Brendan Marrocco was a high school student on Staten Island on Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorism attack on the World Trade Center set in motion events that would define his life in devastating ways.
"Being a New Yorker, it's just great to see it," Marrocco said, seated in a wheelchair at the lip of one of the two mammoth reflecting pools that dominate the site where the Twin Towers once stood.
Marrocco, 25, was among about a dozen disabled soldiers invited to visit Ground Zero Wednesday ahead of the throng of tourists. The visit was intended to salute service members -- many of them triple or quadruple amputees -- who survived the post-9/11 wars to become miracles of modern medicine, and to promote two charities raising money to reward them with custom-built homes.
The disabled soldiers' visit to Ground Zero was organized by the Gary Sinise Foundation -- started by the actor who played the amputee character Lieutenant Dan in the film "Forrest Gump" -- and by the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named after a New York City firefighter who died responding to the 9/11 attack. The charities are working together to build "smart homes" that allow the wounded veterans to lead more independent lives.
Marrocco recently moved into one of the homes on Staten Island with his brother.
"It's just a relief to not have to rely on other people so much," said Marrocco, whose arms and legs were blown off by a roadside bomb in April 2009.
John Peck, 25, a Marine from Chicago who lost all his limbs in Afghanistan in 2010, is waiting for a home to be completed in Virginia. Though still in constant pain after weaning himself off painkillers, he said he took comfort yesterday in being around veterans who share the same challenges -- away from the "rude weird stares" he often gets when out in public.
"I sometimes don't like hanging out with people who aren't missing anything," he said.
Still, both Peck and Marrocco said they have no regrets.
"If I was only minus one leg, I'd try to go back," Peck said of his experience.
Said Marrocco: "I wouldn't change it in any way. . . . I feel great. I'm still the same person."
Marrocco "totally rejects that hero stuff," said his father, Alex. "In his mind, he was just doing his job."