Two years after she lost her legs in an IED blast, Marissa Strock's cell phone still defiantly blasts Pat Benatar singing, "Hit me with your best shot." Even now Strock doesn't regret joining the Army, and she longs to rejoin her unit, though she never thought the United States should go into Iraq in the first place. "I signed up knowing we could possibly go," says the former MP. "I signed up to do a job. Unfortunately, I got hurt doing that job. But I'd go back in a heartbeat if I could. I'm someone who likes to finish what I start. I only had eight weeks left on my tour. I wouldn't lose any sleep over going back there and getting rid of the terrorists who tried to kill me."
Strock, 22, says she was both proud and a little reluctant to appear on NEWSWEEK's cover back in late February as part of the "Failing Our Wounded" story chronicling the problems besetting veterans. For the photo Strock sat somberly beside her prosthetic legs in a poignant, gripping reminder of the toll of war. Eight months later she still has mixed feelings about the picture. "It was weird," she says. "After that photo ran, a lot of people I didn't even know found me through MySpace, and others started calling and messaging me. They all acted like they were my best friends. They meant well, but I wasn't ready to make new friends yet. I just wanted to get myself together and get back home. I wanted to support other wounded soldiers, and it was a good story that needed to be told, but I didn't want to appear as a victim."
She doesn't. A sweet but tough, no-nonsense woman who grew up in Lansingburgh, N.Y., a small town north of Albany, Strock deployed to Iraq in May 2005 and spent six months training the Iraqi police force. On Thanksgiving Day that year, while patrolling the southern Baghdad area known as the "Triangle of Death," the Humvee on which she was the gunner was hit by a command-detonated IED. It was a violent blast that instantly killed both the team leader, Staff Sgt. Steven Reynolds, and the driver, Spc. Marc A. Delgado.
Strock was thrown backward by the explosion and knocked unconscious. In addition to her leg wounds she had traumatic brain injury and a broken wrist, collarbone and arm, and more. Cranial swelling left her in a coma for nearly a month. Few expected her to survive. She subsequently had both legs amputated below the knee. But her indomitable spirit prevailed; she has surpassed all medical expectations. "As soon as I woke up in the hospital, I wanted out. I wanted to get back to life," she recalls. "And when I found out that my guys died, well, it was all for them at that point. I want to live now for my guys. I want to show the bastard that tried to kill all of us that he didn't succeed."
In late February, while still an outpatient at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington, D.C., Strock told NEWSWEEK that while her doctors were terrific, some of the nurses lacked even basic human decency. Two months later, as she drove in her new truck from D.C. back to her home in upstate New York, she says she felt renewed. She felt alive again.
These days Strock is finding it much easier to smile. She has her own apartment she shares with her bulldog, and she's putting the pieces of her life back together as best she can after two years of intense recovery. She almost always walks now—unless she goes to the mall or some place that requires long walks. It hasn't been easy adjusting to life without legs, but Strock's body, and spirit, are strong and getting stronger every day. "I'm trying to ease my way back into life instead of just going face first into a brick wall," says Strock, who, just days after this interview was planning a trip to Florida with her mom to do some scuba diving and sailing and to reunite with an old friend from basic training. Also, she recently participated in a run/walk in which she traversed a full mile with her new legs.
"It was painful, but I did it anyway," she says. "I'm starting to work out again. I have a personal trainer and I'm determined to get into the shape I was in before I got hurt. When my guys [in her unit] come home, I want to go up there [to Fort Lewis in Washington state] with a six-pack. And I'm not talking about beer."
Since the cover story, she says, she's recognized by case managers and others at the VA centers in upstate New York. "They look at me and say, 'Hey, you're the NEWSWEEK cover girl.' It's been a good experience overall. I remember reading about the soldier who was having problems with PTSD and came to a VA hospital saying he was suicidal and was placed on a waiting list. He went home and hung himself in his garage. I asked a case manager here about that, and she told me that after the NEWSWEEK story and some of the other coverage, things started to change. She said they've been hiring new social workers. She told me if that guy had come into their center, he would have been seen before the end of the day. I know every VA hospital is different, and I know problems do still exist, but for me it's been a good experience."
Strock, who's met several other women amputees from the war since she left active duty and says it is "always a positive bonding experience to talk to someone who's gone through what you've gone through," says her experience since entering the VA system has been much more positive than she expected. She'd heard stories from some of her fellow soldiers of bureaucracy and long waits and was concerned about making the often difficult transition from active duty to veteran. But she hasn't had any such problems.
There is still a long way to go. But signs of improvement in veterans' care are beginning to show, as the Bush administration acts on the recommendations of the commission led by former senator Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala. The commission, which probed the variety of problems service members face when returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, called for sweeping changes in the VA's bureaucracy. Currently service members are required to take two exams—one given by the Pentagon, the other by the VA—to determine disability. But the government just initiated a pilot program to require just one test. "Things have improved for veterans since your cover story ran. We're now finally seeing the Dole-Shalala recommendations implemented, and we finally have a new VA secretary nominee," says Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "But there is still an unacceptable backlog of some 350,000 veterans waiting to receive care, and we still have not passed the new VA budget. There are fantastic doctors at Walter Reed and at VA hospitals nationwide, but they still need more resources and tools to deal with all the Marissa Strocks out there who've not appeared on the cover of NEWSWEEK."
Through e-mails, MySpace, and other online means, Strock keeps in close contact with the soldiers in her former unit, which returned to Iraq in May. But she doesn't watch the news. She doesn't want to hear about any more American soldiers getting hurt or killed. "It just bugs me," she says. "It hits too close to home. I don't think we should be over there anymore, but there really isn't any way for us to pull out now without horrible consequences."
Strock plans to enroll in college, probably in January at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, which is close to her family—but, she notes, "far enough away so that I can't call Mommy every time I think I need her." Her long-range goals include one she's had since before joining the military—working with animals—and a much newer one.
"I have a friend who's on parole. He got into trouble in high school," she explains. "I've got an itch now to become a parole officer. I like the idea of helping someone get somewhere with their life. With my military background, and what I've been through, I think I could do this and do it well. It would be kind of like what I did in the military. I'm looking into it."
In the meantime Strock just wants to be normal. She just wants to have some fun, enjoy life, and keep getting stronger and healthier. "Whatever I choose to do with my life," she says, "I know a day won't go by that I won't think of my guys [Reynolds and Delgado]. They motivate me."