Antioch honors wounded Marine, but he denies he's a hero

Marine Cpl. John Peck doesn't remember who told him he lost his limbs after stepping on an explosive device in Afghanistan nearly a year ago.

But he remembers the overwhelming emotion he felt at the time.

“I was pissed off, I admit it,” Peck, of Antioch Township, recalled in an interview Monday. “But being pissed off isn't going to do anything. ... It's going to make people around you not want to be around you.”

Despite his catastrophic injuries — for which he's endured 27 surgeries and 81 blood transfusions — and continued hospitalization, Peck's outlook today is positive.

He's been home on leave since last week, and on Monday he was the guest of honor at a blood drive, an event that doubled as a fundraiser for the charitable account set up in his name.

The 25-year-old Antioch High School graduate was greeted by dozens of relatives, friends and strangers who convened on Antioch's VFW hall for the event. But the celebration started earlier with a motorcade that escorted him to the hall on North Avenue.

From his seat in a mechanized wheelchair near the front of the room, Peck told the crowd how he's met President Obama, the first lady, Miss America and other celebrities, “but the ones that are going to stick in my mind are you guys.”

“You guys have been behind me the whole way,” Peck said.

Peck was wounded May 24, 2010, in Afghanistan. It was his second tour with the Marines. He'd been wounded on the first tour, too, suffering a brain injury in Iraq.

When he was injured the second time, the blast took his legs and his right arm. Doctors later removed much of his left arm as a bacterial infection ate away at his body.

At Monday's event, Antioch Mayor Larry Hanson called Peck an inspiration and read a proclamation announcing May 9, 2011, as “Cpl. John Peck Day” in the village.

Another speaker was Illinois Commerce Commission police officer William White, who was Peck's first sergeant in the Marines. He spoke of the pain, suffering and challenges Peck faces, but also of the life he has in front of him.

“I am amazed and in awe of John Peck and his commitment to serve,” White said.

The get-together benefited LifeSource, the Chicago-area blood center where his mother, Lisa Krutyholowa, works. But it really was about Peck, who received countless accolades and had other governmental proclamations read in his honor.

Peck graciously accepted each document with a quiet “thank you.” When it was his time to speak to the crowd, he denied he was a hero.

That honor belongs to the many Marines and other soldiers who didn't survive combat, Peck said. He talked in particular of two buddies who lost their lives, one while shielding a fellow Marine from a deadly explosion.

“I think of them as the true heroes,” Peck told the crowd. “Because they won't come back to their families. Those are the guys who should be honored.”

Later, during a quiet interview, Peck spoke of the inner strength that has kept him going. Early on in his hospitalization, during a time in which he was sedated and it wasn't clear if he'd survive, he had vivid dreams.

“Something told me, ‘You can't die yet. You have work to do,'” Peck said.

A promotion to sergeant awaits Peck when he returns to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., later this week. Then, it's more days of physical therapy and occupational therapy, until eventually he returns to civilian life for good.

Peck hopes to receive a double arm transplant. If that happens, he'd like to attend the famed Culinary Institute of America in New York and become a chef.

“I might open up a restaurant,” he told the Daily Herald. “We'll have to see.”

  Kymmie Blake, of Antioch, donates blood Monday at Antioch’s VFW hall. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  A van carrying U.S. Marine Cpl. John Peck is led by the Patriot Guard during a motorcade in Antioch on Monday. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  U.S. Marine Cpl. John Peck was honored in Antioch Monday. Peck lost four limbs in Afghanistan after stepping on an explosive device. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
U.S. Marine Cpl. John Peck receives a kiss from Eleanor Hauser. Photos by Gilbert R. Boucher II/gboucher@dailyhera
  U.S. Marine Cpl. John Peck recites the Pledge of Allegiance, surrounded by the Marine Corps League 801, as he was honored in Antioch Monday after returning from serving in Afghanistan. Peck lost four limbs in Afghanistan after stepping on an IED. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  U.S. Marine Cpl. John Peck talks about dead buddies and thanks his supporters Monday at the VFW hall in Antioch. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  U.S. Marine Cpl. John Peck is welcomed into the Marine Corps League 801 during a ceremony to at the Antioch VFW Hall in Antioch. Peck’s mom Lisa Krutyholowa stands next to him. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Antioch residents wave a flag for U.S. Marine Cpl. John Peck during a parade in his honor in Antioch Monday. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  A welcome home sign for U.S. Marine Sgt. John Peck who was honored in Antioch Monday with a parade and a celebration at the Antioch VFW Hall. Gilbert R. Boucher II/