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“Iraq and back”

Iraq War vet improves conditions for wounded warriors
By Capt. Jeffrey Cretz ('03)

Major Justin Constantine ('92) and his wife Dahlia work to help other veterans successfully reintegrate into American society.

Major Justin Constantine ('92) and his wife, Dahlia, work to help other veterans successfully reintegrate into American society.

May 2011: In addition to being published here, Justin Constantine's ('92) story appears in the Spring/Summer 2011 edition of "Madison" magazine. The magazine staff recently received this update from Constantine: "I am doing some pretty cool things these days for wounded warriors. I have been involved with a number of events with the Wounded Warrior Project, and on June 4 some friends of mine from JMU are hosting a charity poker tournament raising money for the WWP and our T-Shirts For Troops Campaign. Also, I met with the leadership from the Baltimore Grand Prix, and they asked me to be on their board of advisers of their nonprofit component for their big race over Labor Day Weekend. It is a three-day event, and Friday (the first day) is going to be Armed Forces Day. One of the guys in the room was a JMU grad from 2007 (a golf team member), so I told him to keep an eye out for "Madison" magazine! I am now on a Congressionally-mandated Task Force for Wounded Warriors which will go on for four years, and it is great to have the opportunity to be part of the solution. So, I am stoked to be involved in all of this stuff!

A single pull of a sniper's trigger changed Major Justin Constantine ('92), U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, forever. On Oct. 18, 2006, six weeks after being deployed to Iraq, he was shot.

Many of his memories about his injury are still blurry. He knows the bullet entered behind his left ear and exited from his mouth, causing catastrophic damage. He knows he is alive because of a Navy corpsman who saved his life by providing rescue breathing and by performing an emergency tracheotomy while under enemy fire.

During the first month of his recuperation period at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Constantine's head and throat were so swollen that he had to communicate by writing. He remembers writing a note to his girlfriend Dahlia, "Hey, we're in Germany. We've never been here together, we should go out and do something," oblivious to the severity of his injuries.

Gradually, he began to realize the serious nature of his wounds as he noticed the extent to which medical personnel, his mother and Dahlia went to ensure he did not see his reflection in mirrors and windows. They taped get-well cards over reflective surfaces.

Constantine's actions since his injury embody the philosophy of the ancient Chinese proverb: "Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." The light burns brightly in the soul of this American hero.

Since returning to the states, Constantine has dedicated his professional life to helping wounded veterans as they return home. "Unfortunately, it seemed like many wounded warriors have had some bad stories about their care. Although I received some amazing care along the way, I also was very frustrated at certain points."

The damage caused to his face brought many inquiring stares from onlookers. He and Dahlia, now his wife, discussed the matter. As a way to help answer unasked questions, he designed a T-shirt with the phrase "Iraq and Back."

When he wore his T-shirt, people began approaching him and asking about his experiences. Constantine realized he had created an opportunity for Americans to express their gratitude for the sacrifices made by the members of the armed forces. Now, several different versions of the shirt are available at Constantine's website www.iraqandback.com. After every T-shirt is purchased, a donation is sent to one of four designated charities that support American troops and veterans. The website also features information and resources for those preparing for an overseas deployment.

Constantine is still recovering. He has more planned surgeries. Recovery after such an injury is a piecemeal process — one that has come with upsides he says. "I married an amazing woman, have met tons of great people, and I am doing a lot for Wounded Warriors that I wouldn't have been doing otherwise. I have also started two businesses, both related to my injury and both to help other veterans."

Today, Constantine works with the FBI in the National Security Law Branch. Prior to joining the FBI, he served as a lawyer and counsel for the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. His journey to his current post has been filled with both hard times and triumphs. Through the trials of his "Iraq and back" experience, this Marine has emerged stronger and determined to help others do the same.

Update Nov. 8, 2010: Constantine's injury earned him the Purple Heart, and his story has another "Purple" connection. Proving that it's a small world when you're a Duke, the JMU Web office received this note:
Hello! I am so excited, I couldn't help but e-mail you all. I am the Navy Nurse on the upper right-hand corner of the banner on the [JMU] website right now in my whites. My name is Rachel Engler, class of 2005 School of Nursing, and Major Justin Constantine ('92) was one of my patients! I had NO idea he had gone to my alma mater when I took care of him at the National Naval Medical Center years ago! His wife Dahlia is such a doll, she stood by his side every moment, and he was a delight to have as a patient. Thank you all for making my day! What a small world it is. Sincerely, Lt. Rachel Engler

Learn more about Justin Constantine ('92) and learn more about his work to support veterans at www.iraqandback.com.

About the author
Capt. Jeffrey Cretz ('03) says he grew up wanting to make a difference in the world. The son of a diplomat for the Department of State, Cretz grew up in Pakistan, Syria, India, Israel, China and Egypt. His interest in the military was sparked while spending time around U.S. Marines at various Marine Security Guard Detachments. Read his story on Operation Purple Pride.