For Marine Cpl. Justin Crabbe, recovering from devastating injuries suffered in Afghanistan is a matter of two steps forward, one disappointing step back.
But when President Barack Obama paid a visit to his Bethesda, Md., hospital this week to give Crabbe, a Los Osos High School graduate, a Purple Heart medal, it was definitely a step forward.
"The president had a nice conversation with him," said Crabbe's mother, Maureen. "Justin was very stoic. It was almost like he was in shock."
Having the commander in chief present you with such a distinguished military honor can be a shocking experience. But the president was just one of many in a large community pulling for Crabbe. Last week, scores of supporters gathered at a pizzeria fundraiser to help the Crabbe family and other military families dealing with the scars of war. On Saturday, a car show fundraiser will take place at Legends Burgers; the restaurant will donate 15 percent of proceeds to the family. Another fundraiser walk and run is being planned in Arcadia.
"The family is absolutely blown away by the good wishes and prayers," said Justin's aunt Ann Marie Keener. "Everybody is coming out of the woodwork. It's mind-blowing. You forget that kind of stuff until there's a big tragedy; you forget how wonderful people can be."
On Aug. 26, Crabbe, 22, was on foot patrol in Afghanistan looking for improvised explosive devices. He accidentally stepped on one, and the explosion blew off both of his legs.
"When it happened, it was the only time in his life that he wanted to die," Keener said about her nephew's ordeal. "He was on fire. At that moment, all he wanted to do was die."
Crabbe was transferred to Germany before he was flown stateside to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. His parents and sister have put their lives in Rancho Cucamonga on hold to be at his side.
"He was on a ventilator for 19 days," his mother said. "We didn't get to talk to him until the 20th day. It was a very long haul, very critical."
It has been a challenging and rocky road to recovery. In addition to losing both of his legs above the knees, Crabbe battled pneumonia, had collapsed lungs and lost several fingers on both hands. Crabbe was scheduled for surgery on Friday to remove his left ring finger.
"It's kind of a roller-coaster ride," Keener said. "He's kind of a medical mess."
Perhaps the scariest development took place last week, nearly six weeks after the explosion. Doctors found a hole in Crabbe's heart with fluid built up around it. He was rushed to the intensive- care unit and nearly died.
"I could have lost him last Wednesday," Maureen Crabbe recalled.
Ten years ago this month, the U.S. entered Afghanistan in a war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. As President Obama begins to pull forces out of Afghanistan, the struggle to start an altered life for wounded soldiers and Marines like Crabbe is just beginning.
About 32,000 American military personnel have been wounded in the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, more than 4,500 soldiers have been killed. Next Sunday, the Pallares family from Rancho Cucamonga will mark the one-year anniversary of the death of their son, Ronnie Pallares. Like Crabbe, the 19-year-old Pallares had one of the most deadly jobs in Afghanistan - defusing bombs.
Spending every day at the Walter Reed hospital, the Crabbe family has been coming to terms with the toll of war.
"You walk up and down these halls and you realize just how many are wounded," said Maureen Crabbe. "All of these kids are going through the recovery process, and they'll eventually have to transition back to civilian life."
Justin Crabbe's parents, Cliff and Maureen, and his sister Jennifer, 24, live in a hotel about five minutes' walk from Walter Reed.
"He will have his family the entire time," said Maureen Crabbe.
An outdoors guy who loves to hunt and fish, Justin Crabbe is an introvert among strangers and the life of the party when he's among friends.
"He is gentle as the day is long," his aunt said.
In 2008, Crabbe followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Gene Brick, and enlisted in the Marines. Crabbe's dream was to be a firefighter or policeman one day.
Since Obama's visit, Crabbe has had a string of good days. He has transitioned from hospital bed to wheelchair on a number of occasions and exercised his arms. Amazingly, his spirits are high. Walter Reed nurses call Crabbe their favorite patient.
"His thought is, `What's done is done.' We're going to move on," said Maureen Crabbe.
If the love of his family and the well wishes of everyone from the president to neighbors of his Rancho Cucamonga cul-de-sac doesn't save Crabbe, his optimism will.
"He's a little fighter. He's not giving up," Keener said. "He's already excited about what kind of prosthetics he'll get."