Some days the pain is so severe that thoughts of amputation are more a reality than a distant guilty pleasure. The nerves are severed, shooting lost signals to one another and causing Keith Zeier to live his life, inevitably forever, in inconceivable throbbing misery.
He was officially retired from the United States Marines in May 2008 and life as a civilian hasn't been much easier, at least he hasn't made it that way with running ridiculous races and then suffering physically due to a number of complications.
He's going to school now, taking classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College to be a nurse. He worked for a short while as an EMT, but ultimately his dream job – his second after being a soldier – is to land a spot as an FDNY firefighter.
He took the physical and medical exams shortly after recuperating from his injuries, but it'll be some time before New York City hires another class of firemen because of budget issues that seem to be plaguing every government agency in the country.
There's no surprise why Zeier would turn his new focus to the FDNY, a familiar calling of brotherhood that he's more than used to. Then there's the added element of honoring John Crisci, along with his son Mike, who also took the tests and is anxious to follow in his father's footsteps.
"I like the fact that with a small group of guys you're on a team," Zeier said. "It's not different than being on a recon unit. You have people willing to lay it on the line for you and you're there doing the same."
"To be able to do something more for somebody else is an amazing thing," said Crisci. "What firefighters do is put everyone else ahead of them. I'll put myself in danger to help someone else out and so will he."
When he's not reading non-fiction historical books about war and tactics, Zeier, who comes from half Irish and half German family origins, finds himself hiking, surfing, or using whatever method in his power to shoot his adrenaline lines through the roof. Not an easy task when you've been through a war zone and lived to tell the stories.
He lives in Brooklyn now and only gets back to Holbrook every so often where he sees his mother Denise, who was diagnosed with breast cancer not long after he returned from Iraq. She's doing fine now, and can't escape the thoughts about her son, his leg, or his pain.
His leg's anguish is anything but ephemeral. No concoction of pain medication can cure his needs; he's become inured to the consistent throb of physical hardship. The word amputate cannot be taken lightly, not even for people as mentally strong as Zeier, who is almost certain he'll go through with it very soon.
"The only reason I want to keep it on is because of the fire department," he said candidly. "I have no feeling from the knee to the hip on my left leg. Every nerve was ripped out. It feels like it's on fire. It's triggering, but will never touch. Amputation is an option."
He goes sleepless for days and has been subjected to nerve blockers, acupuncture and trigger point injections, but nothing helps.
"I'd lose my leg in a second, I'll suck it up at this point," he said. "Right now I have to look for new ways to treat the pain."
His family hasn't pushed hard against it, but they are presenting him with realizations that losing his leg is a final end route that would kill his dreams of being a firefighter, as well as hurt his quality of life, possibly even more.
"He is seriously looking into it and considering it," Denise said. "He has to come to terms with it and living on narcotics, a lot is going on with his health."
"For him to talk about something like that, you have to understand how much pain he's in," Crisci added. "It is that serious. You could always get your leg chopped off, but can't put it back on again. I try to lift his spirits a little bit more. It's horrible for him. I try to talk him out of it, but at the same time it's understandable."
His brother Craig, who works as a physical therapist, said he'd be there to support him throughout the process, but feels more comfortable looking into as many alternative options as possible.
"That could be used as a last resort," he said. "It's a permanent thing. There could be phantom pain, a whole new set of pain. I'd like to see him try a few other methods of pain management. The extent of the damage to his leg, most people wouldn't be able to walk or run."
Hair with his trademark spikes, tattoos peaking underneath his tee shirt, Zeier's quiet tone and stoic stare as cars zoom by on Main Street in Holbrook show signs of a relaxed man. Every so often he squints in pain, but it's a slight twitch that you'd only know reflected pain if you understood his story.
Inked on the back of his arm, amidst an upper body plastered with meaningful tattoos reads the word "Perseverance." It fits. Zeier's fortitude would rival that of any man or woman who has been battered, (removed "and" and added a coma) beaten to a pulp and risen to walk another day. His physical equanimity and cavalier disposition help compliment his fiery passion for freedom and drive. He's a true American hero with more regard for the people around him than himself.
They say the character of a man is judged by his actions and deeds in helping others. As Zeier sat in the ditch holding his buddy Cory Palmer, or crossed the myriad of finish lines supporting the Special Operations Warriors Foundation, or even led his soccer troops through beach workouts during his Sachem days, there was always this evident leadership factor, coupled with bursts of humility. John Crisci would be proud, his family and Sachem are proud.