RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Ohio — Marine Sgt. Shurvon Phillip defied the odds for 11 years.
An Iraqi land mine severely injured him in 2005, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak. According to his mother and guardian, doctors said the reservist would never move again and probably won't live more than a year or two.
But the gung-ho Marine proved them wrong. He learned to type, play video games and brush his teeth. With help, he managed to work out, walk and ride a bike.
Phillip survived many surgeries and infections, a common problem for paralyzed patients, but died on Oct. 30 at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland.
"We got 11 years of borrowed time," says Bill Bailey, a Navy reserve judge advocate and Phillip's legal guardian through a nationwide program to help the wounded.
Phillip was the 49th member of a battalion based in the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park to die from wounds incurred during a tough tour of Iraq, where the Third Battalion, 25th Regiment, Fourth Marine Division fought 900 to 1,200 strong.
Staff Sgt. Derick Young of Canfield, Ohio, was wounded by the same mine that injured Phillip. Young says Phillip "continued to fight and fight and fight, like a typical Marine. We're stubborn like that."
Phillip's mother, Gail Ulerie, who took care of him at their home in Richmond Heights, says he smiled often and loved life. "Even though his injuries got the better of him, he never let them get him down. He was always ready to go anywhere. He would never say no."
Ulerie said of her son, Sgt. Shurvon Phillip: "He was the proudest Marine ever."
Phillip was the third of four children born in Trinidad. The family moved to East Cleveland when he was about 11. He became an honor student at Shaw High School, studied information technology at Cuyahoga Community College and joined the 3/25 Marines meanwhile.
"Oh my gosh," says Ulerie, "he was the proudest Marine ever. He wanted to serve the country that he was now calling home."
When the 3/25 was deployed to Iraq, "he assured me that everything was going to be OK."
On May 7, 2005, Young was commanding a Humvee with Phillip and three other Marines inside. They were returning to their base from observations when they hit a mine. The blast injured all five. It damaged Phillip's brain, collapsed his lungs, broke his jaw, foot and more.
Phillip spent more than a year in different hospitals. At the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, President George W. Bush pinned a Purple Heart on the Marine and promised to make him a U.S. citizen. The promise was fulfilled a year later.
Phillip eventually returned to his mother's small apartment on a high floor in East Cleveland. Soon the Veterans Administration bought the family a wheelchair-accessible home in Richmond Heights.
He remained a proud Marine. "He loved putting on his dress blues," says Ulerie. "He'd sit up straighter."
With paid help, Ulerie took care of her son around the clock. With more help, he loved to work out in the gym, ride a two-person bike outdoors, travel in a horse-drawn cart at a therapeutic stable or cuddle with Polly, his shih Tzu. He never spoke again but developed facial signals, such as raising his eyebrows for "Yes."
Someone once asked Phillip if he would have enlisted knowing the outcome. Usually, he paused before answering questions. This time, he raised his eyebrows for "Yes" right away.
Ulerie once asked him what he missed the most before his injuries. He typed, "Marines."
Phillip worked out at ATP Evolution in Warrensville Heights with trainer Dan Medves. "He had the biggest smile, loved working up a sweat," says Medves.
Last month, Phillip returned to the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center with a fever and yet another infection. He died four days later. His VA doctor reported the cause of death as "homicide" from "war injury with explosive device."
No other 3/25 members are known to have died at home from Iraqi wounds. The other 48 fatally wounded members died instantly or soon afterward.
Delayed deaths have occurred in other military units. But Bailey, once a staff lawyer for the Navy's Wounded Warrior Project, said he's never seen a combat death delayed as long as Phillip's.
Looking back, Ulerie says U.S. troops should not have been sent to Iraq. "What happened after we left? The people there dropped their guns and ran. We should not have been there. I should not have to go through this. Nothing in this world is worth my son's life. I'm glad I had him those 11 years, but I wish I could have him 11 more."
Phillip loved Christmas, so she bought more decorations this year. "Every Thanksgiving, when we were done eating, he'd say, "Let's put up the Christmas thing."
Fighting tears, Ulerie says, "I don't think I'm going to do Christmas this year."
Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com