4 Veterans’ Stories: A Look at Heroes Returning Home

These service members show that heroism continues off the battlefield, too.

Sgt. Jesse Cottle: A Healing Love Story

jesse and kelly beach
Mark Feinauer
jesse and kelly cottle
Kelly Willardson
In July 2009, Marine Staff Sergeant Jesse Cottle was in his sixth year of service in the Corps when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. He knew the blast was bad. In fact, he thought it was the end and he had two regrets: He’d never get to finish Dreamcatcher by Stephen King, and he’d never know what it was like to be a husband and father. Thanks to the work of doctors, he survived after enduring several operations at several different hospitals. However, both of his legs had to be amputated.

One weekend, while he was with his parents in Phoenix, the Forresters, friends of his family, invited the Cottles to see their daughter, Kelly—a record-setting collegiate swimmer—compete in a meet. Jesse went, and it was one of the first times he was on his new prosthetic legs. He was instantly stunned by Kelly and her beauty, and by her warm personality when the two families had dinner together after the meet. Jesse and Kelly became friends because they were both in other relationships, but gradually they fell in love. As Kelly said in American Heroes on the Homefront: The Hearts of Heroes, “I don’t just love Jesse in spite of his injuries, I love him because of them.” The couple married in 2012.

Jesse received a Bronze Star with a Combat V for valor, and he and Kelly live in San Diego. P.S. And he finally finished Dreamcatcher!

Sgt. Charlie Linville: A Sense of Humor

charlie and his daughter
Challenged Athletes Foundation
As an explosive ordnance disposal technician, Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Charlie Linville would defuse as many as 40 bombs on a typical day on duty in Afghanistan. In January 2011, he and his team were conducting a routine sweep when Sgt. Linville was struck by a device and he was blasted into the air. He was immediately evacuated and then treated in several hospitals, ending up at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. His wife, Mandi (his high-school sweetheart), and their two daughters, Taylor and Dylan, moved there to be with him as he underwent a dozen surgeries.

Despite all of their intervention, doctors realized that they would need to remove the Marine’s foot, a decision that Sgt. Linville and his family accepted with grace and a sense of humor. One day, Taylor and her mother were at Party City, waiting for the store to open. When a woman asked Taylor, “What are you celebrating?” Taylor, then 4, explained that her father was having his foot amputated and they were having a “going away-foot” party.

Sgt. Linville has since mastered walking with a prosthetic foot, and he plans to climb Mt. Everest as part of the Heroes Project in the spring 2015. Here, he poses with his younger daughter, Dylan.

Next: Cpl. Gabe Martinez and Captain Leslie Smith »

Cpl. Gabe Martinez: “I Want to Live”

justin and gabe
Kayla Martinez
rock 'n' roll marathon
Kayla Martinez
Marine Corps Corporal Gabe Martinez and his wife, Kayla, met in high school in Colorado and got married on July 30, 2010. They had a beautiful ceremony but no honeymoon—soon after the wedding, Gabe had to report for a month of training before a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. Before he left for Helmand Province in October 2010, he told Kayla, “If I lose any of my limbs, I want to die.”

On Thanksgiving, his resolve was tested when he stepped on an IED. As he lay in a crevice after the blast, he said in American Heroes On the Homefront: The Hearts of Heroes that he heard God’s voice asking him, “Gabe, do you want to live?” The Marine answered him with vigor: “Yes Lord, I want to live!”

After Cpl. Martinez arrived at Bethesda Naval Medical Center to be treated, Kayla came to see him. His eardrums had been ruptured in the explosion and she had a severe head cold, but they yelled their love for each other. Above: The Marine recovering at Bethesda with his best friend, Lance Corporal Justin Gaertner, who was injured in an explosion right after Cpl. Martinez.

While Gabe Martinez had to have both of his legs amputated, his disabilities have only served to rouse his competitive spirit. A recipient of a Purple Heart, he has cycled in two marathons (above, Martinez is at the starting line of one), gone horseback riding, mountain biking, surfing, skiing, jet skiing, rock climbing, and white-water rafting. He hopes to compete in the 2016 Paralympics, and he and Kayla live in Colorado, where they are the proud parents of a daughter.

Captain Leslie Smith: Standing Tall

friends at walter reed
Leslie Smith
Leslie Smith grew up in Virginia and had a picture-perfect adolescence: She was cheerleader, homecoming queen, and an honors student. She went to Marymount University, where she was a member of the Army ROTC unit. After she graduated, she joined the army full-time and became a public affairs officer. In 2001, she was stationed in Bosnia and was by then an Army Captain. Smith was on the verge of completing her deployment—and had decided to extend it—when her left leg became discolored and began to swell.

Doctors discovered Smith had a blood clot in her leg, and she was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Other complications developed, and she was diagnosed with a rare blood condition that was often fatal. She survived—but her left leg had to be amputated. Smith was stunned and angry, but slowly realized she could either spend her days in self-pity or accept her impairment and try to help others. She chose the latter, and started greeting nervous young amputees at Walter Reed, showing them her prosthetic limb and reassuring them that they would recover just as she did.

In 2005, Smith suddenly lost vision in one eye, and five years later, she could no longer see out of her remaining eye. To this day, specialists are not sure why. Legally blind, Smith lives with a helper dog Isaac and continues to inspire others. She has completed a marathon and a triathalon, and she’s made hundreds of appearances, including at the Republican National Convention, and on TV’s Days of Our Lives and Project Runway All-Stars.

homefront book coverThe images and stories appear courtesy of Oliver North’s book American Heroes on the Homefront: The Hearts of Heroes (Threshold Editions, 2013), which he co-wrote with Bob Hamer. A combat-decorated Marine and the host of the War Stories documentary series on the Fox News channel, North is also the author of thrillers; his latest is Counterfeit Lies, released on June 10, 2014.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest