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Afghan bomb cost Marine his legs, but not his spirit

Mark Zambon has climbed mountains, raced cars, gotten married – and is determined to stay in the Corps as an explosive ordnance disposal technician

April 09, 2013|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Zambon runs on carbon fiber prosthetics at Naval Medical Center San Diego. He was injured in an explosion in Afghanistan. He is determined to stay with the Marines as an emergency ordnance disposal technician, this time as an instructor.
Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Zambon runs on carbon fiber prosthetics at Naval… (Los Angeles Times, Don Bartletti )

SAN DIEGO — Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Zambon was in Afghanistan, on his fourth combat deployment as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, when he took a step and heard the ominous click.

"I remember flying through the air and coming down on my shoulder," he said. "My eyes were shut, and the radio was blaring that I needed medevac."

His legs were severed above his knees. His arm was shattered.

Two years have passed since that day in Helmand province when Zambon became a victim of a buried bomb. In describing the incident, he's matter-of-fact.

"I got blown up," he said.

He had been injured before and, as an EOD, he lived with the possibility of catastrophic injury. "I always said that if it does happen, I'm not going to pity myself," he said.

He is determined not to let his injuries crush his zest for life or end his career with an elite unit assigned to find and defuse the buried bombs that are the weapon of choice of the Taliban and other U.S. enemies.

On prosthetic limbs, Zambon climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. He carried the dog tags of two other Marines from explosive ordnance disposal: Sgt. Mike Tayaotao, killed in Iraq in 2007, and Staff Sgt. Josh Cullins, a reservist and Los Angeles police officer, killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

He paid tribute to the two by burying their dog tags atop the tallest mountain in Africa and then doing a headstand. "We have to live life fully — because that's what they would want us to do," he said.

Zambon was a navigator in the 5,000-mile Dakar Rally off-road race in South America, part of a British-organized Race2Recovery team for injured troops. On the team was Cpl. Tim Read, an infantry Marine who lost a leg in Afghanistan and, like Zambon, was part of the Wounded Warrior Battalion at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.

Zambon is also active in the Los Angeles-based Heroes Project, which helps injured service personnel by taking them mountain climbing, including to Mt. Baldy, east of Los Angeles. On the Mt. Baldy trip: a warrior who lost three limbs in combat.

"Mountain climbing is the perfect thing for guys like us; it's a total regaining of ability," Zambon said.

At the Wounded Warrior Battalion, Zambon has "distinguished himself with his drive to excel" and get back to ordnance disposal, said Shawn Cheney, deputy officer in charge of the battalion's western detachment at the San Diego hospital.

Zambon has never wavered, Cheney said, in his goal: "returning to duty."

Now 28 and recently remarried, Zambon has refused to seek a medical retirement and disability status. He's taking an eight-week course at Camp Pendleton to be eligible for possible promotion to gunnery sergeant.

Once finished, his next goal is to be an instructor at the EOD school at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Although there are other instructors who have been injured in combat, Zambon would be the first who is a double amputee.

"I've learned a lot of lessons that I think I can pass on — lessons I learned the hard way," Zambon said.

He and his wife, Marta, who emigrated from the Czech Republic, are buying a house just minutes away from the base. Once Marine brass signs off on his assignment, as expected, the Zambons and their three cats will make the trek from San Diego to the Gulf Coast.

As a kid growing up in Marquette on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Zambon loved to go hunting with his dad and particularly enjoyed mixing his own gunpowder. "I loved explosions," he said.

When he left for Marine boot camp, days after graduating from high school in 2003, his goal was to join emergency ordnance disposal. But the rules do not allow very junior Marines to join, so he was a supply clerk during his first two deployments to Iraq.

After finishing the course at Eglin in 2006, Zambon redeployed to Iraq. He lost parts of his thumb and parts of two fingers to an explosion.

And in January 2011, on his third deployment to Afghanistan, he stepped on that buried pressure-plate bomb. Within days he was airlifted to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Zambon had been assigned to the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment. During that deployment the battalion suffered 25 dead and more than 200 wounded, more casualties than any Marine battalion in Afghanistan.

Of seven EOD team leaders, all were either killed or severely injured, Zambon said.

Zambon has not seen "The Hurt Locker," which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2010 with its portrayal of an Army explosive ordnance disposal team in Iraq. "If I want to relive combat, I've got my own films," Zambon said lightly. "I don't have to watch a movie."

He agrees with one theme of the movie — that there is unmatched exhilaration and satisfaction for the bomb defusers but considerable stress for family members back home. The joke among Marines, Zambon said, is that EOD stands for Every One is Divorced.

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