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Keeping hands busy with automotive work helps disabled Marine heal

Marine Cpl. Tim Read struggles to tighten a bolt beneath his car at the Marine Corps Recruit Depo hobby shop garage in San Diego, Calif., on Dec. 19, 2012. He says he's determined to live with the loss of a leg, a scarred body and TBI to an enemy blast in Afghanistan by working on his beloved Mustang.

SAN DIEGO -- Marine Cpl. Timothy Read, who lost a leg in Afghanistan and has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, is applying some Rustoleum to a new drive shaft for his prized 2003 Mustang Mach 1.

It's more than just a hobby. Working on cars and motorcycles, Read said, fills the aching void in his life left when his war wounds stripped him of the ability to be a combat Marine.

"My hands are meant to be dirty," he said. "I'm meant to be busting my knuckles, doing a man's work."

With other injured Marines, Read souped up a custom-made motorcycle for last summer's Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

He'll be in Peru this month as a ride-along mechanic for a Land Rover Discovery for a team of wounded U.S. and British military personnel during the 6,000-mile Dakar Rally. The team is sponsored by an organization called Race2Recovery, supported by the royal family.

And when he's not busy in San Diego at therapy appointments or other things, Read spends time working on his car at the auto center at the Marine boot camp. Other wounded Marines are doing the same on their cars.

"They're putting their cars back together, but what they're really doing is putting their lives back together," said Richard Siordian, assistant manager of the auto center and a retired Navy corpsman.

Read's therapist, a specialist in helping wounded veterans, agrees.

Nancy Kim, a psychologist at the Naval Medical Center San Diego's Comprehensive Combat and Casualty Care facility, said that working on vehicles helps Read and other wounded personnel "regain a sense of productivity, purpose and achievement that may have been lost at the time of their injury."

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Fixing a transmission or installing new brake pads or maybe finding just the right setting for the carburetor, "can serve as a healthy coping strategy to help the combat veteran manage anxiety, depression, irritability and anger," Kim said.

For Read, the work helps him recapture something that he lost in Afghanistan: a sense that the world makes sense if only you can put the parts together correctly.

"It's easy to accept a physical wound, but it's hard for a Marine to accept that his mind is all (messed) up," said the 23-year-old, who left for boot camp just days after graduating in 2007 from high school in Starkville, Miss.

Read had been in Afghanistan five months when he stepped on a buried bomb on Oct. 15, 2010, while on a walking patrol in Marjah, long a Taliban stronghold. Six weeks earlier he had taken a bullet in his left thigh during a firefight but he had refused to be sent home lest he feel he was deserting his buddies.

The explosion broke both of Read's legs and his left wrist. Shrapnel ripped through his arms and chest. He was temporarily blinded.

Military doctors were forced to amputate his left leg above the knee. He was worried that he might also lose his left hand, but it was saved through reconstructive surgery.

In the U.S., Read has received care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the Veterans Affairs medical center in Tampa, Fla., and now, the Naval Medical Center San Diego, where he is an outpatient.

Read has followed a path common to the war wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. First was the anger, depression and sense of being in danger even in America.

"You use your closest relatives as emotional punching bags," he said. "They're called family for a reason. They understand."

He broke up with his girlfriend, ending a relationship that had begun before he deployed. "I pushed her away," he said. "I didn't want to grow close in a relationship and then lose it."

There were flashbacks and nightmares. Medication helped, but it came at a price. Read says he became hooked on painkillers. "It surprised me how quickly you get addicted to it: not to take the pain away but to feel normal again," he said.

Initially, he had trouble sleeping. Then came the opposite condition, called hypersomnia. "I was sleeping away my day, a way to escape," he said.

Recovery has been slow. In Tampa, he met a young woman who helps fit wounded veterans with artificial limbs. The two now have a romantic relationship.

"She's a keeper, definitely," said Read, with a large smile.

While taking a college class, Read wrote a term paper on PTSD. In it, he relates how he experienced three of the classic PTSD stages: reliving/re-experiencing, avoidance and arousal.

At Bethesda, while groggy and still "slightly blinded," he thought he saw someone who looked like an Afghan, "at the same moment a dressing was torn off my residual limb (so) I reached for this nurse's throat ... "

The larger problem, Read wrote, is "the emotional numbing, where I don't care about anything."

"Once you have experienced your life on the line and (how) your decisions affected the life of your fellow Marines," Read wrote, "the small stuff in life other people may ... call drama is nothing in comparison."

At the San Diego hospital, Read appreciates his sessions with Kim and the bull sessions organized for wounded veterans by Jack Lyon, a combat Marine from Vietnam, a leader in the San Diego veterans movement.

"Jack has been there," Read said. "He can relate. He makes you feel it's going to be all right."

Sometimes Read works on vehicles with other Marines; sometimes he works alone.

Working alone, he said, "allows you to do a lot of thinking. It's like a prayer time, when you can think."

Working as part of a team, as he will do in the Dakar Rally, is like being in the Marine Corps, Read said. He went to England to meet with other Race2Recovery members and returned buoyed at the sense of camaraderie.

"You can feel it in your gut," he said. "You're able to sleep well that night. You have a sense of accomplishment. It's like being in a unit: everybody has different jobs, but we all have the same goal."

Motor sports, he said, "are a lot like combat. Lots of quick decisions, physical exhaustion, the sense of being part of a team. It fills that void you have when you get hurt."

Read is set to leave the Marine Corps in March. But in some ways the Corps will always be with him. On his right wrist he wears a memorial bracelet for Lance Cpl. Cody Childers, killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 20, 2010.

On one arm he has the tattoo "For Those I Love, I Shall Sacrifice" and on the other, "Frater Per Nex," which in Latin roughly translates as Brother Through Death. He says he may soon get the traditional Marine tattoo: the eagle, globe and anchor.

After leaving the Corps, Read plans to attend the Sacramento campus of WyoTech, an automotive technology school.

"I'm just a big gear-head," he said.

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