Lance Cpl. Paul Shupert was the first of many wounded warriors we met when photographer Nikki Kahn and I began working on this story. After learning that he was amenable to an interview as we boarded his arriving flight at Joint Base Andrews, we saw him lying on a stretcher and draped with a Marine Corps blanket.
He was a bit groggy from pain medication but remarkably lucid when we spoke for a few minutes before he was taken to a military hospital in Bethesda. Shupert said that he enjoyed his deployment, that he felt bad about leaving his unit behind and that his medical care en route home had been excellent. He seemed to have a great attitude, given the circumstances.
I was startled to find out later that he had lost a leg in combat — something that was not readily apparent. A military officer on the plane said amputees sometimes snap out of denial a few weeks after coming home. We reconnected with Shupert about a month after our initial meeting, and I was curious to see whether his mood had darkened. I never saw any sign that it did.
Ever since he had arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Dec. 1, Shupert had worked out with rigor, trying to regain lost muscle weight. He was weeks away from being fitted for a prosthetic leg — a milestone that takes some amputees several months. He still did not appear emotionally shaken by his loss. And he talked enthusiastically of forming a security company with a friend when he got out of the Marines and doing dangerous work abroad again.
His mother, Tonya Shupert, wondered whether he would grieve at some point. But for now, their undivided attention was on his recovery. One morning, during his daily physical therapy routine, Shupert let us watch as his wounds were cleaned. He picked dead tissue from the wounds on his stub and those on his other leg with such focus that a supervising doctor warmly noted how much she loves “my OCD” Marines.
When the wound cleaning was done, Shupert covered his stub with a garment.
“Nice pantyhose, dude,” his mom joked.
“You’re just jealous,” he shot back.