Retired Marine Sgt. John Peck lost both legs and both arms when he was hit by an improvised explosive device on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010.
Coming home and facing life as a quadriplegic was hard, Peck said. But his lowest point emotionally stemmed from feelings of loneliness.
He realized that, among a handful of other quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whom he knew, he felt like he was the only one without a support network.
“Everybody had somebody. They all had their families or significant other, but I didn’t,” he said. “That’s when it became a lot more than just injuries. There was a lot of compounding stuff,” including a crumbling relationship with his wife at the time.
That’s when he developed a detailed plan for how he was going to kill himself.
Peck said his moment of spiritual healing – the moment he realized there was a reason for hope, meaning and purpose, a reason to keep going – came somewhat unexpectedly.
“One day after physical therapy, I saw another amputee out of my hospital window and thought, ‘Huh…this guy is probably going to go throw himself into traffic,'” Peck recalled. “All of the sudden, this little girl came up and grabbed his hand and a woman, I’m guessing his wife or girlfriend, came up and grabbed his other hand. At that point I was like: ‘If this guy can find love, so can I. I’m not going to end it because of some injuries.'”
He said that’s the exact moment when he decided to change his mentality.
Peck’s advice to people who are going through a hard time: “It’s okay to swallow your demons to an extent, but don’t keep doing that. A combat zone might not be the best place to seek help, but you need to handle your stuff eventually.”
If you hold it in, he said, eventually it’s going to come back. “Letting it out,” is the only thing that helped him.
Peck’s story is well-documented by numerous local and national television interviews, and a documentary on the United Kingdom’s Channel 5. He’s also published a memoir he co-authored entitled, “Rebuilding Sergeant Peck: How I Put Body and Soul Back Together After Afghanistan.”
Peck, who was honored as Military Times Veteran of the Year for 2021, is known in the service community not just for the horror of his severe combat injuries but also for the resilience he has shown since. He has written a book on his experiences and worked as a motivational speaker, sharing intimate details of his physical pain, bouts of depression and frustration trying to adjust to life with two transplanted arms.
Peck’s story is a reminder that, with the right mix of resilience and determination, people can overcome what may seem like the most impossible of situations. He points out, however, that individuals cope with situations in their own unique way. He would never expect everyone to face a situation like his in the exact same way he did, he said.
The bomb that destroyed his limbs was not the first time Peck had suffered a war injury.
While serving as a mortarman in Iraq’s Al Anbar province in 2007, Peck was involved in the first of two improvised explosive device incidents, leaving him with significant damage related to a traumatic brain injury, including short and long-term memory loss, balance and hearing issues. Essentially, Peck said, he had to, “re-learn how to be a Marine.”
At first, he said, he didn’t know how to interact with friends, co-workers, family members or even doctors. Peck said he was able to pick up elements of the work he had previously done by either watching fellow Marines or studying training material.
After two years of physical therapy, he was given the go-ahead to reenlist in the Marine Corps. In 2010, he found himself on the way back to the Middle East, this time to Afghanistan.
“I ended up getting called back to my unit and we get deployed. I was only there for about a month,” recalled Peck. “We’re out doing a ‘knock-and-greet’ mission and we come up to this village. The very last compound we came to was very strange – no one was there, there were no kids there, we had to get permission to even enter it. It was very suspicious. It felt like bad news.”
He said he proceeded to survey the area and everything seemed okay. He was on the verge of giving the ‘all clear’ to his team when someone found a battery and some wires.
“I turned around and took a step, and that was the last step I’ve ever taken with my legs,” said Peck. “The next thing I knew, I was being laid out on the ground. It felt like I’d been kicked in the head.”
Peck lost his right and left leg, as well as his right arm in the explosion. He would later also lose his left arm due to the damage sustained that day.
Peck said he has just recently been able to focus on the mental toll that his experience has taken, but he has his own way of dealing with it.
“I think now I’m starting to come more to terms with it. I think I’m also starting to discover more about the issues related to TBI, for instance emotional issues,” he said. “I’m more of a logical person. I can easily get frustrated, especially in this condition, so that’s another thing I’ve had to learn. I’ve had to learn a lot of patience.”
Peck also said he’s happy with the progress military mental health, and mental health in general, has made in de-stigmatizing getting help, especially for men.
“As a society, we’ve always been told males are supposed to be these strong pillars of strength and not supposed to show any weakness,” he said. “I think we’re starting to get to a place that it’s okay to say our male figures can hurt.”
In 2016, Peck underwent a bilateral arm transplant. He has since remarried and is able to drive and write again. He has launched his own website and hopes to continue reaching people as a motivational speaker.
To illustrate the ways in which different people react to adverse situations, Peck said he was recently talking to a friend with severe depression, who had dealt with her own traumatic events, who was praising him for the way he dealt with his situation.
“I grabbed my $600 tablet and dropped it on the ground, and she was obviously shocked,” he said. “I asked her if she understood why I did it and she said no.”
He explained that lot of people would have been extremely upset about it, including her.
“I, personally, am not going to sit there and sweat the small stuff,” he said. “I’ll fix it but, to me, it’s not a big deal.”