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A Story Tucked Inside December 9, 2010

Posted by markgeil in People.

A student walked into my office with a question about the final exam. After I answered the question – something about a particular acceleration problem, I think – he tentatively mentioned that he had some stuff in a notebook he wanted to show me.

“I was in the Marine Corps, a sniper,” he said as he started thumbing through a spiral-bound notebook full of meticulous notes in the orderly, all-capital-letters handwriting favored by engineers and, apparently, military. He went on: “I realized the other day that some of what we learned has a lot to do with biomechanics.”

He began to show me pages of sines and cosines, sketches of shooters at elevation relative to targets. Indeed, they were fascinating little physics problems with horrible realities attached. I asked about the effects of wind, and he mentioned a certain range beyond which it can significantly alter the path of a bullet.

Another page had sketches of the view in the scope of a long-range rifle. He mentioned that the ticks in the scope – “mils”, I think he called them – were used to calculate range. I told him I think the same principle is used in surveying equipment. He didn’t know that.

During this pleasant but somewhat academic discussion, I noticed for the first time a substantial scar running vertically down my student’s neck, just under his jaw bone on the right side. I pretended not to notice, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I knew right away he had a very powerful story tucked inside somewhere.

I told him about the young Marine from our church, Todd Love, who stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in October. He lost both his legs and an arm. He’s just been transferred to Walter Reed to begin a long and arduous recovery. Then, as nonchalantly as one might discuss the weather, my student told his story.

His scar was also from an IED, a propane tank that had been filled with plastic explosive and buried just below the surface. “They had been watching our maneuvers for a while,” he shared. The mine was placed specifically to target his unit. I could tell from the scar that the shrapnel that pierced his neck couldn’t have been closer to the carotid artery.

The story flowed, but at the same casual pace and tone. I began to learn that the damage had been horrific. “I lost this eye,” he said, gesturing to his right prosthetic eye, “and pretty much this whole side of my face.

“They tried to take bone from my skull and reconstruct those… what are those little bones in the ear called?” he asked.

“Hammer, anvil, and, oh, I can’t remember the third,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he said. “They tried to replace those, but it didn’t work. I can’t really hear much from this ear. It’s almost like if you held a pillow over your ear, all the time.”

Remarkably, he said all this without sadness, or resignation, or the slightest desire for pity. He might as well have been telling me about his other classes.

He went on to tell me how he actually came back to play football only a year after his injuries, until he got blindsided a couple of times and decided it might not be a good idea. He also quietly shared that he wished there was a prosthetic eye with a camera in it that actually worked. I wish I could go build one.

I only briefly expressed the admiration I felt for my student, because he didn’t seem too interested in admiration. I was so grateful for his story. It reminded me that everyone has a life story that deserves to be told. I reminded me that in my random encounters with strangers and acquaintances I must never forget that some of their stories contain extraordinary challenges and exemplary courage.

And, since it’s Christmastime, it reminded me that the need for Peace on Earth is as great as ever.



1. Steve Clay - December 9, 2010

Thanks for sharing, Mark. S

2. Jim Cooper - December 9, 2010

Mark, thanks. Peace on Earth and goodwill to men.

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