BY REBECCA STRATTON, JENNY WELLS, BLAIR HOOVER, ELIZABETH BAUNACH
What do surfing, skydiving, hunting, meeting Toby Keith, riding in a NASCAR car, completing marathons, riding a hand cycle and earning a college degree all have in common? They’re all on Cpl. Matthew Bradford’s bucket list.
Bradford, a Winchester native, is working on that last item on the list by studying journalism and history at the University of Kentucky. As for the rest of those things, he’s already checked them off.
His bucket list is impressive, but it’s even more so when you consider that Bradford is a Wounded Warrior and Purple Heart recipient who served in the United States Marine Corps. He lost his eyesight and both of his legs at age 20 when an improvised explosive device exploded under him on Jan. 18, 2007, while stationed in Haditha, Iraq.
Bradford joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2005 at age 19 and deployed in 2006. After the explosion, he fought through a long recovery process that was both physical and mental, but a fellow Marine helped him through the dark times.
“He would talk to me about things other than my injuries and military life,” Bradford said. “He had become my really good friend. He’s the one that got me out of that depression. And that’s when I realized that I want to do what he’s doing. I want to help out other Wounded Warriors.”
So that’s what Bradford did. After acquiring skills ranging from using a computer, to reading Braille, to building a birdhouse at The Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Maywood, Illinois, he re-enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
On April 7, 2010, Bradford became the first blind double-amputee in the history of the Marine Corps to re-enlist.
He re-enlisted through the Expanded Permanent Limited Duty program for Wounded Warriors and Purple Heart recipients and was sent to the Wounded Warrior Battalion East in Camp Lejeune. Here, Bradford spent time with and helped other Wounded Warriors.
“Having a positive attitude, they wanted that around other wounded warriors who constantly think about the bad days,” Bradford said. “They don’t think about any of the bright stuff in their lives. “
This program allowed him to stay active in the Marines and gave him the choice to leave when he was ready. Bradford liked that he wasn’t forced out of service due to medical conditions.
Since then, Bradford hasn’t stopped checking things off his bucket list.
“When I first got injured in 2007, my first goal was to go skydiving, and once I really got out of the depression stage, I realized that I was only 20 years old, so I could still do all these things,” Bradford said. “I might do it differently, but I could still get it done. Skydiving was the first thing I wanted to do.”
Bradford, a diehard UK basketball fan, only went skydiving once. He described his experience as “one and done,” showing his passion for the Wildcats and accidentally relating skydiving to the practice of leaving for the NBA after one year at Kentucky.
A few years later, Bradford decided to join his beloved Wildcats and go back to school at UK, adding another thing to his list. The Winchester native made this decision with the help of his wife Amanda and his master sergeant.
“I chose UK because it’s the only university I ever wanted to go to,” Bradford said. “A diploma from the University of Kentucky is a dream of mine. Just saying that I’m a student at the University of Kentucky means a lot to me.”
That dream is becoming a reality with the help of the Veterans’ Resource Center (VRC) on campus. The VRC and UK Police provide resources to help Bradford and other veterans navigate UK’s large campus. The center has also been a place for Bradford to hang out, catch up on homework and eat lunch with fellow veterans.
On March 27, 2015, donors provided a blue camouflage golf cart to Bradford to make it even easier for him to get around campus.
Getting around was his biggest fear coming to such a large university. Now, nothing stands in Bradford’s way of earning his degree and checking that off his bucket list.
“God didn’t keep me alive to just sit around in my house and do absolutely nothing, so I’m still getting my degree,” Bradford said. “It’s getting me out there and getting me around people and sharing my story and doing the things I love.”
He isn’t stopping there, however.
In addition to the four full marathons and three half marathons he’s already completed, Bradford is signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon in Alexandria, Virginia, in October.
“I have to do it differently, but I can still get out and do it,” Bradford said of the things on his bucket list. “It also shows to other people that ‘if he can do it, why can’t I do it?’ ”
Bradford draws inspiration from his family on a daily basis.
“I could think of all the bad things happening, but then I have my three-year-old daughter running in [my room in the mornings], and all my problems are erased,” Bradford said. “She’s the life I live now. I want her to see me as a strong person because I hope to be her role model and mentor one day.”
He also draws inspiration from the people who doubt him.
“I live my life every day to its fullest,” Bradford says. “I go out and accomplish things. I enjoy getting out and doing new things, especially when somebody tells me I can’t do it. That just motivates me more and more to go out and do it.”
When asked if he had anything else he’d like to share, Bradford imparted some advice.
“Always wake up happy, in a good mood, positive,” he said. “Everybody has bad days, and that’s the one thing I’ve learned.”
Bradford enjoys sharing his story and helping other Wounded Warriors through tough times, continuing the work he did while enlisted at Camp Lejeune.
“I could share my story and inspire and motivate other people, and I don’t have to put the uniform on everyday,” Bradford said. “I’m always going to be a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
Catch Bradford cheering on the Cats at Rupp Arena or on the Saturday morning Cameron Mills Radio Show on 1580 AM, where he talks sports and practices his broadcast journalism skills. Bradford hopes to host his own sports radio talk show in the future.
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This article also appears on page 11 of the June print edition of the Hamburg Journal.