Dorian Gardner joined the Marine Corps in 2003. Seven years later, an explosion left him legally blind.
He was deployed to Afghanistan that day in October 2010. While on patrol, he and his unit came under fire. A bomb exploded during the firefight. Gardner lost his left eye and his right was left severely damaged.
Now the communication strategy and operations chief for the Marine Corps Installation West, Gardner has retained his uniform – and his hope.
But it was not an easy process, and that hope sometimes waned. He was in recovery for about two and half years, moving from a military medical center in Maryland to a Veterans Affairs hospital to a Wounded Warrior detachment in San Diego.
"During my time, (it was an) emotional roller coaster, not knowing whether or not my vision was going to come back or get worse or stay the same," Gardner said. "I went through stints of depression and hopelessness, thinking, 'This is life now. As a career Marine, what am I going to do after this?'"
Gardner credits adaptive sports, particularly swimming, for giving him hope.
"It was then that I discovered I can still do things. I can still grow and learn new things and compete and contribute and give back," he said.
He says that though he was not the best swimmer, he loved the sport and the dedication it required of him. He spent hours practicing, even competing – and winning.
"Having my wife and my kids there with me, having my mom and my dad tell me how proud they are and to see me up there on the podium, (compared to) years before, seeing me lay down on my back in the hospital bed, (it) just comes back around tenfold," Gardner said. "I can’t be more excited to tell people that regardless of what life throws, you keep pushing."
The woman who would later become Gardner’s wife played a critical role in his recovery, both as a supporter and as his physical therapist. They met in 2011, and they married two years later.
Gardner says that because of his own experiences, he’s able to talk with and encourage Marines who have been wounded.
"I was in that position, and there was a time in my life when I thought it was over, and coming back from that and being able to look at these young Marines, men and women, who are starting to feel like there’s nothing left – there’s always more," Gardner said. "There’s still life, and if you can still have air in your lungs, go out there and live."