Published December 26. 2009 4:00AM
Terry Rathbun Jr. says if he can't "fight the fight" he'll support it.
That is why he makes firearms for the military at Colt Defense in West Hartford. It's important to him that Marines who are doing the job he once did have the best equipment.
"They're defending our country so we take it personal when we're putting these weapons together," Rathbun said. "It's a good job. I love my job."
On Sept. 30, 2006, Rathbun was on patrol in Fallujah with other members from his unit, Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, based in Plainville. A sniper shot his platoon commander, Capt. Harry Thompson, in the chest.
Rathbun, a squad leader, was pulling Thompson to safety when a rifle shot pierced his own face, just to the right of his mouth, and traveled down the length of his neck and out his back.
"They did a hell of a job putting me back together," said Rathbun, a 38-year-old East Lyme native.
He has undergone multiple surgeries, occupational health therapy and speech therapy.
"I don't think I have a right to complain about anything. I knew what I was getting into when I signed the papers," he said. "Anybody that blames the military for what happened to them should've thought twice before they signed the damn paperwork. What did they think they were doing? It's not a volleyball team."
He extended his active-duty status for medical treatment and medically retired from the Marines Corps last February as a gunnery sergeant.
Now Rathbun spends his time working at Colt Defense alongside other Marines with whom he used to serve, and volunteering his time to help veterans who are having trouble readjusting to civilian life.
"A lot of kids are coming back and slipping through the cracks, or they think it's too macho to get help," Rathbun said. "I don't know why, or who puts that in their heads. But people know to call me, and I talk to these guys."
He also is taking classes at Three Rivers Community College to become a counselor.
"I think I owe it to the guys we lost to try to be a better person," Rathbun said. "We lost some really good guys."
Four members of his company, Lance Cpl. Christopher B. Cosgrove III, Lance Cpl. Kurt E. Dechen, Capt. Brian S. Letendre and Cpl. Jordan C. Pierson, were killed in Iraq. Rathbun goes to a park in Milford that was dedicated to Pierson when he visits his girlfriend, who lives nearby.
He tries to stay busy.
Rathbun said his girlfriend and her daughter will soon move into his condominium in Norwich, a change he is looking forward to.
"I've been alone for a long time," he said.
He is restoring a 1969 Dodge Charger, and he rides a motorcycle for the adrenaline rush. Keeping busy and staying focused are how Rathbun avoids dwelling on the past, despite the physical reminders.
His jaw cracks and pops and is prone to infection. His shoulder is held on by one muscle; if it tears, doctors say, they will have to fuse the shoulder and he will be able to use only his forearm.
"I have my moments where I get depressed and stuff like that, like everybody else…," he said. "I did have a problem for a long time, and I still do, as far as sleeping. You know, I get anxiety and stuff like that as far as sleeping because I'm always doing something. It's not that I'm having flashbacks or any of that other stuff. I'm used to always doing something so it's hard for me to unwind sometimes.
"I definitely have my moments where I get angry," he added. "I still have a problem with yelling and stuff like that because I've been in the military. That was part of my life, yelling and working on younger Marines and trying to train them. You come from that extreme to the civilian life, where it's like 'Can you please do this?' you know, and you try and be politically correct. When you're in the military, it's 'Get it done now. I don't want to hear any crying.'"
He said he gets through the tough times because he has the support of a lot of great people, including other veterans.
Rathbun was very close to his mother, Diane Rathbun, who died in 2007. He buried with her his Bronze Star with a Combat "V" for valor and Purple Heart.
"If anybody deserved a medal in life, especially for putting up with me for all those years, my mother deserved it," Rathbun said. "She probably deserved the Medal of Honor but you know, all I had was a Bronze Star."
Rathbun said he considers himself blessed, and he would not change a thing.
"Everything I did, I did for a reason. I don't blame anybody, I don't have any bad feelings. I love the Marine Corps, I love my country," he said. "I mean, what happened is what happened. That's part of war. I don't think I have any right to complain because there are guys out there a hell of a lot worse off than I am. I have a roof over my head. I have a job. I've got it pretty good right now."