Marine Corps veteran John Peck knows that no one is asking him to do more for his country, especially after he lost all of his limbs in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.
But he still feels like he has more to give.
“If there’s something that I can do for my fellow brothers and sisters, then I want to do it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to help. If I share my story, if I can talk about being suicidal and how I got through that, maybe it can help.”
Peck, who is being honored as Military Times Veteran of the Year for 2021, is known in the military community not just for the horror of his severe combat injuries but also for the resilience he has shown since.
He has written a book on his experiences and worked as a motivational speaker, sharing intimate details of his physical pain, bouts of depression and frustration trying to adjust to life with two transplanted arms.
Now Peck, 35, is looking to do more. He’s looking at taking classes to help provide financial assistance to other veterans — “often, when veterans are thinking about suicide, finances are the number one stresser” — and looking for groups he could partner with to reach out on veterans mental health issues.
“I don’t love the spotlight,” he said. “I try to stay out of it as much as possible, which is weird, given all the attention on me.
“But if I can do my part and help other veterans, that’s cool.”
A catastrophic injury
Peck’s first set of severe injuries came in Iraq in 2007, while he was serving as a mortarman. A roadside bomb blast left him with traumatic brain injuries that erased much of his memory, and took several years of therapy to repair.
But he did recover enough to return to military duty, and to redeploy with his fellow Marines in 2010. Less than a month into that tour, he stepped on another improvised explosive device, this time with even more catastrophic results.
Peck lost both legs and an arm in the blast, which left him in a medical coma for three months. He lost his remaining limb to infection not long after regaining consciousness.
Quadruple amputees are rare, in large part because any single injury that results in the loss of a limb is life-threatening. Only five individuals from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been publicly identified as surviving that level of trauma.
For Peck, the injuries not only meant the loss of independence but also the end of his first marriage and a new fight with depression.
“There was no epiphany when I woke up and thought, ‘oh, I don’t feel like killing myself anymore,’” he said. “There were small things, moments that helped pull me back through.
“I remember being on the seventh floor at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and looking through my window at another [amputee] veteran sitting at the bus stop. And I was thinking, ‘He’s gonna throw himself in front of a bus.’
“But instead this woman and little girl come up and grab his hand, and they all walk away. And I remember thinking, ‘If this guy can find love and have a family, maybe so can I.’”
So, he put in the work of learning how to use a wheelchair and take care of himself as best he could. He met a woman and started dating. He received a rare double arm transplant in 2016. Every month, he has to return to military doctors to undergo treatments designed to prevent his body from rejecting the new limbs.
Today, Peck is remarried and assembling computers in his free time, testing his fine motor skills in what he admits can be a frustrating challenge.
“It takes a lot of patience, and I get frustrated quite frequently,” he said. “If I can’t do something, I just try and chill out for a minute. I just step back, look at it all and remember to stay calm.”
Finding new purpose
Two years ago, Peck chronicled all of the ups and downs in the autobiography “Rebuilding Sergeant Peck: How I Put Body and Soul Back Together After Afghanistan.” In it, he said the goal in sharing some of the worst moments of his life were to help others make their own lives better.
“Through it all, I’ve emerged as a stronger and more empathetic human being — truly rebuilt, including my new arms,” he wrote. “I want readers to know that things will always get better, to have faith, and to try to have a sense of humor about it all.
“If I can achieve my goals with all that I’ve been through, anyone can.”
He’s shared that same message in front of large crowds and even during a visit with then-President Donald Trump in 2019. But he still doesn’t see himself as much of a public speaker.
“The thing is, I can’t fake emotions in front of a crowd,” he said. “You can see exactly what is going on with me at any time on my face. If it’s a bad day, you can see me frustrated. If I’m happy, I can’t make myself seem sad, even if I’m talking about sad things.”
That’s pushed him to focus on smaller, more meaningful interactions with fellow veterans.
He has been dabbling in politics with a group of fellow New Jersey veterans on social media of late, sharing ideas in a provocative but also civil manner. A portion of his speaking income and book sales is set aside for veterans charities.
He’s looked into organizations where he could serve as a mentor or advocate, but also notes he has no interest in launching another new foundation. “There are thousands out there already.”
Peck just wants to find some way to keep helping others.
“I look bad sometimes and think about how awful Sept. 11  was … but also how great Sept. 12 was,” he said. “People came together. And we’ve seen that after hurricanes and other tragedies.
“That’s the thing we all need to get back to. We need to actually lend a hand to each other. And I still want to be the one to do that.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.