Two phone calls would change a veteran’s life. The first comes right after Marine Sgt. Zach Stinson arrived for his 2010 tour in Afghanistan.
His wife, Tesa, tells him he’s going to be a daddy.
The second is four months later. This time, his wife gets the call. The news isn’t good.
While leading his squad, Stinson stepped on an improvised explosive device. Both of his legs are gone, amputated high above the knee. So is his right thumb and parts of several other fingers. He also suffered internal injuries.
Tesa Stinson, then living in North Carolina, rushes to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where her 21-year-old husband would lay in an induced coma, unaware for weeks that his young life has been forever altered.
Stinson, attached to 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, was leading his squad in Marjah, southern Helmand province, on Nov. 9, 2010. The mission was an after-action damage assessment at a village that was a source of enemy gunfire targeting his unit.
The U.S. fired back with GPS-guided rockets. It was the second time in as many weeks this had happened.
Rules of engagement dictated that Stinson’s squad check for any civilian casualties in the bombed-out village.
They were on foot walking along a north-to-south wall that ran the length of the village. They came to an opening. A trail to the town lay on the other side.
Stinson insisted on being the first over the wall.
“I was initially third or fourth in line. But when we got to that [opening] in the wall, I stopped my lead guy and I jumped the wall first,” he recalls.
The decision would change his life.
“I was probably like 10 or 15 meters on the other side, and I remember I stepped down with my left leg. And it was like, BOOM! It felt like a pogo stick. I was in the air, and I knew what I did immediately.”
But he didn’t know how badly he was injured. His team rushed to him. Stinson couldn’t move, but he saw it in their faces.
“They thought I was dead,” Stinson says.
He acted accordingly.
“I was laying there. I said a prayer. I told one of my team leaders to tell my wife I loved her,” he says. “They started working on me, and I just remember everything slowly whiting out. I’m guessing it was shock setting in. Everything got really, really white. I figured I was gone.”
He wasn’t. Just as quickly, something brought him back.
Nov. 9 became his “Alive Day,” the moment he survived. The date he was reborn, in fact.
“All of a sudden, everything shot back to color,” he says. “Everything was fine after that. I don’t remember coming close to it afterwards.”
Except Stinson wasn’t fine. Worse, none of his men would tell him the extent of his injuries.
“I knew it was bad,” Stinson recalls. “I kept asking my guys, ‘do I have my legs?’ No one would give me a straight answer. I was pretty sure that I at least lost one leg. I couldn’t move.”
Stinson never lost consciousness again as they airlifted him to the military hospital at Bagram Air Base, where he would undergo emergency surgery.
“I remember going into the operating room,” he says. “That’s when they put a mask on me.”
Everything went dark. Six days later, Stinson awoke in a Bethesda ICU.
Tesa was by his hospital bed. But under all the drugs and the painkillers, he would float in and out of consciousness for the next two weeks. As a result, Stinson would be forced to relive receiving the news about his life-altering injuries, again and again.
“It was kind of like a slow come-to thing, just being so medicated and everything,” he says. “I would wake up, and they would tell me something. I would go back to sleep, then wake up, and they would have to tell me the same thing over again. It was a long time, over weeks, that I actually realized the extent of my injuries.”
Needless to say, the life-long athlete who signed up with the Marines as a Chambersburg High School, Pennsylvania, junior thinking it would be a great way to stay in shape didn’t react well to the devastating news.
“I had a really bad attitude initially.”
This is all Stinson will say about his descent into despair and self-pity.
Weeks went by. Stinson faced dozens more surgeries. He stopped counting after 35. A full year of excruciating rehab and painstaking recovery lay ahead.
Somewhere along the line, Stinson realized his attitude and mindset were the only things still under his control. Everything else was in God’s hands.
“That was my turning point,” he says, recalling the conversation he had with himself. “I was like, ‘OK, let’s try to make the best out of this and just keep going forward from here.’ I decided I can either have a really bad attitude about this, or I can have a really good attitude. But the world doesn’t care. That’s kind of the way I’ve tackled it.”
Stinson’s approach was further cemented by a chance encounter on a rehab mat.
“I was really having a bad day,” he recalls. “We were having physical therapy. I was on one side of the mat, and then John, he’s a quad-amputee from the war, he came and jumped on the other side of the mat. After that, I said I can’t complain about my day. At least I have my arms. Now I just take everything, and there’s always a silver lining. We just find the best thing.”
A decade later, Stinson enjoys a life his younger self couldn’t have dreamt of back then.
His wife and two daughters — 10-year-old Olivia and 6-year-old Rylee — live happily in a specially equipped house outside of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Stinson is a world-class para-triathlete with a goal of medaling in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. He and Tesa travel the country and the world competing. Stinson is ranked 21st in the world and rising. He’s just getting started, in fact.
“We’ve had our ups and downs like anybody,” Stinson says. “I married way above my head. I tell everybody. We’ve been very, very blessed. Me, especially. She’s my best friend, literally. We enjoy spending time with each other, and chasing this athletic dream. Tesa said, ‘You know what, that’s where we feel like God is pulling you.’ She went along with it.”
Tesa didn’t just go along with it. She does the heavy lifting, often hand-carrying her husband’s racing equipment from the airport curb to the baggage check-in area.
“She has gone with me everywhere,” Stinson says. “As a wheelchair athlete, I’m allowed to have a handler, basically because I have so much gear to travel around with. She helps me.”
For each racing trip, Stinson must pack his hand-pedal bike, the racing wheelchair he uses for the running portion, his regular wheelchair, plus plenty of tools, other racing gear and spare parts. It’s quite the undertaking.
“We kind of figured it out,” he says. “I just drop her off at the terminal, and she starts the checking-in process. I go park the car, and by the time I get to the terminal, she’s usually just finishing up or she’s already finished.”
When Stinson is racing, the two are a team. But when the Marine ventures into the woods to hunt, he does so alone. This has proven a sanctuary for him. His first solo hunting trip in 2014 was a major step toward recovering his sense of independence and self-reliance.
“Being in a wheelchair and being handicapped, it’s not exactly the easiest thing,” he says. “But I realized what all I could do. I was relying a lot on my wife a lot. But when I went on that first hunting trip, I realized, I can do this. It took me going out on my own to realize it. There’s no how-to guide to getting injured.”
These days when Stinson takes to the woods, it’s just him, his specially-equipped pick-up truck and his tank-like wheelchair that even has a snowplow attachment. Stinson credits the Semper Fi & America’s Fund with supporting many of his needs for such specialized equipment, including much of his racing gear.
“Anytime I need support, they’re always there,” he says.
With his family, God and such groups in his corner, Stinson is reaching new highs in his racing career, which only got serious in 2018.
“It was like, ‘OK, let’s see what I can do if I start applying myself’,” he recalls.
With that, a new passion was born.
“There’s never been some deep, like, finding myself or anything,” he explains. “I’ve learned between athletics, using that, and getting closer with God in general, and through hunting. Getting out on my own and getting that alone time with myself kind of thing, I’ve learned how to handle it. You always need a reason to get up in the morning.”
These days, Stinson has plenty of reasons. Not the least of which are his paratriathlon coach and daily training regimen. Despite the 2020 racing season being all-but wiped out by COVID-19, Stinson won this year’s National Paratriathlon Championship. The Paralympics are next in his sights.
“It’s going to be a lot of big things happening. I really feel that,” Stinson says.
At such times, Afghanistan and all that happened there seem long ago and far, far away. Until they aren’t.
Stinson is one of them.
He recalled how the cunning enemy set up the IED that claimed his legs. Their gunfire prompted the U.S. rocket response, which was followed up by his squad’s after-action assessment. The first time this occurred, the squad made it through. A week later, with Stinson in the lead and the Taliban having studied the U.S. response, the IED was hidden along the village path the enemy now knew the Americans would take.
“We had done the same thing a week prior,” Stinson says. “They’re not dumb. They know our reaction, our tactics and, sometimes, our ROEs [Rules of Engagement] better than we do.”
As for watching his sacrifice and that of so many other American troops seemingly go to waste as Afghanistan fell, Stinson said he did what he always does when times get tough. He turned to the Bible. He looked to God.
“It wasn’t good at all, honestly,” he says. “I took a few days off, stayed off the phone and away from the news. There was a couple days of just prayer and being in the Bible and stuff. Just kind of clearing my head with it.”
Another thing that clears Stinson’s mind and lifts his spirits is being out on the rolling hills of Franklin County, riding his low-slung hand-pedal bike. Yet even this act of freedom, independence and athleticism by a wounded warrior isn’t without worry and risk.
This time the enemy is distracted drivers and road rage.
“It’s scary. It really is. I leave the house and I pray,” Stinson says. “I had a close call in May. It’s just people not paying attention. And I’ve known a few guys [wounded warrior bikers] who’ve gotten run over and killed. Like I say, just keep praying and hope for the best.”
So if you see Stinson’s slick, black bike with the orange flag flying in back, here’s a bit of advice: Don’t lay on the horn.
“I had a guy beep at me,” he says. “He was behind me, and I think he was a little ticked at me. So I just stopped in the middle of the road and tried fighting him.”
All it took was a flash of the Marine’s steely-eyed glare.
“He drove away.”
In other words, Sgt. Zach Stinson is the same as he ever was: tough as hell.