Warrior Games Marine loses eyesight but not ambition

Kaylah Jackson
June 01, 2018 - 4:46 pm

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Julien Rodarte)

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After the 2003 surge in Iraq, Gunnery Sergeant Dorian Gardner enlisted in the Marine Corps because he wanted to contribute to something greater. He promised his mother he would stay away from the infantry but learned years later that even jobs that seem safe can put you in harm’s way.

As a combat correspondent, he worked with the Marine Corp’s regimental combat teams documenting their missions. And though he describes his first deployment to Ramadi, Iraq as “quiet,” it was a big learning experience for Gardner.

“The tempo had really slowed down and when we got there, what I saw was remnants of war, walls that were blown out by explosives, bullets that had gone through walls. There was a story to everything,” said Gardner.

Thankfully, for Gardner and his team, they didn’t lose any Marines on that deployment and although it was quiet, Gardner says he took notice of everything and learned to observe. So, “when it got real, we were ready.”

And only a few months later did it get real.

On his second deployment in Delaram, Afghanistan, he was on a patrol while attached to India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines. The unit was only three or four clicks outside the wire when Gardner and his team got word of an enemy element approaching their position.

The Marines responded by taking a 360 defensive posture. Gardner was positioned near the Machine Gunner, laying in the prone and positioned with his M4.

Only a few minutes had passed before he heard a whistle come through the air, which could only mean one thing—a mortar.

Even before shots were fired, the impact from the mortar explosion sent Gardner on his back, hurling shrapnel into his face and arm.

“My eyes had just shut, my ear drums were blown out so I couldn’t hear anything…I was thinking ‘I don’t know if I’m here, if I’m gone or if I’m still alive,” said Gardner.

Soon, a corpsman had come to his attention and started assessing the damage, talking to Gardner to ensure he stayed calm. The unit began taking machine gun fire.

“My doc asked me if I could get up and run and I said ‘I don’t know.’ He stood me up and put my left hand on his shoulder and my other hand on his belt and we took off.”

The pair ran for cover behind a mound of dirt and that’s when Gardner started to feel everything.

The explosion had caused a skull fracture above his right eye and shrapnel had gone through Gardner’s left optic nerve, which would cause him to lose his left eye. His left cheek bone was shattered and he sustained four different breaks in his ocular cavity.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Drew Tech)

With bullets flying, six of his fellow Marines rotated carrying Gardner on a litter to a safe area where he would be medevaced.  

When Gardner woke up in the hospital he had no idea what lay ahead of him. What followed was months of recovery and treatment at hospitals throughout the country. It would be just under three years before he reported as a Public Affairs Chief to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms after coming off rehab. He's now permanently visually impaired.

When he was initially introduced to the Warrior Games he wasn’t a fan. With the extent of his injuries and still in rehab, he couldn’t imagine himself competing. But as a public affairs NCO, he had the opportunity to cover the 2016 Warrior Games and see first-hand what it did for service members like him. That was enough to convince him to compete.

In this year’s Warrior Games, he represented the Marine Corps in Swimming and the Track and Field categories.

“This injury has separated me in a sense, and this family of wounded, ill and injured service members that come together every year to compete in these games is another family that I’ve become a part of,” said Gardner. “I love wearing this uniform every day and putting on a track suit that says USMC with the eagle, globe, and anchor on the back of it. I feel like that’s something wonderful that we can do to represent our branch our service.”

Between his fellow Marines, his family and the team of nurses, doctors and surgical technicians, and his fellow service members at the Warrior Games, Gardner says he didn’t make it through recovery alone and with their encouragement, he learned not to quit on himself.

To Gardner, being a Marine means everything.

“It’s the way of life…when I look in the mirror and put my uniform on and straighten it up and lace up my boots, there’s a bit of pride every morning when I walk out that door because I know I’m part of something bigger than myself.”

Gardner walked away from this year’s warrior games with 6 gold medals, breaking multiple records and the desire to compete again.

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