One day in February 2007, Marine infantryman Matt Bradford awakened in what was then the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland blind and missing both of his legs.
The infantryman had been in a coma for three weeks after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Haditha, Iraq.
As Bradford realized the extent of his injuries, he became despondent, refusing food and not wanting to speak to people.
“I felt like the only two ways I wanted to come home from Iraq was either with my brothers or in a casket, but there was no middle of the road for me,” he said.
But with encouragement from corpsmen, nurses and other wounded Marines at the hospital, Bradford realized he hadn’t lost everything: He still bore the title of Marine. Except now, instead of fighting insurgents, he was fighting to overcome the obstacles posed by his injuries.
“I didn’t want my injuries to define who I was,” he said. “I didn’t want them to be a weakness or a restriction on anything. I wanted to go out and live a normal life.”
In April 2010, Bradford became the first blind double amputee in history to reenlist in the Marine Corps. And on Sunday, Bradford, now a retired Marine, is set to complete his ninth Marine Corps Marathon.
Bradford compared the marathon to a family reunion: He gets to be back with Marines, especially other wounded Marines who went through rehab alongside him. The love and camaraderie among the Marines at the race is what makes it special, he said.
Bradford will take on the Washington, D.C., race in a hand cycle, with fellow Marine veteran Johnathan Reyna steering from his own hand cycle.
The duo met when Reyna was working in the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio as part of the Wounded Warrior Battalion. In 2009, they began training on hand cycles together.
Maneuvering in the three-wheeled, hand-powered cycles took some getting used to. On their first day practicing, Bradford veered directly into the curb of a driveway and toppled over, according to Reyna.
“We learned that a lot of bruises and cuts and scrapes were kind of part of the deal,” Reyna said.
Initially, Reyna steered Bradford with his voice. But during their first race, an extremely supportive crowd made it hard for the pair to hear each other.
“They were screaming and cheering, and Matt couldn’t hear my commands,” Reyna said. “So he veers off and just takes out a road cone.”
After the race director urged the crowd to remain quiet, the pair managed to complete the race.
Over time, the pair developed a better system for steering: Reyna holds onto Bradford’s leg rest. Because one of Reyna’s hands is on Bradford’s cycle and only one pedals his own cycle, Bradford has to pedal even harder to propel the two of them.
And Reyna’s voice still gets a workout.
“His voice is completely changed from the beginning of the race to the end of the race,” Bradford said, “just from yelling to get people out of the way so we don’t run them over, and ‘left,’ ‘right’ — giving me some verbal commands as well.”
Now that Bradford lives in Kentucky, while Reyna remains in Texas, racing together also is a chance for the two men to reconnect.
“The Marine Corps Marathon’s that time that we can get together,” Bradford said. “For those few hours out there on the course, we spent a lot of time just catching up on life.”
This year, at the first in-person Marine Corps Marathon since 2019, the two men hope to break 3 hours, after clocking in at 3:03:07 in 2018.
The two men have been working out separately to keep themselves in good shape for the event. Bradford said staying fit is not just a matter of training but also important for his mental health.
“My therapy is going to the gym and staying active and staying fit,” he said. “Even though I’m out of the Marines, I still like that when people look at me they know that I served as a Marine.”
Both Reyna and Bradford are planning to bring their families along to cheer them on.
To get to the race in D.C., Reyna, his wife and their six children are embarking on a road trip from Texas in their 12-seat Nissan NV, with the hand cycle strapped to the back. And Sunday will mark the first time that Bradford’s 10-year-old daughter will watch him participate in the Marine Corps Marathon.
“That is all the motivation I need,” Bradford said.
For Bradford, completing a marathon with the wind in his face and his friend by his side is plain fun. But it’s also, he said, an opportunity to inspire people who are going through tough times, just as he was after waking up in the hospital more than 15 years ago.
“Having those who are struggling or who might still be trying to figure out their own life see a blind guy with no legs do it — it gives them motivation and encouragement that they could do it themselves,” he said.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.