(From Courtney Kube, NBC News Pentagon Producer)
Casualty announcements. I see them every day. Soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are killed and wounded day in and day out in Iraq and Afghanistan. The stories and names began to blur together a long time ago ... and then I met DJ Emery. WATCH VIDEO.
At 21 years old, this young marine has known more pain and hardship than most people could even imagine.
Corporal David Emery - DJ to his friends - was on his second tour in Iraq, and planning to leave the Marine Corps in June. His mother remembers saying goodbye to her son before he deployed last fall. "He had a bad feeling," she said. "He said, 'Mom, something doesn't feel right this time.'" Then, a few months after he deployed, DJ found out that his new wife Leslie was pregnant. He wrote to his mother and made her promise to take care of the baby if anything happened to him.
On February 7, just one month after his unit was extended in Iraq, DJ was standing near a checkpoint in Al Anbar Province when his battalion Sergeant Major, Joseph Ellis, saw a suspicious person approaching. Ellis put himself between his marines and the suicide bomber just as the man opened his jacket, spread his arms wide, and detonated his explosives.
Sergeant Major Ellis was killed instantly. But his body absorbed enough of the blast to give DJ a chance at survival.
His legs and left arm were shattered, and he suffered extreme trauma to his abdomen. DJ remembers laying on the ground after the blast, unable to see or to feel his legs. He never saw the bomber.
Corporal Emery spent days in a combat hospital in Baghdad before he was stable enough to move to Landstuhl.
DJ's mother, Connie, and his young wife, Leslie, were told initially that he just had shrapnel wounds to the legs. They waited for more than 2 days before they got the call -- come to Germany immediately, DJ may not make it. Today, Connie and Leslie both just shake their heads when asked to describe how DJ looked when they arrived in Germany. "He was swelled up bigger than all of us together," Connie said, adding, "his eyes were swelled open."
Over the next few weeks, DJ died on the operating table 6 times, and he received more than 300 units of blood. He had so many blood transfusions that his blood type actually changed to O positive. The doctors in Germany and Bethesda completely re-built DJ's legs, but the infection became too strong. Nearly 2 months after the attack, doctors amputated one of his legs. Two days later, they amputated the second leg.
Then, as DJ lay unconscious on the 6th floor of Bethesda Naval Medical Center, his wife Leslie was admitted to the 3rd floor -- the maternity ward. And on April 21, 2007, Carlee was born. DJ was still in and out of consciousness when his mother came in to tell him that his daughter had been born. He opened his eyes and said, "OK." Two days later, DJ really awoke for the first time, and he realized that his legs were gone. He says that he cried for a while when he found out. "It sucked," he says now.
DJ Emery, his wife, their new baby, and his mother Connie are all living together in a cramped room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center now. But DJ says that he does not regret joining the Marine Corps, or serving in Iraq. And when asked what gets him through this difficult time, he choked up and said softly, "family."
Asked if he is still the same man she married, his wife Leslie says without hesitating, "Oh yeah." She tears up when she says, "I still love him with all of my heart."
DJ has months of rehabilitation ahead of him. He winces in pain with every exercise, but in the three hours of therapy that we watched, he never once complained. Corporal Emery was recently promoted to Sergeant. He received a Purple Heart from President Bush a few weeks ago, a rare honor for a wounded marine. But after spending an afternoon with DJ and his loving family, it became clear to me that this strong young man already had a heart made of pure gold.