Face of Defense: Marine Fought Adversity to Realize Dream

NEW ORLEANS — Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matt McGui­ness bat­tled a col­lapsed lung and oth­er chal­lenges in real­iz­ing his dream of becom­ing a Marine.
The Chesa­peake, Va., native comes from a mil­i­tary back­ground. Both of his par­ents are Navy vet­er­ans and his fam­i­ly tree, heavy with sailors and Marines, reads like a ship’s ros­ter, he said.

Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot at Parris Island, S.C.
New­ly mint­ed Marine Corps Pfc. Matt McGui­ness holds the bat­tal­ion guidon dur­ing his recruit train­ing grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mo­ny at Marine Corps Recruit Train­ing Depot at Par­ris Island, S.C., Jan. 15, 2010. McGui­ness endured painful surg­eries and a long recov­ery after being med­ical­ly dis­charged from Marine Corps recruit train­ing a year ear­li­er due to lung prob­lems.
Cour­tesy pho­to
Click to enlarge

“He grew up around mil­i­tary,” said McGui­ness’ father, Tom, the chief of police at Naval Med­ical Cen­ter Portsmouth, Va. “He grew up always hear­ing, ‘If you want to be the best, join the Corps.’ ”

McGui­ness said his uncle, a Marine vet­er­an who died when he was a boy, pro­vid­ed most of the inspi­ra­tion that pushed him toward the Marines.

“I admired his pro­fes­sion­al­ism and his day-to-day effi­cien­cy,” McGui­ness said of his uncle. “When he died of can­cer, it just made me want it even more.” It was no sur­prise to friends and fam­i­ly when, dur­ing his fresh­man year of high school, McGui­ness began show­ing inter­est in the Marines.

“He went through four years of junior ROTC in high school,” McGui­ness’ father recalled. “He went to every train­ing thing he could go to, went to the recruiter’s office every day he could get away with it.”

When the day final­ly came for McGui­ness to report to Marine Corps Recruit Train­ing Depot at Par­ris Island, S.C., in the sum­mer of 2008, he wor­ried about the same types of things most recruits fret over.

“Am I going to make it? How hard will it be? How will I han­dle the stress?” he recalled. As he ran and screamed with the oth­er recruits still wear­ing their civil­ian kha­ki pants and col­lared shirts, he had no idea he had blis­ters on both his lungs that would soon rup­ture with­out warn­ing.

“There’s no way to med­ical­ly under­stand it or to med­ical­ly find it until it hap­pens,” McGui­ness’ father said. “You had a six-foot kid who could run cir­cles around any­thing.” The fate­ful moment came well into McGui­ness’ first phase of recruit train­ing as he wait­ed in line for chow. “I felt a pop in my chest and I hunched over in pain and just tried to stand up,” McGui­ness said. “I tried to make it look like I was all right so I wouldn’t go to med­ical.” But McGui­ness wasn’t all right.

A blis­ter on his left lung had popped, leav­ing a hole. As he inhaled, air escaped through the hole and built up pres­sure around his lung, flat­ten­ing it inside his body. “Any move­ment you make is just ridicu­lous because your lung is no longer attached to your chest and it just bounces around,” McGui­ness said. “When you walk, when you stretch, when you lie down, you just feel it.”

McGui­ness said he was deter­mined to not give up, despite not know­ing what was wrong. “I thought I pulled a mus­cle or cracked a rib or some­thing,” he said. “It felt more or less like some­one stab­bing you and twist­ing that knife con­stant­ly.” His father said he under­stood his son’s stub­born refusal to quit.

“Like any good Marine, he tried to hide it,” he said. “I guess it’s kind of hard to hide los­ing a lung, though.” It was the gas-mask train­ing that final­ly end­ed McGui­ness’ pun­ish­ing cha­rade. As he choked down tear gas in the cham­ber, his chest explod­ed with sear­ing pain. “I was cough­ing real­ly bad­ly and I kind of freaked out and start­ed hit­ting the wall,” he said. His drill instruc­tors, already sus­pi­cious some­thing was wrong, got McGui­ness out of the gas cham­ber and ordered him to see the doc­tor.

After a series of X-rays, McGui­ness real­ized a med­ical dis­charge was almost cer­tain. After a cou­ple of short stints at area hos­pi­tals where his lung was sta­bi­lized, he was placed in a spe­cial pla­toon where recruits await­ed a med­ical board’s rul­ing on whether or not they were fit to serve.

While he wait­ed there, McGui­ness watched his pla­toon march across the parade deck dur­ing what was sup­posed to be his grad­u­a­tion. They had become Marines. He would soon become a civil­ian. “The med­ical dis­charge was one of the worst things that ever hap­pened to him because all he ever want­ed to be was a Marine. He felt like he failed his fam­i­ly and his Corps,” McGui­ness’ father said.

McGui­ness dis­cussed treat­ment options with his father dur­ing the months he spent await­ing dis­charge. As soon as he got out, the pair went to work. The two met Cmdr. Robert Strange, one of the Navy’s lead­ing car­dio­tho­racic sur­geons, at Naval Med­ical Cen­ter Portsmouth.

“The prob­lem you have with spon­ta­neous neu­moth­o­rax [McGui­ness’ con­di­tion] is a 30-per­cent chance of it hap­pen­ing again, and after a sec­ond episode you have a 60-per­cent chance of it hap­pen­ing again,” Strange said. The Marine Corps required McGui­ness to wait three to five years before try­ing to enlist again in case his lungs devel­oped more prob­lems. With Strange’s help, how­ev­er, that wait could be reduced to just one year.

“I told him I don’t want them just re-inflat­ed, I want to be able to join,” McGui­ness said. “Dr. Strange just hooked me up.” McGui­ness would need two oper­a­tions, one for each lung. First, sur­geons would have to remove and sta­ple the blis­ters on both lungs using video­scop­ic sur­gi­cal tools. Then, in order to make sure the lungs remained strong, Strange had to “mechan­i­cal­ly abrade” McGui­ness’ chest walls so that they would swell and stick direct­ly to the lungs. That way, Strange explained, any future rup­tures in the lung tis­sue wouldn’t form a hole and deflate the lungs.

The pro­ce­dure can be very painful, Strange said. “The best med­ica­tion to stop this pain is an anti-inflam­ma­to­ry drug, but if you give that, you stop the process you want,” he said. “We weren’t able to give him the anti-inflam­ma­to­ry drugs to take the pain away.”

Even with the pain killers McGui­ness was allowed, the weeks he spent recov­er­ing were some of the most painful of his life. “You got­ta breathe, it’s a nat­ur­al process -– if you don’t breathe you die,” McGui­ness said. “My prob­lem was my lungs were just on fire.” McGui­ness’ father remem­bers watch­ing over his son dur­ing those long weeks.

“I’ve nev­er seen my kid in more pain in my life,” he said. “It broke my heart.” After the first lung had healed, McGui­ness went through the whole process again for the oth­er lung. The pain killers’ effects on the body couldn’t be ful­ly pre­dict­ed, and end­ed up numb­ing the wrong side of his body.

“I woke up in the inten­sive care unit, screamed and then passed back out,” he said, adding he could remem­ber the feel­ing of the four sep­a­rate tubes that stayed in his chest dur­ing his weeks-long hos­pi­tal stays. “I had to go back [to train­ing]; all I thought about was going back.” Look­ing back on the oper­a­tions, Strange said he was impressed by his patient’s resilience. “He was will­ing to do all that just to go into the Marines and not have to wait,” he said.

McGui­ness returned to the recruiter’s office, back to the train­ing func­tions and back to the gym. For eight months he worked to regain the body he once had. It took “waiv­er, after waiv­er, after waiv­er,” to get McGui­ness back to Marine boot camp because of his com­plex med­ical his­to­ry, his father said. His son, he not­ed, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

McGui­ness returned to Par­ris Island and he grad­u­at­ed boot camp and became a Marine on Jan. 15, 2010, two years after he first arrived at the train­ing depot.

McGui­ness went on to make lance cor­po­ral and became an amphibi­ous assault vehi­cle crew mem­ber with the 4th Amphib­ian Assault Bat­tal­ion, 4th Marine Divi­sion, based in Lit­tle Creek, Va.

“I saw my sons being born, but the day I saw Matthew hold­ing the bat­tal­ion guidon dur­ing grad­u­a­tion, noth­ing pre­pared me for that,” McGui­ness’ father said. “I’ve nev­er cried like that.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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