(Editor’s Note: This week, in honor of Veteran’s Day, we reach back into our archives for a 2011 story on the beginning of the Cape Hatteras Wounded Warrior Vacation Project, which is still going strong on Hatteras Island.)
At just 22 years of age, Lance Cpl. Aaron “Danny” Ruck has been through—and survived—more than most people will experience in a lifetime. But, early this month, the Cape Hatteras Wounded Warriors Vacation Project had the honor of helping Ruck and his family do something they had never done before — vacation on Hatteras Island.
The Rucks—Danny, his wife Megan, and their two young children, Austin, 4, and Kaylee, 6 months—were the first of several families that will be invited to stay on Hatteras as part of the project, and they arrived on Hatteras Saturday, June 4, for a week of hard-earned and much-deserved repose.
One of the main goals of the project is to provide the Purple Heart recipients of the Camp Lejeune area with a quality vacation, and they didn’t disappoint.
The Hatteras Island community rolled out the red carpet, and the Wounded Warrior Vacation Project was able to provide the Rucks with a rental cottage on a canal in Brigand’s Bay, a bevy of gift certificates to local grocery stores, restaurants, and shops, as well as a host of unique recreational opportunities.
The Rucks experienced Hatteras Island by land, air, sea, and with their taste buds, and while there may be room for debate on just how relaxing their jam-packed vacation was, one thing is certain — few families could have been more deserving of the experience or more grateful for it than the Rucks.
Danny joined the Marines right after he graduated from New Richmond High School near Cincinnati in Ohio. Following boot camp, he was sent to Camp Lejeune to serve with the 3/8 Weapons Company, CAAT Platoon. And in the final months of 2008, he was deployed to a remote region in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, where his company worked to secure a stretch of highway that had been used to smuggle weapons into Iran.
In January of 2009, Danny was nearing the three-month mark of his deployment. He was out on an assignment late one night when his convoy, the last in a line of armored trucks, hit an improvised explosive device.
The explosion left him with shrapnel in both his knees, his right forearm, and his right eye, second degree burns on the left side of his body, a permanent break in his lower back, and scarring in his brain that has resulted in problems with his equilibrium and short-term memory.
He was awarded a Purple Heart for his service.
Following the accident, Ruck was taken to Camp Bastion, a NATO base in Afghanistan, where he spent about a month-and-a-half receiving treatment for his wounds.
That’s when he reached out to Megan.
Danny had known Megan all his life. She had quite literally been the girl next door, growing up just one house away from Danny on the same side of the street in their Richmond neighborhood.
Though she was a few years his senior, Megan and Danny attended the same high school, but over the years, they had lost touch. Megan had gone to college at the University of Cincinnati and was working as an EMT. Danny, of course, had graduated and joined the Marines.
But, during his recovery, Danny took advantage of Camp Bastion’s reliable Internet access (It is located in a much less remote area of Afghanistan.), found Megan on Facebook, and struck up a conversation.
Megan responded, and the two began a friendly correspondence. It developed into a relationship that Megan had not anticipated.
“At first, we were just talking,” she said. “I never imagined it would lead to something romantic.”
But that’s exactly where it led. Physically, they were farther apart than they had ever been in their lives, but emotionally, they had never been closer.
“She was just so easy to talk to,” Danny said with a smile.
After he had sufficiently recovered, Danny was sent back to the village where his company was stationed.
“It was hard,” Megan stated, simply.
First, there was the limited access. Danny had a very small amount of time that he was allowed to spend talking to Megan—when he was even able to get Internet service.
“There were times that I would get scared,” Megan said, “because I wouldn’t hear from him for a couple of days.”
Then, there was the time difference. Megan and Danny would take turns waking up in the middle of the night to talk to each other.
In the end, their efforts paid off. They were married in September of 2009, and Megan and her son Austin moved to North Carolina in October.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t exactly been “happily ever after” for the Rucks.
Last year, Danny’s mother fell ill and passed away. He had received temporary orders to care for her, so he and a then-pregnant Megan had gone to Ohio. While they were there, shortly after his mother’s death, Megan was admitted to the hospital for complications with her pregnancy. Doctors feared that Kaylee would be born prematurely, and Megan was put on bed-rest for the remainder of her pregnancy.
Megan had been down that road before. Austin had been born at just 29 weeks and, as a result, has struggled with health concerns throughout his life. She wasn’t taking any chances, which meant that the Rucks had to stay in Ohio.
Luckily, Danny was able to get his orders extended so that he could care for Megan, and she was able to carry Kaylee to full-term.
Then came the next round of bad news: Kaylee developed pyloric stenosis, a gastrointestinal disorder that causes a narrowing of the lower part of the stomach, through which food passes into the small intestine.
It’s a fairly common disorder, but one that requires immediate treatment. Kaylee underwent surgery to fix the disorder, and is now healthy and happy.
And the Rucks are finally enjoying some peace and quiet.
“We’re still making up for lost time,” Megan said.
“The last couple of months have been slow,” Danny added. “It’s been nice.”
Danny is back at Camp Lejeune, where he is part of the Wounded Warriors Battalion-East. He is still on active duty, but, because of the extent of his injuries, he is in the process of transitioning into civilian life.
He spends several hours a week in therapy for his back and his brain injuries, which helps him cope with the pain.
“Therapy helps alleviate the pain,” he said, “but it’s something that’s kind of always going to be there.”
He is also going to school, and will have his associate’s degree in criminal justice by the first of the year.
Megan is taking care of Austin and Kaylee, and, though she is currently not working as an EMT, she is taking a phlebotomy class, just to keep her mind sharp.
The family is planning to move back to Richmond—where their families still live on the same street—as soon as Danny’s service is complete.
Considering the tumult of their past couple of years, it’s probably no surprise that the Rucks were so excited about their trip to Hatteras. Megan says she thinks that it’s part of the reason they were selected for the trip.
“They know we’ve been through a lot,” she said.
And they didn’t waste a minute of their time here.
Danny and Austin spent a lot of time fishing. They fished from the dock of their rental cottage, where Austin caught his first fish, they went crabbing with John McGee, and they fished from the banks of Kevin McCabe’s backyard pond.
Danny also had the opportunity to go cobia fishing with Capt. Rick Caton aboard the Free Agent. Danny caught three cobias, one of which weighed 40 pounds, big enough for a citation.
They also went flying with Burrus Flying Service, climbed the lighthouse (and received a pass from the National Park Service that’s good at any national park), rode horses along the shore at Ramp 55, and, of course, drove out to the beach—on one of the clearest, calmest, most beautiful days McCabe said he’s ever seen.
The Rucks were just as grateful as they were enthusiastic.
“They told us there would be some donations,” Danny said, “but we never expected this!”
It was a sentiment that Megan echoed: “What these people did is above and beyond anything we expected…I don’t think we’ve ever experienced this much appreciation.”
She added that, while they were thankful to be able to take a vacation, she was most excited for Austin.
“I mean, catching his first fish, horseback riding on the beach…This is stuff he’s never going to forget.”
On their last evening on the island, the Rucks sat around the dinner table, eating and talking with John McGee and Kevin McCabe, organizers of the Cape Hatteras Wounded Warrior Project, and some of the program’s supporters who had made their trip possible. There was an air of mutual respect and gratitude—to Danny and his family for their courage and service, and to the Hatteras Island community, for their generosity and appreciation.
The last thing Danny said to McCabe was, “We’ll probably see you all again in August.”