A Veteran's Miraculous Recovery

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Justin ConstantineOnly six weeks after Justin Constantine left his job as a lawyer and arrived in Iraq, the Marine reservist was shot in the face. It was a sniper attack. Stopping to inspect an Iraqi police station that had been shot out the night before, he cautiously exited a vehicle and a bullet entered behind his left ear, and exited through his mouth, ripping through his face and jaws. He should have died, except Navy Corpsman George Grant rushed over and gave Constantine an emergency tracheotomy – right in the midst of the sniper fire.

Miraculously, the bullet missed his brain and spinal cord, but it ripped apart his face, and doctors worried that he might not make it. In the hospital in 2006, Constantine had multiple surgeries, including one in which surgeons removed bone from his thigh to rebuild his jaw. His mother and girlfriend (and now wife) Dahlia were careful to cover reflective surfaces so that he couldn't see what he looked like. But one day Constantine, 37, caught sight of his reflection in a window. He was shocked -- and saddened. "Even now, after all those surgeries and almost seven years in time, I still really wish I looked the way I used to," he says. "I don't know if that will ever completely go away."

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More surgeries followed, with seven months' recuperation at home, attached to a feeding tube, Dahlia always by his side. He was left with slurred speech, limited vision in one eye and post traumatic stress disorder, which meant poor concentration and painful flashbacks. While he knew that he couldn't return to his previous job as a litigator, he still wanted to work. Through his contacts, Constantine landed a desk job at the U.S. Department of Justice, in the appellate section of the Office of Immigration Litigation. "I was happy to know I could still do" legal work, says Constantine, who now works for the FBI's counterterrorism group.

But perhaps his most gratifying job is one he created for himself. In recent years, he started speaking at schools about his traumatic experience -- his near death from the sniper attack, the years of painful recovery. In 2011, the Wounded Warrior Project presented him with its annual George C. Lang Courage Award. Despite his speech impediment, he has become a much-admired motivational speaker, giving talks two or three times a week about overcoming adversity and giving to others. "I doubt I'll ever be in a courtroom again, but this is just as good," he says. "I want to show people, especially wounded veterans, that even though we may look different, and it can be very difficult to recover from these complex injuries we all have, we can still contribute to society in a big way." He adds, "We all have obstacles, but we're also able to overcome them when we put our minds to it."


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