By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2011 - This weekend, when Army Spc. Dustin Morrison gathers with his family to celebrate the holidays, he said he knows he'll be experiencing a Christmas miracle.
The 21-year-old Iowa Army National Guard soldier discovered a new appreciation for what matters most in life after an improvised explosive device nearly took his life in Afghanistan.
Morrison, a member of the 168th Infantry Regiment, was severely wounded in April when his mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle struck the roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province. Army Spc. Brent Maher, the vehicle's gunner, was killed, and two other members of the unit were injured in the attack.
Morrison's prognosis was touch-and-go as the military medical system rallied, quickly moving him out of Afghanistan to progressively advanced levels of care.
When his mother, Kelli Pederson, arrived to see her wounded son at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the staff explained the facts.
"They told me how very close we came to losing him," she said.
Morrison's lungs were so severely damaged from the blast that the staff put him into a medically induced coma. He also suffered a burst lumbar vertebra, a shattered left femur and right ankle and right hand injuries. Doctors warned him that he might never walk again.
After weeks of fighting for his life, he made the initial breakthrough while still in Germany as he began breathing independently.
He later underwent multiple surgeries during two months at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and another three months at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Morrison got a temporary reprieve from his treatment so he could return to Iowa to welcome home his fellow soldiers as they redeployed in July.
A month later, he transferred to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Morrison was able to return home to New Market, Iowa, for good in mid-October. He continues to receive physical therapy twice a week at a local hospital to improve his mobility, balance and range of motion.
Looking back over all he's been through, he credits the strides he has made to medical care he called nothing short of "amazing" and his deep religious faith.
Now in the midst of the military medical boarding process, he said it's still unclear if he will be able to remain in the National Guard.
Morrison said he always knew he wanted to be a soldier, getting the parental consent required to enlist when he was 17. Now, he said he would love to continue to serve, but only if he can remain an infantryman. A desk job, he said, just won't do.
In the meantime, with his new lease on life, Morrison exhibits a sense of purpose unexpected in a 21-year-old.
He's been able to put life in perspective, he said, shrugging off what he called "high-school drama" and not fixating on small things that don't really matter.
"You laugh about people getting all worked up over nothing," he said. "Now, I want to live for a greater purpose, and be able to make a living helping others," he said. "And I'm living my life for God."
Looking to the future, Morrison said he wants to continue serving his fellow wounded warriors. An avid hunter since childhood, he's now setting up a nonprofit organization, Purple Heart Hunting, to offer a therapeutic outlet for those sharing his journey of healing.
"I want to give soldiers a way to get outdoors, an escape, some fellowship and some healing," he said.
Morrison plans to get a healthy dose of fellowship and continued healing himself this weekend as he enjoys a traditional family Christmas.
He has much to be thankful for, he said, particularly the family, friends, community and military medical system that rallied around him when he needed their support.
Morrison said he's already received the best gifts he could ever ask for, noting he has his "life, still being here, being able to walk, having my limbs intact."
"After all that's happened, it's definitely a miracle," he said.