'The mindset to stay alive': Marine Corps vet faces fight of life
By Stacy Jacobsonsjacobson@abcnews4.com
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- The scars on his arms and chest remind Staff Sgt. Harold Veronda of the day that changed his life forever. It didn't come during one of his three dangerous tours in Iraq.
Instead, the day he called a "blessing" came earlier this year.
Veronda was burning a stump in his yard. He drilled holes, lit a few matches and threw them in, but nothing happened. But he couldn't see the matches were burning underground.
"The flame flashed. It basically followed the kerosene back up to the cup I had it in, and splashed all over me. So I caught myself on fire," he said.
He called his reaction "routine," like what he learned in the military: he rolled until he got the fire out, then called his wife Angela and got in a cold shower before paramedics arrived.
Reality set in fir the Marine.
"I know they said something to Angela that I heard. They said, 'Oh, you don't want to see him,'" he remembered from his moments in the ambulance.
"I saw layers of skin falling off his body," Angela Veronda said. "Just because he was alive at that moment, he could die in any moment. He could die in two weeks, three weeks. Then it was hitting me."
But just as fate would have it that he did not meet his end in battle, he wouldn't meet it here, either.
"There's no explanation other than it just wasn't meant to be," he said.
Veronda said having the presence of mind to do all of that, while fire scorched 65 percent of his body, just came with the job.
"Training, training, training," he said. "This mindset to stay alive. As a combat Marine, you see things happen to people and you react."
Medics flew Veronda to Augusta Burn Center where he stayed medically paralyzed for a month a half. He began physical therapy to re-learn to sit up, move and walk. He recalled his first meeting with the Burn Center's physical therapists.
"There I laid thinking about sitting up, trying to sit up and I realized I couldn't sit up. So I was like, 'Okay. So this is going to be a little more difficult than I thought,'" he said.
But, persistence for the Marine paid off. Veronda exceeded all the doctors' expectations for his physical recovery and was released from the Augusta Burn Center in August.
"It was scary to come home because now I'm on my own," he said.
But he was not on his own; he had his wife constantly moving by his side. As he rebuilt his physical strength, they rebuild the strength of their relationship.
"I like to call it a blessing. It seems like everything in my life is improved. You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow so let's live today," he said.
His scars remind him how much better each day can get.
Veronda works out six days a week and also does physical and cardiac therapy. In all, he endured six surgeries while in the hospital. Those included heart, intestinal, pulmonary and skin surgeries.
"I had heart issues because of the burns, I had pulmonary issues. My lungs collapsed because of the burns. I had open heart surgery because they had to do a triple bypass to address the burns. Because of the dehydration of my body I was over saturated with fluid which went in to my lungs and collapsed my lungs," he said.
He said the experience gave him a "new incentive" to enlist as a reserve again in the Marine Corps.