A piece of faded ribbon, barely noticeable, dangled from a bush in southeastern Afghanistan.
Had Julian Torres seen it sooner, and had its meaning registered, the 22-year-old Modestan would still be walking today. His legs would be whole. And he'd probably still be fighting alongside his fellow Marines in Afghanistan.
But he didn't, they aren't and he isn't. Literally in a flash, his life changed forever.
Now, this story could easily morph into one of self-pity, anger and regret. But Torres refuses to let that happen. Not with his wife, Ashley, and baby son Julian Jr. — "Call him J.J.," Torres said — depending upon him to be husband and father.
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Besides, he said, giving up would be an insult to his Marine brothers, including those who got him out of there alive.
"I just owe it to all those guys to get back on my feet and get better," Julian said. "I know what kind of work they're doing over there. I'm not about to sit around sucking my thumb. They got me out of there and back here."
On July 15, Torres and his 6th Marines' Golf Company unit had just finished a four-hour firefight with Taliban forces near Marjah in Afghanistan.
"We were walking back to our (forward operating base) along a little goat trail," Torres said.
Someone in the company noticed the bush — that it appeared to have been the focal point of human activity, and probably by enemy Taliban forces. Torres went over to check it out. He didn't notice the ribbon until it was too late.
"The little ribbon was an indicator there was an (improvised explosive device) in the ground somewhere," Torres said. "I didn't know it." He walked past the bush a couple of times.
"Then I went past it again, and that's when (the bomb) got me," he said. "I remember everything from the time I got blown up. I saw a flash of light and thought, 'Oh, shoot, maybe I should close my eyes.' But I opened my eyes and saw two guys get thrown down on their faces."
One was Cpl. Cody Childers, a friend who'd taken some shrapnel in the back.
At that moment, Torres realized he was in the air — not on the ground.
"I saw my shadow," he said. "I was watching myself fall with my shadow to the ground." He knew he'd been badly wounded. He just hadn't taken an inventory of his limbs yet.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that when you step on a bomb, good things don't happen," Torres said. "My clock started at that moment."
His clock, meaning the time his unit had to get to him, assess the damage, perform field first aid and get him out of there. Except that he was trying to assess the damage himself in the panic and confusion of the moment.
"I yelled, 'Who's hit?' Then I realized, 'I'm hit,' " Torres said. "I asked, 'Is Childers OK?' I started crawling. I'm crawling to (Lance Cpl. James) Rogers. In the Marines, they teach you how to use your legs. But they aren't working for me at this time.
"That's when I knew I didn't have my legs anymore. Then I said, 'What can I do to help you help me?' They said, 'Stop moving!' "
The medics put tourniquets on what remained of his legs.
He lost his right leg just above the knee and his left just below it. Soon, he was on his way back to the United States.
Torres played football and wrestled at Johansen High, graduating in 2006. Against his father's counsel, he joined the Marines that summer.
"I told him, 'I respect your decision,' " said dad Ruben Torres Jr., a retired youth correctional officer who now works as a gang consultant and specialist. "I might not agree with it, but I will support you totally."
Julian's enlistment date — July 18, 2006 — came 50 years to the day after his grandfather, Martin Martinez, joined the Army. Their story was featured in The Bee in April 2007.
That date — July 18 — took a different twist this summer, though. Torres rose to sergeant and went to Afghanistan in early June. He was wounded July 15. Three days later — on July 18 — he was loaded in a plane after being stabilized in Landstuhl, Germany, and flown back to the States and the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Md.
The blessing of life is not lost on Torres, who understands he has a long and difficult road ahead. One of his early visitors at Bethesda was the mother of Childers, who had been wounded in the same bomb blast that claimed Torres' legs.
She spent a few hours there, eager to pass along Torres' greetings and a condition update to her son and Torres' other Marine comrades.
But war has a way of twisting and turning life into a gut-wrenching mess.
Saturday, the Washington Nationals invited Torres to throw out the first ball before their game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park in D.C.
"He threw a strike," said Cpl. Brandon Tilley, a close friend who wheeled Torres out near the pitcher's mound. "He did."
Sadly, Tilley pushed Torres onto another stretch of grass Wednesday. This time, it was at Arlington National Cemetery for the funeral of Childers, the fellow Golf Company Marine who survived the bomb blast only to be killed by enemy gunfire Aug. 20.
Two ceremonies, just four days apart, that spoke volumes about the horrors of war and the precious value of life.
Their respective fates made Torres' problems pale by comparison, he said.
"I just got blown up," Torres said. "He got shot."
Thursday, Torres will fly to San Diego, where he'll eventually be fitted for artificial legs at Balboa Naval Hospital. He brings a can-do attitude that many who have lost limbs in Afghanistan or Iraq haven't been able to muster.
He'll use his time there to focus on his future, not the past. He is determined to get back as much agility as high-tech prostheses allow.
"If there ever was such a thing as a poster child for amputation, Julian would be it," his father said.
"The ball's in my court, and I'm going to do something with it," Torres said. "I've got lots of things I want to give back for the help I've gotten."
Jeff Jardine's column normally appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or at email@example.com.