In July 2012, Master Sgt. Cedric King was on a reconnaissance mission in an explosives factory in Afghanistan when enemy bullets started flying.
While he was trying to get his soldiers to safety, King stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED, that shot him into the air. Blood formed under him, and his legs were mangled.
His troop put him in a helicopter that would take him to the nearest field hospital. Medical staff put an oxygen mask on him and sedated him. He can’t remember anything that happened after that.
Eight days later, he woke up in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Both his legs had been amputated. He also lost part of his right forearm and a finger.
Hundreds of Key Biscayne residents gathered in front of a stage on the Village Green to hear King share his story on Sunday.
“The way I see it now, it was no more than just a bad day at work,” said King, 37.
He was one of the keynote speakers at a Veterans Day event organized by iPads for Soldiers, a nonprofit organization that donates iPads to U.S. soldiers who are serving in Afghanistan or are wounded in military hospitals.
Winnie Pritchett and Amy Zambrano, both Key Biscayne residents, founded the organization when Pritchett’s son was deployed to Afghanistan and they realized how limited soldiers were in their means to contact loved ones.
“We wanted to give soldiers something that would make deployment easier,” Pritchett said. “It’s a gift of love and appreciation.”
Wesley Pritchett, an Army commander stationed in Hawaii, had just graduated from West Point when he was sent on his first combat mission. He flew a helicopter that was supporting a ground unit undergoing a major operation.
He landed the helicopter at an arming and refueling station and saw body bags containing the bodies of American soldiers being loaded on the helicopter. He later helped unload the bodies.
“That was my ‘Welcome to war’ moment,” he said. “Coming from Key Biscayne, it was not something I was prepared for.”
Pritchett spent the day on the Village Green with King and his family. People shook his hand and thanked him for his service. He said engagement and bringing “the human side” of the military to the community is important.
“The American people are the reason why we do what we do,” he said.
The event featured performances by local dance and singing groups, a display of military vehicles, an obstacle course, a bounce house and a variety of tents selling goods and food sponsored by local businesses.All funds raised from sales go toward purchasing iPads for soldiers.
Isabella Peña, the young girl who sang the national anthem at a Miami Heat game in October, sang the national anthem before a mile-long walk around the Village Green.
On prosthetic legs, King led the with hundreds of people behind him. Kids swarmed around him, giving him high-fives, talking to him about their sports teams and asking to take photos with him. The residents — some of them veterans themselves — shook his hand and thanked him for his service.
“When you see people just want to shake your hand and show gratitude, it’s a gift,” he said.
King spent months in a hospital bed without being able to do anything on his own. He said the iPad that was donated to him was instrumental in his rehabilitation. From his hospital bed, he started watching videos of wounded soldiers doing extraordinary things — running marathons, swimming, sky diving. Sulking and complaining was not helping him. He wanted to do better.
“It was one of those moments where you have to make a decision about what you want your life to be,” he said. “Yes, my legs are gone. Yes, part of my arm is gone. But I wasn’t going to quit living and trying.”
Since then, King has remained physically active. He exercises, swims and participates in marathons and triathlons. Last Sunday, King participated in the New York City Marathon. By the 16-mile mark, his legs hurt so badly he thought he would not be able to finish the race, but he did.
“I’ve had the unique experience of having my legs blown off,” he said. “That makes you transcend possibilities you never thought were possible before.”
King struggles with his body image, but he thanks his wife, Khieda, and two daughters for keeping him grounded.
“I’m still not comfortable with the way I look. Sometimes I don’t like what I see in the mirror,” he said. “But my wife says she loves me with or without legs and my daughters always want me to play with them. They’ve shown me what true love is.”
King is now a motivational speaker. He's still living in Bethesda and travels the United States sharing his story in hopes of helping others.
“We think limitations are outside of us, but really they’re on the inside,” he said. “Life opens up when you feel the possibilities inside of you. ”
For more information on iPads for Soldiers, visit ipadsforsoldiers.org.