On August 9, 2014, Staff Sergeant Brandon Dodson lost both his legs to an improvised explosive device blast in Shah Pusta, Afghanistan. He was on his fifth deployment.
About 19 months later, in mid-March 2016, Brandon completed a Team Semper Fi surf camp. It was his fifth time surfing since his injury.
"What's really interesting about surfing," says Brandon, who was born and raised in California and surfed all his life, "is it's the only thing in my life that's easier since I've been injured. Sitting versus having to stand up, I actually surf better now than I did before."
"The part that's really difficult is getting from the car to down by the water and paddling out through the breakers," Brandon continued. "I'm either in big prosthetic legs, or short house legs or a wheelchair — none of which work well in sand. Once I'm in the water, though, I'm totally independent."
Brandon's journey to the waters off San Clemente, California by way of Afghanistan has been a truly remarkable one.
Born at Naval Air Station Lemoore in central California (his father was a Marine), Brandon enlisted in July 2003 and was deployed to Iraq a year later. He served as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit on a ship off the coasts of southeast Asia in 2006, and deployed to Iraq a second time in 2007.
After returning home and serving as a drill instructor in San Diego, Brandon was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 and again in 2014. He uses the word "surreal" to describe that most recent deployment.
"We were living in nice built-up barracks with anywhere from 3-man rooms to 12-man rooms," he explained. "We had Wi-Fi, we had a gym, we had a nice chow hall, we had laundry, we had salsa nights, movie nights — we had all the amenities. We'd go from that to doing patrols outside the wire for five days and killing bad guys."
When Brandon stepped on the pressure plate connected to five pounds of homemade explosives, he was on day one of a three-day operation—the last patrol of his deployment. He was MEDEVAC'd to Camp Bastion, where he remained in a coma for two days.
"I was told I needed 19 liters of blood transfused into me," he recalls. "I bled out roughly four times the amount of blood in a human body. Then they flew me to Landstuhl; that's where I woke up. I was there for 3 days, in and out of surgery. I landed in Bethesda August 14, and I've been here ever since."
Brandon's wife, Jasmine, first learned about the Semper Fi Fund during his initial recovery in Bethesda and Brandon got to know the Fund's representatives as his recovery progressed.
"When you're inpatient at Walter Reed, you're approached by about 1,000 nonprofits that want to see you," he explains. "The Semper Fi Fund stood out because they had actual people that came around that were damn near employees at the hospital, they're there all the time. They were so nice, they had so much good advice, and they were able to talk to my wife and family and were able to comfort them in so many ways."
The support provided to Brandon and Jasmine and their family included helping Brandon's mother and two brothers with their wages so they could step away from their jobs and be with him during his initial recovery period.
"They helped us to go on a family vacation for my one-year Alive Day," Brandon added, "and they provided me with the ability to participate in multiple different events — not just surf camp, I did a water skiing camp, another surf camp in Virginia Beach, and I handcycled the Marine Corps Marathon in 2015 with Team Semper Fi."
"A lot of guys that are injured like me, traumatically injured, some don't take advantage of opportunities like this," Brandon says. "They'll sit and not go on trips and they don't want to go out in public and not try anything new, and I think that's the wrong way to go about it. My wife and I, we've taken every trip and opportunity—stuff I've done before, like surfing, and stuff I haven't done."
"The Semper Fi Fund, they're the best nonprofit for wounded warriors out there, and they help in any capacity. Not just handing out money, even though that's part of it, but if you need a special adaptive piece of equipment or car modifications, plus they run all these adaptive sports programs—surfing, skiing, all kinds of athletic sports. Anything you can think of, they offer a camp for it. As a Marine, I would say that the Semper Fi Fund is the number-one nonprofit, they're amazing."
Looking back over his experiences of the last dozen years or so, Brandon says that he doesn't get worked up over small things anymore ("like dumb stuff I see on Facebook")—and has reached an interesting family-oriented perspective on his injury.
"There's nobody really handicapped in my life, nobody's in a wheelchair," he says. "My wife and I, we both had really healthy families growing up, so I was never really exposed to handicapped people at a personal level. It's not like I was judging them in any way, I don't think, I was just unaware."
"Now, what really makes me happy is that my son was only 18 months old when I was injured, so the way he's growing up, this stuff is not gonna faze him at all. That'll make him a better person, which makes me happy."
We Are The Mighty is teaming up with Semper Fi Fund and comedian Rob Riggle to present the Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic. The veteran-celebrity golf tournament will raise money and awareness for Semper Fi Fund, one of our nation's most respected veteran nonprofit organizations, in support of wounded, critically ill and injured service members and their families. Learn more at InVETational.com.