Family and friends saw the grimace on David Borden’s face when they visited him at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Not a single one would have blinked if the captain in the United States Marines Corps chose to return to civilian life. Knowing all he had endured, including more than 40 operations and endless hours of physical therapy, he couldn’t have been blamed for pursuing another path.
But Borden wouldn’t let outside circumstances get in his way. Despite near-fatal injuries from a suicide bomber attack during his deployment in Ramadi, Iraq, Borden was determined to remain in active duty. Nothing he faced would prevent him from serving his country.
He was in for the fight of his life, but like times before, he would persevere. For his fighting spirit, Borden will be honored Jan. 18 with the NCAA Inspiration Award as part of the annual NCAA Honors Celebration.
Journey to serve
Borden did not take a direct path into the military. Instead, after graduating from high school in 1999, he took the student route and headed to college. Kutztown University of Pennsylvania offered him a football scholarship, which gave Borden the best of both worlds – the academic programs he was looking for and the chance to play football.
On the field, Borden excelled as a leader and a player. His coach, Dave Keeny, recalls a bright young man with a serious sense of purpose. He also remembers someone who persevered.
“David was conscientious perfectionist,” Kenny said. “He was lightly recruited out of school, but he came in and through his work ethic, made himself into a good receiver. He developed himself beyond what he thought he could be.”
Whatever Borden lacked in raw talent he made up for with work, determination and drive. By the end of his career at Kutztown, he turned 45 receptions into 617 yards and six touchdowns.
Off the field, Borden also shined. He pursued a double major in finance and marketing, with the hopes of one day starting his own business. After graduation in 2003, Borden landed a job at Cintas in the company’s management training program, where he learned the basics working with people and managing a team.
While the position showed promise, another dream tugged at Borden.
“I had good career options at that time, but I did not want to live a life with regret,” he said. “So I followed my heart to be a Marine infantry officer and serve my country.”
In January 2006, with the full support of his family and friends, Borden embarked on his military career. He entered the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., where upon graduation he became a second lieutenant. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C., as a rifle platoon commander in charge of about 40 young Marines.
For him, the assignment was rewarding.
“To command a platoon is a great honor,” said Borden. “It doesn’t get any better than that. There are 40 to 55 guys under your command, and you are with them night and day. You know them inside and out.”
After completing six months of training, Borden and his platoon were ready for deployment to Ramadi, Iraq. Despite being physically and mentally prepared, he was still emotionally overwhelmed.
“Any time someone deploys, there’s a significant amount of emotion,” said Borden. “It’s knowing the things that can happen to you, the uncertainty of a combative, foreign area and being away from family and friends.”
Borden and his unit landed in Ramadi in September 2007. Their assignment was to increase security and safety in the area. Most days consisted of combat patrol, working with leaders from the cities and towns to help grow and establish safety. But few days were ordinary.
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008, was far from ordinary.
There had been incidents of small-arms fire throughout the day, so Borden and his platoon investigated. Upon reaching the area, a suicide bomb detonated and struck the unit. The blast killed one fellow Marine and injured three others, including Borden. Shortly after the attack, Borden was flown to a medical facility in Germany. That’s the last thing he remembers.
But Borden’s parents, Tina and David Borden Sr., remember the day vividly. His dad had flown to Phoenix for a golf outing; he had exchanged emails with his son that very morning at the airport. His mom was at home and was the first to receive the news.
Details of his injuries were not disclosed over the phone, but Tina and David were told that their son would be flown to the States as soon as possible. Their plan was to meet him at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, but that all changed on Monday at 4 a.m. when they got a call: “You need to get over here.”
When Tina and David arrived at their son’s bedside in Germany, they grasped how grim his condition was. Borden lay in a hospital bed, unresponsive and in a coma. He had a broken right forearm, a shattered left forearm, a broken right femur, a collapsed lung and a ruptured bladder. He also had lost his right foot in the blast. The doctors estimated that 150 to 200 ball bearings were embedded in his body.
After several days in Germany, Borden miraculously stabilized enough to make the trip to Walter Reed. Knowing Borden would need short-term assistance and care throughout the healing process, his mother and father temporarily relocated to Bethesda.
Borden’s recovery would be long and painful. He remained in intensive care for weeks, and several times doctors feared they would lose him.
“There were days that were just horrendous,” said David Sr. “You wonder, when is this ever going to end?”
At last, there was progress. Three weeks after the attack, Borden woke up and muttered his first words. The one thing he made clear: He wanted to serve his country and eventually be deployed again.
“I knew as soon as woke up that I was going to stay in active duty,” said Borden. “I love being a Marine. I love taking care of Marines. I love leading Marines. That’s all I wanted to do.”
A second journey to serve
The road back to active duty was not easy. Borden endured more than 40 operations, fought infection and would eventually lost his right leg above the knee. He now wears a prosthetic leg.
Knowing his goal was to redeploy, the doctors and therapists at Walter Reed established an intense rehabilitation program. Ultimately, he had to relearn physical tasks all over again: how to sit up, get out of bed, stand up and eventually walk.
“He always operated on never wanting to fail,” his father said. “I don’t think he ever had the perception of himself being any better – smarter, faster, stronger – but because of that drive, he knew he had to work harder than anyone.”
Borden’s drive, his refusal to fail and his desire to serve would carry him through.
Nearly two years after facing death, Borden was both physically and mentally strong enough to serve. That’s when Col. Eric Smith heard of his story through another Marine undergoing treatment at Walter Reed.
“I heard he was trying to get back to the fight, and that he was tough as woodpecker lips and he wanted to go Afghanistan,” Smith said.
Borden and Smith were introduced in the summer of 2010, and the minute they locked eyes, Smith knew Borden was the real deal. The fact that he had endured so much physical and mental anguish, yet wanted to stay in the military, was reason enough for Smith to enlist him again. He knew this guy had guts and heart.
With that, Borden was assigned to work under Smith and deploy to Afghanistan. His duty was to serve as a commanding officer, where he would lead 370 Marines and sailors, focusing largely on their security and welfare.
On Jan. 19, 2011, exactly three years to the day of the attack that nearly killed him, Borden landed in Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment. That year would test the limits of Borden’s desire to serve.
Each day in Afghanistan, Borden got up and put on his prosthetic leg. Some days the stub on his right leg would be rubbed raw; other days it was infected. The pain he faced from a physically demanding schedule did not matter; he always pulled the prosthetic leg on without question. Most days he was out on lengthy foot patrol, crossing through taxing terrain, working outside the wire and facing men with machine guns pointed right at him and members of his unit.
“He never flinched,” said Smith. “He just did a phenomenal job, with or without any injury.”
His unparalleled performance was also reflected in his leadership.
“He is a real hands-on kind of guy,” Smith said. “He gets to know every one of his Marines, their family, their story. He leads from the front and doesn’t ask you to do anything he can’t. He brings a lot of calm.”
Smith also describes Borden as a commanding officer everyone wants to please. He is an inspirational leader that the Marines try to emulate.
That year in Afghanistan confirmed for Borden what he already knew. He wanted to serve his country.
“I have a genuine love for taking care of Marines, for leading Marines. I love defending the Constitution of the United States and our way of life,” said Borden. “You can’t really put into words what that is. There are always sacrifices, but it has to be done.”
For him, there was no question that being a Marine was the right choice.
Today, Borden is attending military career school and awaiting his next deployment. He has adapted to life with a prosthetic leg and believes his new perspective has helped him appreciate things more. In addition to his military accomplishments, he has gone snow skiing, completed the Army Ten Miler and climbed over 15,000 feet up Mount McKinley.
Now, as Borden puts on his prosthetic leg, he knows it enables him to serve his country, honor those who have fallen and inspire other Marines.
Borden says he detests the term “hero,” but most people who hear his story say it’s hard not to describe him that way.
At the NCAA Honors Celebration in January, Borden certainly will be treated like one.