Nine months ago, Marine Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell could barely speak. His right side didn't work - none of it from his vision down to his foot. Thoughts got jumbled in his brain. His left arm was almost useless.
Doctors initially told his wife that his brain might never work better than a second-grader's. There was talk about his eventual discharge from the Marine Corps.
It seemed like a natural response. Maxwell, an operations officer with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, survived a bomb exploding near his tent in Iraq. His head, face and arm were the target of shrapnel. A portion of his skull was removed and inserted near his abdomen for safe keeping until the swelling on the left side of his brain went down enough to put it back.
What were the odds of a complete recovery?
But Maxwell isn't the kind of guy who gives up easily. He's always expected a lot of himself and the Marines who have worked under him. He is tough, he said, both on himself and on others.
He's an information hound. He calls it intelligence. It is Marine talk for knowing all there is to know about something so you can make an informed choice or form a plan that makes sense.
It's probably why Maxwell, 40, is where he is today - a Marine still on active duty looking for ways to improve himself and the Marine Corps. He's also trying to use his experiences as an injured Marine as well as his status as a high-ranking officer to make sure younger Marines, who have been injured while in Afghanistan or Iraq, don't suffer in silence.
Never completely safe
When Maxwell arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2004, the command center where he worked was made of wood. There were barricades around portions of it to protect them from mortar, but the structure wasn't safe.
The Marines went to work improving the safety of the camp. A new command center made of metal was built. Corridors running from nearby tents to the command center were created with sand bags. More barricades were added.
By October 2004, the security at the camp had improved a great deal, but it was Iraq. Insurgents were known for their improvised explosive devices. No one was ever completely safe.
Maxwell worked constantly. He spent morning and night in the command center. He frequently slept in the place he used as his office. It was a habit that a superior officer encouraged him to break so he could actually rest.
Maxwell set up camp in a nearby tent. After lunch on Oct. 7, he decided to take a break. He was lying on the floor without his helmet on when a mortar round landed just outside his tent.
He didn't hear the explosion.
"I knew something happened, but I didn't know what it was," Maxwell said. "I couldn't see or hear anything."
Maxwell found the door of his tent. He remembers Marines helping him.
"I remember being drug through the dirt," he said.
He was later told that the two Marines who rescued him fell while they were pulling him out.
"I was told that all three of us fell flat in the dirt," Maxwell said. "A mortar round landed near us and that fall saved us."
At some point, he was put in a vehicle. The rest of his story comes from other people. His wife, Shannon, was flown to Germany, and she accompanied him to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md. where he woke up.
"When I woke up, I was a big jerk," he said. "I used a lot of profanity."
His brain was very finicky. It would work for about two hours a day.
"Then it would just shut off," Maxwell said.
Doctors knew exactly what to do with his left arm, which required several surgeries.
"The rest is very difficult to figure out," he said.
His brain presented a more complicated problem. His right side received no injuries, but it didn't work. The Bethesda Naval Hospital wasn't equipped to deal with this type of injury.
After a few weeks, he was transferred to a Veterans Administration hospital in Richmond, Va. That was tough on Maxwell, who had spent some time in Bethesda with other wounded Marines. That's where he felt comfortable.
In Richmond, he felt lonely.
"It was nakedness, scariness," Maxwell said. "I was alone. When I came out of there, I knew there was something I could do for wounded guys. The best thing is to be in a room with other guys who were in Iraq and were wounded."
When Maxwell returned home to Jacksonville by Thanksgiving 2004, it was clear to him that he was going to do what was necessary to remain an active-duty Marine. He would accept nothing less.
His wife was determined to make sure her husband got all the medical care he needed, including physical, occupational and speech therapy as well as time with a psychologist. Maxwell started therapy at Coastal Rehab in Wilmington. But it wasn't enough for him.
He wanted therapy every day. He received supplemental therapy from Onslow Memorial Hospital's rehabilitation department. When he wasn't with a therapist, he was doing the exercises they taught him.
He calls them drills. He did them all repeatedly. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to get his legs and arms moving correctly and to make his brain function.
His vision, which was completely lost in his right eye, was one area that no therapist or doctor was really addressing. It might come back in time or it might not, but no one was doing anything to hurry the process along.
It made no sense to Maxwell. He knew that he did exercises with his arm to make it work better. He challenged his brain to improve his ability to express himself. He was convinced he could drill his eye - force it to work again.
He ended up under the care of Dr. Tracy Glendinning, a neuro-opthamologist in Wilmington, who was willing to work with him.
In many ways, Maxwell's recovery has been fast - considering his injuries - but he's still far from healed. He can walk, although he has a slight limp, and run. He is starting to see some out of his right eye, and he can communicate again.
But thoughts still get jumbled. The damage to his left temporal lobe - the language and speech center in the brain - continues to create challenges.
He often can describe things in great detail, such as the place near the river where service members can gather to play pool or to talk. He knows a lot about the USO, but he can't find the word. It's a condition called anomia.
Maxwell doesn't seem hindered by it. He doesn't make excuses. He just describes until he's understood.
A Marine-style haircut makes it impossible to cover the scar - it looks like an upside down smile - on the left side of his head. It's a visible sign of what he's endured, but it's also a clue to others that he's not back to normal just yet.
He refuses to accept his limitations.
"I won't stop until I'm exactly back to where I was," Maxwell said.
At ease â?¦
He's also determined to make sure other wounded Marines and sailors get the support they need. He wants them to know what resources are available to them. He wants them to feel comfortable switching doctors if they don't like the care they are receiving.
He wants to put them at ease, make them realize they aren't alone and that their injuries aren't their fault.
"I want them to know they didn't screw anything up," Maxwell said. "They didn't make a mistake."
He knows a lot of Marines feel guilty about their injuries. They are upset that they are no longer fighting with their comrades in Iraq.
"I wish I could cheer everybody on," Maxwell said.
Maxwell can't reach all the wounded, but he's trying. He's working with II Marine Expeditionary Force's Injured Support Unit at Camp Lejeune to try and improve services for injured Marines and sailors.
The Injured Support Unit is the Marine Corps' way to make sure that injured Marines don't fall through the cracks, said Maj. Daniel Hooker, who is in charge of the program.
"Our job is to provide information, advocacy and assistance to injured Marines, sailors and their families to minimize the difficulties, worries or challenges they may face as they navigate the various systems during their recovery process," Hooker said.
While some of the Marines who work in the Injured Support Unit have been in combat, none of them have been injured. That's why Maxwell's assistance and his personal experience are invaluable, Hooker said.
"Lt. Col. Maxwell serves as a living, breathing, tangible, profound reminder of the importance of the sacrifice these men and women have made," Hooker said. "It's a reality check to work with him and talk with him and be in his presence."
Maxwell spends a lot of time on the phone with wounded Marines just talking to them. He also visits them at Camp Lejeune Naval and at other hospitals.
"He might identify an issue or challenge that a particular Marine is having, and he can refer it to us," Hooker said. "They we can help resolve whatever it is."
Right now, a plan is under way to create a "wounded warrior hotel" of sorts.
"Eventually, Lt. Col. Maxwell may be organizing a place for the wounded Marines and sailors to live together for camaraderie and mutual support," Hooker said.
In the meantime, Maxwell is working toward a complete recovery. For 23 years, he has received the maximum score on his yearly physical fitness tests. He did the 100 sit ups and 20 pull ups. He ran his three miles in 18 minutes.
"Now, I just want to pass it," he said.
He also wants to do a triathlon by October. Most importantly, he wants to change how wounded Marines feel.
"I'm trying to give them information to get them through the pain," Maxwell said.
Wounded Marines and sailors can receive help from the Injured Support Unit by calling 451-1201. Other information is available at 24-hour Injured Support Hotline at (888) 774-1361 or on the Marine For Life Web site www.m41.usmc.mil (click on injured support).