In an office surrounded by fences with concertina and dirt roads, one Marine is fulfilling a dream in Afghanistan.
Several months before he was scheduled to deploy, Lance Cpl. Anthony Zavala injured his hand, putting his dream of deploying to Afghanistan in jeopardy.
“I almost didn’t make it to Afghanistan because of a hand injury that required six surgeries and contracted an infection,” said Zavala, ammunition technician with Regimental Combat Team 7.
Zavala, from Santa Barbara, Calif., burned his hand when he accidentally grabbed a steam pipe.
“At first, I thought it was just a slight burn and nothing big,” said Zavala. “When the pain got worse, I went to the emergency room, and they told me it was so serious I needed to go to a burn center.”
Zavala was transferred to a burn hospital in San Diego. The doctors bandaged his hand, and he stayed in the hospital for several weeks.
“They tried to get some of the fluid out of my hand and clean it with benzoyl peroxide,” said Zavala. “I remember they told me I would be going to the moon.”
Zavala mistakenly took this to mean he would not feel any pain because of the medication they would give him. This was a relief since he had been in intense pain since he burned his hand, Zavala said.
“What they really meant was my pain would be so high it would be at the moon on the pain indicator chart,” he added.
Zavala remembers the doctor asking him if he was okay. He nodded “yes” and gritted his teeth as he endured the pain resonating from the palm of his hand.
“I saw him once during the first couple days he was in the hospital and all bandaged up,” said Lance Cpl. Joseph Robinson, armorer with RCT-7. “I’ve seen the photos of his hand. It was pretty bad.”
After the swelling in Zavala’s hand was reduced, the doctors noticed the infection. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a bacteria, had developed in the wound. This meant Zavala would need surgery to remove the infected area.
“He was in and out for the next three or four months because of the surgeries,” said Robinson, from Buffalo, N.Y.
The doctors performed multiple surgeries. They repeatedly dug out the infected area, but saw little to no improvement. After five surgeries, they performed a larger surgery that required Zavala to be put under anesthesia.
“To this day I still have no feeling in my right hand,” said Zavala. “They said if I get feeling back it won’t be for another year.”
Zavala had already completed most of his predeployment training but was still afraid the extent of the injury could prevent him from deploying.
“I wasn’t able to work for about two months,” Zavala said. “I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to go. When I enlisted, it was my dream to come over to Afghanistan.”
Robinson, who worked closely with Zavala before the accident, shared his friend’s concern.
“I didn’t think he’d be able to come out here,” Robinson said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen with all the surgeries he was having.”
Zavala worked hard and never strayed away from his recovering program, taking all the antibiotics prescribed and keeping his wound clean.
After several months, he still had to be approved before he could deploy. A doctor aboard Marine Corps Air Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., gave him the green light.
“I felt relieved when they told me I could go,” said Zavala. “There was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
The tissue in his hand is still sensitive. At times, grabbing gear can cause pain for him. In true Marine Corps fashion, Zavala has pushed on to do his job as an ammunition technician.
“I still do everything,” said Zavala. “I’m not going to let anything hinder me.”
Zavala’s resolve and determination impressed his peers and co-workers. His work ethic is an example for the Marines around him.
“He was still in the workplace while his hand was injured,” Robinson said. “He had that drive even if he was hurting to keep working. It’s that same drive in Marines that make us want to stay in the fight.”
As an ammunition technician in a combat zone, Zavala keeps track of all the ammunition in the area of operations. His shop issues ammunition, recovers ammunition and makes sure it is stored safely.
“Pretty much anything to do with ammunition we take care of,” said Zavala. “Everything from the 5.56 mm and 9 mm rounds to rockets and claymores.”
Zavala travels through Helmand province, checking on ammunition and safety regulations. He refuses to let his injury hold him back from fulfilling his dream and accomplishing the Marine Corps mission.
// By Paul R. Ross, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Public Affairs
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