Wounded vets race cars on S.C. track while recovering
By Susanne M. Schafer
GREER, S.C. — It’s been two years since Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremy Stengel sat behind the wheel, and life is much different now.
The 22-year-old Marine suffered massive internal injuries and wounds to both legs when he was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington has been his home ever since.
But this week, the 22-year-old Stengel and about 30 other seriously injured and recuperating Marines hooted, hollered and high-fived as they chased normalcy in an American pastime: racing fast cars. The Marines took turns zipping around BMW’s driving school in South Carolina, using the experience to forget about their devastating injuries for a while.
"It’s just being able to get out of the hospital, because you can only stand that scene for so long," said Stengel, of Waterford, Wis. "It’s an escape, but I’m learning something at the same time."
The Marines took to the road course in a variety of the latest 2008 models ranging from the sporty 335i to opulent M5 sedans. Five 650i coupes were retrofitted with knob-and-lever hand controls for drivers with leg injuries.
"I am driving an M5 right now, 500 horses of raw, German power!" said Cpl. Kenneth Lyon of Crisfield, Md.
The Marines’ travel was paid for by the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a private group formed to help injured military veterans and their families. The goal of the trip was to pump up their spirits while improving driving skills.
"It’s kind of hard to keep these guys in their beds at times, just because they are ready to rock and roll," said Sgt. Stanley Mayer, a liaison between the Marines and the hospital. "Their legs are not, their arms are not, but they are ready to go. It’s the unbreakable spirit of the Marine. It’s pretty amazing."
Mayer, who was injured in Iraq in 2005, has helped Marines with their recovery. The 26-year-old from Cleveland said his injuries — mostly burns — paled in comparison to those in the group.
"We can say, ’Hey, we know, we understand. It’s gonna be all right, this isn’t the end of the world.’ They will listen to it coming from somebody that’s got a Purple Heart hanging from their chest," Mayer said.
BMW driving instructor Dan Doot said the company was determined that, except for the reconfigured vehicles, the day’s instruction wasn’t changed in any way for the injured vets. And Mayer added that the Marines didn’t want to be patronized.
"They don’t want anything different than anybody else. That’s why it’s important to do these things. They are not victims," Mayer said.
He predicted many would achieve things they hadn’t in the past, despite their injuries.
"You’ll see a guy who never ran more than three miles in his life will lose his leg in Iraq, come back, and all of a sudden decide he needs to start running marathons because he’s got something to prove," Mayer said.
Out on the course, Cpl. Bradley Walker placed his prosthetic leg inside the door of his car while he took a breather. Learning to drive with his new hand controls was just another obstacle for the 27-year-old to overcome, he said.
"When you drove the first time with your feet, it took a while to get the feel of the pedals. With this, it’s once you get the feel of it, it’s just natural," he said of the hand knob and lever controls. "It’s going to be a while to get the smile off my face."