Matthew Bradford and his riding partner, Greg Miller, cycled about 101 miles on a bicycle built for two during the “Where Heroes Rendezvous” event Oct. 1 and 2 along with members Fort Campbell’s Soldier Recovery Unit.
Bradford is a retired Marine who after sustaining catastrophic wounds during a patrol in Iraq in 2007 was the first blind, double amputee to reenlist in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2010. He retired in 2011.
The camaraderie of dozens of SRU Soldiers pushed Bradford to keep peddling, while his example inspired the SRU Soldiers to keep moving forward as well.
“I have so many motivations and inspirations I carry with me every day,” Bradford said, shortly after finishing the bike ride. “I just want to be Matt, be myself, with my brothers and sisters.”
The finish line behind the SRU is just one of many he has crossed – from Spartan races, to Marine Corps marathons, even climbing Mount Rainier in Washington – and his work is still far from finished. It’s a long way from where his journey started and light years from the mindset he found himself in when he woke up to darkness in a hospital bed thinking he’d never walk again.
“I was so angry, I wanted to die,” Bradford told a group at the SRU, formerly the Warrior Transition Battalion Oct. 1. “There are two ways I wanted to come home, either in a body bag or with my brothers. There was no in the middle. You see this all the time on TV, but you never expect it to happen to yourself. Now, here I am laying in a hospital bed, hating life, wanting to die and just angry at anyone who would walk in my hospital room.”
Little did he know that his attitude would change and that he would be one of those people walking into others’ hospital rooms to offer them hope.
Overcoming grave injuries
Bradford grew up in Kentucky before moving to Dinwiddie, Virginia, with his father.
As a high school freshman, he watched the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks unfold on television and knew instantly he wanted to join the military. He enlisted September 2005 in the Marine Corps. At age 20, his fight for country was replaced by his fight to live.
He was in Haditha, Iraq, watching the sunsets and sunrises from rooftops to find the beauty that still existed even in combat when he wasn’t in the thick of it.
“When we deployed, it was a tough time in Iraq and we walked right into the middle of it, fire fight after fire fight,” Bradford told the group of mostly injured active-duty Soldiers during his motivational speech. “I did what everyone who wore the uniform did. I woke up every morning, I put my gear on, I patrolled the streets, came home, stood post and did what I was trained to do.”
When Bradford left his compound Jan. 18, 2007, he was one of 12 Marines setting out on patrol, and, as usual, he was on point.
As others walked behind him, he noticed a white bag against a palm tree just past the compound wall. He stopped to alert the others and as he turned back around saw wires running in a pipe under the road.
“It was directly underneath me and it exploded, sending shrapnel in both my eyes and people always ask me, what did I feel when all this happened,” Bradford said. “To be honest, I don’t know what I felt. It’s hard to explain, laying on the road when your vision went from light to dark and you hear Marines running around. You just don’t know what happened. And the last words I hear before I closed my eyes and fell asleep was from a familiar voice.”
It was his senior drill instructor, also a platoon sergeant, who told him he would be fine.
Three weeks later he woke up from a coma at National Naval Medical Center, now known as Walter Reed National Medical Center.
“I woke up and now I don’t have any legs, I don’t have any vision, I’m 20 years old, my brothers are still in Iraq and here I am in America,” Bradford said.
He was hurt and turned away everyone who tried to reach out because he didn’t want to live.
“I was so skinny I could barely lift my head up off the pillow, and you know, it’s amazing when people come into your life and they constantly continue to come in your life, even though you push them away, they keep coming,” Bradford said.
A corpsman brought him a brownie and glass of milk one evening but Bradford told him to take it away. She didn’t take no for an answer and he found himself eating it.
The next morning, a light flipped on in his mind, Bradford said.
“I don’t know what it was, but I thought, ‘This is my new mission in life. This is how I’m going to live my life. My legs are not going to grow back. My vision is not going to get better, but I’m only 20 years old and I have my whole life ahead of me’,” he said. “And I got to thinking about goals that I wanted to accomplish, those Marines that had come into my room over and over again, talking, putting my mind in a better spot.”
Bradford began exploring how to get better, to get out of the hospital, to get on his feet and to help people like him. He became determined to overcome his injuries and remain a Marine. That meant making a list of goals. And his first was to walk again.
“You’ve got to be positive. Your attitude will take you a long way,” he said. “You’ve got to be resilient. I’ve stepped on an IED, I fell down but that IED didn’t keep me down. I have to learn to get up and push on.”
Bradford decided to learn everything he needed to take care of himself and enjoy life. But it didn’t happen without frustration.
“One day when I was in therapy, I was learning to walk, and I was tripping over my left leg, tripping over my right leg.” he said. “I was bouncing off walls and stumbling and I could not understand why I couldn’t figure this out. Walking cannot be this hard. And my physical therapist saw the frustration on my face and he stopped me and said, ‘Matt, whatever you do, just put one foot forward and just walk’.”
And that’s how Bradford lives and what he teaches others.
“We are not guaranteed tomorrow,” he said. “We’re not guaranteed next week. I’m not guaranteed my next step. One step almost took my life but I’m going to enjoy every minute and I’m going to make sure each step is in the right direction, a forward step.”
He urged those who listened to never quit when things get tough, or sense failure or struggle.
“You just have to move forward. You can’t sit there and quit or hide,” Bradford said.
Bradford went to therapy in Richmond, Virginia, ready to live again. He learned to walk on prosthetic legs. He stopped hiding them and decided to wear them as a symbol of strength, not weakness.
He spoke fondly of the therapist who would close his eyes while talking with Bradford to be sightless too and of the speech therapist who decided he should learn to read Braille. And he found out that he was helping some of those helping him. By helping him, they could forget their own worries for a while.
“We all wear that uniform and we all need to be there as brothers and sisters,” Bradford said. “We can be there for each other and take a bullet for each other, then what’s wrong with us in a barracks room, pulling up a chair when somebody says I need help? You need to be there for each other.”
After moving on to San Antonio, Texas, he spent six months in a blind school in Chicago, where he learned to take care of himself, bake brownies and even use power tools to build a birdhouse. In December of 2008, he graduated and got a certificate.
In 2009, he walked 10 out of 14 miles in the Bataan Death March, only nine months after learning to walk on prosthetics. For most that would be an amazing accomplishment, but Bradford said he let himself down. It was the only time he has given up and quit. Since then, he’s participated in numerous sporting event, usually accompanied by a guide.
In April 2010, an assistant commandant asked him if he had heard about his reenlistment package and Bradford told him it was on the commandant’s desk.
“That was on a Thursday or Friday and by Monday morning, I got the phone call saying my reenlistment package had been approved,” Bradford said. “I was the first blind, double amputee in the Marine Corps to reenlist.”
He wanted to go to the Warrior Transition Battalion and help others.
“I wanted to be around those severely wounded who are trying to figure out their own lives, who are struggling right now, to let them know no matter what they do anything in this world can be overcome as long as you have a positive attitude and understand that each day is a battle, just like combat,” he said. “You wake up every day, you put your gear on, prepare yourself for whatever challenges you’re going to face, because as we all know this is not a perfect world.”
New mission in life
If Bradford had given up in the hospital, he would have missed the most important chapter of his life. He would have never met his wife, Amanda, and he wouldn’t be a father.
“It’s amazing this life I’ve been given, this journey I’ve lived the last 13 years,” he said. “Would I go back and do it again? I would, because ultimately at the end of the day, from January 2007 to right now, Oct. 1, 2020, I have met my wife, three kids and those are the most important things in my life. I sometimes think if I didn’t get hurt where would I be right now? My wife is my motivation every day. My three kids are kids who I look up to, who I can be there to teach and it works because they listen.”
He said his Family inspires and motivates him. From his son inviting a classmate to his birthday party to playing Barbie with his daughter.
“I never want my wife or three kids to live a day without me in it and that’s all the motivation I need to come out and do these things, these bike rides, march 16 miles like I did a few weeks ago,” Bradford said. “I’ve learned that sometimes in life, we don’t know what our motivation or purpose is but as long as I keep chasing it, hopefully one day I’ll understand.”