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A veteran marks the anniversary of surviving a brush with death with his 'Alive Day'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Veterans who survive a brush with death sometimes mark the anniversary. They call it their Alive Day. Jay price of WUNC has the story of one such day.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: I met Justin Constantine on the morning of October 18, 2006. This would be our shared Alive Day, but we didn't know it then. Justin was a major in the Marine Reserves. In civilian life, he was a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security. But in Iraq, the stated mission of his job was to improve Iraqi lives - a role he later described in speeches like this one to the Marines Memorial Association.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN CONSTANTINE: As a civil affairs officer, I was expected to give out contracts to the local Iraqi leadership to help rebuild the destroyed infrastructure necessary for any functioning city.

PRICE: Things like water plants, the electrical grid, schools - winning hearts and minds, as they say. That morning, our convoy of five Humvees was taking him to a meeting with local leaders. Several of us have slightly different versions of this part of the story, but I'll let Justin tell his. He earned that. And you've probably already noticed his speech impediment. He earned that too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONSTANTINE: We got to an area where we knew an enemy sniper was operating because he had already killed a few of our Marines. We had a reporter with us that day, and I guess I noticed that there were four civilians just kind of standing around and not moving, which, of course, is a terrible idea if a sniper may be targeting you. So we got out of the vehicle at our next stop. I said to him, Jay, you need to move quicker here. Don't forget about that sniper. We don't want something to happen to you.

PRICE: The reporter he's talking about? That was me. And I took his advice. I was practically jogging. Then I heard the crack of a rifle shot behind us. The bullet entered just behind Justin's left ear and did terrible damage to his lower face as it exited, taking out nearly all his teeth and the tip of his tongue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONSTANTINE: In fact, the Marines around me thought I'd been killed. And when the Navy corpsman came running over, they said, don't worry about the major. He's dead.

PRICE: The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Todd Desgrosseilliers, dashed back and shielded Justin with his own body.

TODD DESGROSSEILLIERS: I wanted to make sure he was still alive. And when I got to him, I grabbed him by his neck, and I felt for a pulse.

PRICE: And found one. So October 18 became Alive Day for Justin - and for me too, in a way, because Justin saved my life and took a bullet that could've been mine. But now it's just my Alive Day. Justin died last year of prostate cancer. He was 52 years old.

There's a lot more to tell about the day Justin was shot - how Desgrosseilliers and the Navy corpsman got Justin breathing again and how we drove at breakneck pace back to a field hospital where Justin was stabilized. But what I really need to get at is what Justin did with that terrible wound because it immediately became a tool - his superpower for an extraordinary second act.

DAHLIA CONSTANTINE: Justin, from the first moments in the hospital where he was able to move around, when they'd come in and say, hey, there's this younger kid who's injured. He's really struggling. He doesn't want to eat.

PRICE: This is Dahlia Constantine, his girlfriend when he was wounded and later his wife.

CONSTANTINE: Justin would go over to their room, all bandaged up with his own injury, and talk to them and sit with them and say, hey, look, I'm going through this. And they could see, 'cause Justin's injury was so visual. And he would be able to have an impact.

PRICE: In some ways, Justin never recovered. He had PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. He had dozens of operations and would've had more if he'd lived. And yet, just listen to a few of the things he did - graduated at the top of his class at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, earned an advanced law degree, founded a nonprofit, wrote two books and was constantly in demand as a motivational speaker. But his main focus was helping veterans, and he went about it systematically.

CONSTANTINE: He wanted to work at it at the policy level. He wanted to work on it in the nonprofit world.

PRICE: And, his wife said, he also wanted to do it at a personal level - helping people who just contacted him out of the blue after he became a kind of icon in the veteran community. Jack Fanous hired Justin to work at JobPaths (ph), a tech company that helps veterans transition to civilian life. On business trips, Fanous would drive as Justin spent hours on the phone, working down his long list of those seeking help - a list that the Constantines called his caseload - an Army veteran with a job problem, a Marine going through a divorce.

JACK FANOUS: There was one story, I remember, of a soldier who was having a tough time with his daughter's health care and couldn't get through to doctors, and Justin had some relationships at a hospital that these people were looking for services at. He made a couple phone calls and opened a couple of doors for them to get the help that they needed. And, you know, he didn't know who they were.

PRICE: Justin was lauded for his work by President Barack Obama and even became one of the veterans President George W. Bush painted for his book, "Portraits Of Courage." The recognition became just more leverage to help people. That's also how he viewed the damage to his face.

CONSTANTINE: It set him apart because his injury was so severely obvious. It gave him this, like, street cred, for lack of a better word. Several people did say to Justin, if that had happened to me, I would've just stayed in the house. But good luck trying to keep Justin in the house. I mean, even when he was diagnosed with cancer, he was out there talking about it, putting videos about his workouts, about being healthy and trying to motivate other people.

PRICE: And that's the man I wanted to tell you about - the man who survived that hard day in 2006 and saved my life. Justin Constantine didn't get a third act, but he did plenty with his second one.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHANTI SONG, "FALLING FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.