When Spc. Dustin Morrison woke up on the morning of April 11, 2011, he had no idea that his life was about to change forever.
Dustin, an infantryman with Company B, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Division, had joined the Iowa National Guard when he was 17 years old. In late October 2010, his unit was deployed to Afghanistan. Their job was to provide full-spectrum operations in a combat theater, including lethal and non-lethal capabilities, support to Afghan National Army and Police units, as well as assistance to humanitarian relief initiatives.
On the morning of April 11, Dustin and his unit expected it would be business as usual. They loaded up in the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) and headed out on a mission in the Paktia Province of eastern Afghanistan. The mood in the MRAP was tense. Everyone was focused on the mission and what they were trained to do. The sound of the loud diesel engine filled their ears as the vehicle moved steadily along the dirt road. The smell of wood smoke and the stench of the city penetrated their nostrils.
Dustin was joined on the mission by his teammates: Sgt. First Class Nicholas Jedlicka, Spc. Justin Christensen and Spc. Brent Maher, who was the gunner atop the MRAP. They had all served together and trained hard for any situation, but nothing could have prepared them for what happened next. As the vehicle came around a corner, it hit a 400-pound I.E.D, triggering one of the largest I.E.D. explosions in the history of Operation Enduring Freedom. The blast instantly killed Maher and injured Jedlicka, Christensen and Dustin.
Dustin sustained major injuries, including a burst lumbar vertebra, internal bleeding, broken jaw, lacerated spleen and kidneys, and a shattered left femur, right ankle and right hand. Fatty tissue from his broken femur got into his bloodstream and lungs, causing acute respiratory failure. Dustin was life-flighted to Germany where he received advanced care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
After several days in the hospital, Dustin wasn’t getting any better. Doctors notified family members and told them they had one last option: a procedure called ecmo therapy. With a survival rate of less than 25 percent in adults, this treatment involved cutting Dustin’s jugular vein and inserting a tube to pass oxygenated blood from the femoral artery in his thigh, in order to bypass his lungs. Dustin was only the tenth U.S. soldier to be put on the ecmo therapy machine. He was on it for six days and kept going backwards. Doctors told his family that at some point they would need to take him off the machine instead of delaying the inevitable.
Family and friends and an entire community were praying for Dustin back in Iowa. Friends and neighbors, relatives and former classmates all gathered in prayer. The next morning was Easter Sunday. If there was ever a day to experience a miracle, Easter Sunday was it—and that is exactly what happened. Overnight, Dustin made a full recovery and was breathing on his own. Doctors were amazed at his quick turnaround.
Eventually Dustin was transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., for surgery on his femur, right ankle, right hand and lower back. Doctors told him there was a chance he would never walk again. “I knew if I did,” Dustin said, “it would be from God.”
A few weeks later, Dustin was transferred to a spinal cord unit in Minneapolis, Minn. In August, only four months after he was wounded, he was able to walk out of the unit under his own power. Dustin was only the second patient in the last five years to walk out of that unit.
With renewed faith and a new direction for his life, Dustin was determined to make a difference in the lives of others and share his story with as many people as would listen. Dustin grew up on a farm near Clarinda, Iowa, and had learned to hunt and fish at the age of 6. He shot his first deer when he was 12. Dustin could not wait to get his strength back and get into the woods again.
“It was an overwhelming feeling of happiness,” said Dustin of his first time hunting after being wounded. “It was a big adrenalin rush. I felt like I did when I was 12 hunting for the very first time.”
Being in the outdoors again was therapeutic for him. There was something about being in God’s creation and seeing the sunrise on a new day, as well as the thrill of the chase, that filled him with a sense of peace.
I had the privilege and honor of meeting Dustin at our Peterson Outdoors Ministries wounded warrior deer hunt in early November 2011. Dustin was one of nine wounded combat veterans who attended our yearly event near Nashville, Mo. His smile and his faith were encouraging. Just being around him and hearing his story of survival made you feel as if you were witnessing a true miracle. What was even more special was that his teammate in Afghanistan, Nicholas Jedlicka, had recovered as well and was able to join him on the hunt.
Since then, Dustin has begun muzzleloader and archery hunting again in his home state of Iowa.
“Archery hunting was the biggest challenge,” he said. “I had to back my bow down to its lowest poundage and start all over again. I practiced hard all the time so I could build my arm strength back up.”
Through it all, Dustin realized that hunting had become his path to healing.
“Being in the outdoors is the best therapy of all physically,” he said. “I got to exercise muscles I hadn’t used in a long time and build strength in my legs. I didn’t feel any pain because I was so excited to be hunting again.
“Hunting has helped me emotionally as well. Instead of being depressed and sitting at home, I am able to get outdoors. I feel like it is just me and God in his creation, and it definitely has a healing effect on your emotions.”
Dustin knew that if he felt at peace in the outdoors, maybe other wounded veterans would feel the same. Inspired by his faith and his love for the outdoors, Dustin is forming a non-profit organization called Purple Heart Hunters.
“I want to give soldiers a way to get outdoors—an escape, some fellowship and some healing,” he said. “I want to live for a greater purpose and be able to make a living helping others. I am going to live for God.”
Dustin is doing just that. He is using his own experiences to encourage other wounded warriors and let them know that life is worth living when you are using your talents and abilities to help others.
There are more than 30,000 wounded warriors in the United States and many are looking for activities to take their minds off of their injuries. With many service men and women diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), outdoor recreational therapy has become a valuable tool in the recovery process. Organizations nationwide are making it possible for disabled veterans to enjoy hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities and the therapeutic benefits they have to offer.
Looking back on such a traumatic event, Dustin could easily have given up and thought his life was over, but he would tell you that it was on Easter Sunday 2011 that he truly began to live.
“While going through therapy I never once questioned whether I would hunt again,” Dustin said. “I knew that even if I had to hunt from a wheelchair, I would hunt again.”
Tron Peterson and his wife Misty are the founders of Peterson Outdoors Ministries, a non-profit organization started in 2006 with the purpose of providing outdoor recreational therapy to wounded warriors and their families, as well as youths and adults with disabilities or terminal illnesses. Tron is also a published writer and professional outdoor videographer and member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association.
Peterson Outdoors Ministries
9949 County Ln 212
Webb City, MO 64870
Purple Heart Hunters
1484 150th St.
Gravity, IA 50848