NAUGATUCK — As the sun rose March 29 over the Helmand province in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Roger Rua experienced the rudest of awakenings.
The 22-year-old borough native had been asleep in a stationary truck with two fellow Marines when they were given orders to move. The motion woke Rua just before they discovered they had been parked all night next to an improvised explosive device.
“As soon as I sat up in the truck, that was when we hit it,” Rua said. “I didn’t really have any time to react or think about it.”
The truck rolled over, ending up on its side. Rua broke four vertebrae in his neck and back, his sternum and his right leg.
Four months and four surgeries later, Rua is able to walk with a cane but does not know if he will fully recover. The incident and subsequent surgeries caused extensive nerve and muscle damage, and his weak legs have trouble holding his body up. On a bad day or if he gets sick, Rua might be confined to a wheelchair, he said.
“You never know how much you’re going to get back, or not get back,” Rua said.
Family and friends are hosting a fundraiser for Rua at the Waterbury Portuguese Sport Club, 1966 Baldwin St., on Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. The military pays his medical bills, but the money is needed to make Rua’s house and car handicap accessible if need be, said his 30-year-old brother, Cesar Rua, who lives on Maple Hill Road. Most of the 500 tickets to attend the event have been sold, Cesar Rua said.
Of the three in the truck that March day, Roger Rua fared the best. A close friend of his, Cpl. Michael J. Palacio of California, died in the blast at age 23. Another friend, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Stephenson of Texas, was more severely injured, Rua said.
Rua remembers a loud noise, then extreme quiet. He said he felt no pain, but quickly realized he had a back injury.
“As soon as I tried to move my arms, they kind of just fell like they were Jell-O,” Rua said. “They fell into my lap.”
Marines from a nearby truck came running over to help. Rua could not see Palacio, but had a feeling his friend was dead.
“I was expecting the worst,” Rua said. “I was more worried about him, so I told the guys that arrived on scene to go check him out before me.”
Rua overheard conversations from outside the truck that confirmed his prediction. At the time, so much was happening that Rua said he did not have time to process the news. He slipped in and out of consciousness as he was loaded onto a stretcher, and woke up in a hospital in Germany.
As the months pass, Rua said he thinks of Palacio all the time.
“I’m dealing with it fine,” Rua said. “It’s still hard.”
The blast was the second in two months for Rua, who was in a truck that hit an IED on Feb. 12. That explosion was smaller and no one was injured, Rua said.
Rua now does three to five hours of physical therapy every day at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston and spends the weekends at his parents’ Field Street house, where he grew up.
“It’s hard, because ever since I can remember, I was very independent,” Rua said. “I was able to do everything on my own, and now there are certain situations where you’re waiting on someone and depending on someone.”
Rua said he is trying to remain optimistic, and his brother said he is succeeding.
“Thankfully, he’s the same old Roger that we knew,” Cesar Rua said. “He never complains about it, which is pretty remarkable, considering I’d complain about it all the time.”
Rua graduated in 2008 from Naugatuck High School and began studying criminal justice at Western Connecticut State University before he enlisted. He had been in Afghanistan since last November, his first deployment. Now he is being discharged from the military and said he plans to finish his degree, find his own home and move on.
“I’ve been so grateful for all the support and everyone being there for me during the hardest part of my life,” Rua said.
The cost of the benefit lunch is $25 for food and a raffle. A cash bar will also be available. For reservations or more information, call Cesar Rua at (203) 232-4524, Antonio Carpinteiro at (203) 217-8772 or Royal Club restaurant at (203) 537-0818.