bed, Major had nightmares and screamed out, "The blast, the blast!" say relatives. Emaciated, exhausted, the young soldier didn't understand the severity of his injuries.  

"At the hospital, Ryan kept saying 'Why won't anyone let me get up?" recalls his brother Michael, who was among the family and friends keeping vigil round the clock. "He wanted to get out of there."

When a physical therapist finally told him that his legs were gone, Knight Major said her heart broke for her son. "He just cried and cried."

Today, Major prefers not to discuss that period. Those around him say he never complained. Asked if he ever considered giving up, his tone is pleasant but resolute. There's a grit in his spirit.

"I make myself look on the bright side, always," he says. "Anyone in my situation has to have a positive attitude. I just push forward."

Indeed, Major, who lives with his family in Silver Spring, has made what those around him call "miraculous" strides.

Speech, occupational and physical therapy helped him relearn basics such as how to dress himself, and he can sometimes be found in the kitchen with brother Milan, 17, cooking — or as Major says, laughing —  "microwaving." He drives a Toyota 4Runner with special hand controls. He has completed the Boston and New York marathons and the Army 10-Miler using a hand-crank bike.

"I have always been active, and I love the outdoors," says  the former high school jock, who now uses an iBOT Robo wheelchair that can climb stairs. He is determined to walk again: "I'm still in physical rehab, building strength so I can use prosthetics."

Meantime, he manages to go white-water rafting, skiing and kayaking. Rock climbing is next on the list.

"It's just amazing to see him doing all these things," says Corey Fick, 24, a best pal since middle school who traveled with Major to this year's Super Bowl in Miami. The tickets were donated. "Ryan was born in Louisiana and is a longtime Saints fan, so it was really exciting for him."

Major has received a groundswell of support. Early on, Fick and other former classmates organized a fundraiser to benefit a charity in his name. The Semper Fi organization donated the SUV; the Independence Fund provided the $25,000 wheelchair. Sears and the nonprofit Rebuilding Together added an elevator to the home and made it wheelchair-accessible.

"My friends and so many people have stood by me," Major says, his voice lowering a bit as he reflects on all that's happened. "There are no words to thank them, especially my mother." Among his most recent gifts: a service dog, trained by the nonprofit Paws 4 Liberty.

"I love Theodore," he says, smiling and patting his 3-year-old German shepherd. "He stays in my room. He retrieves things. He's a great companion."

Major, who holds the rank of Staff Sergeant, has received the Purple Heart and numerous medals for valor.
In 2007, National Rehabilitation Hospital gave him its Victory Award for his ongoing courage.

Despite all he has endured, Major still "loves" the military and keeps in close touch with his comrades. "I know it may sound strange to people. ... But the friendships, serving — was special to me."

After once considering a military career, Major was recently medically retired from the service and is beginning a new life chapter. He plans to use veterans' benefits to study business — most likely at Goucher College. He wants to get a place of his own near campus.

If all goes well, Major hopes that by next year he'll be strong enough to walk to classes using prosthetics.
"My attitude is like my blood type," he says, grinning. "It's a B plus." DONNA M. OWENS, SPECIAL TO B

Photos by Brian Krista, b

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