After Eric Hunter stepped on an IED in Afghanistan, medics gave him his life back.
Problem was, he wasn’t sure he wanted it.
The explosion destroyed his right leg and severely injured his left leg. He underwent more than 60 surgeries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as doctors worked to salvage what remained.
“For three months in the hospital, it was like surgery every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the other days, I was recovering,” said the Marietta resident. “The doctor said, ‘I can save your left leg, just give me time.’ But I didn’t know it was going to take four years.”
Hunter spoke from a greenroom at Turner Studios in Midtown, where he was one of eight veterans asked to choose and introduce movies for the Veterans Day weekend lineup for Turner Classic Movies.
These days, Hunter, 31, looks confident. A weightlifter with arms like John Cena’s, he can bench-press 385. He is also a part-time movie actor with a Clark Kent jawline. With him at Turner is his loving wife, Kenna, and crawling on the floor is their adorable pre-toddler, Adley. It’s difficult to imagine Hunter as a pill-addicted soldier who tried to drive his wife away, so she wouldn’t go down the tubes with him.
“I was sure I was going to have a bad life,” said Hunter. “I thought they were going to be better off without me.”
Kenna came close to leaving — or showing Hunter the exit. “So many days I was looking for the biggest set of stairs to push him down,” said Kenna, hoisting Adley to her lap. “But I knew if I was going through it, I’d want Eric to have my back, even if I was an a-hole.”
On this morning, Eric had just emerged from in front of the cameras.
Each veteran had the opportunity to choose his or her own film to host for the special slate of movies being broadcast by the cable channel this Saturday and Sunday. Hunter chose “The Green Berets,” the 1968 valentine to the Army Special Forces, starring actor John Wayne, who also directed.
Turner worked with veterans organizations to find their guest-hosting soldiers.
When Army Sgt. Eric Hunter, a native of Monroeville, Ala., enlisted in 2009, he had high hopes of becoming a Green Beret himself. He served first in Iraq, an uneventful stint in 2010. He redeployed in 2012, and was sent to the southern Helmand province of Afghanistan. There his unit built a school and did what they could to support the local population.
Then, on May 31, one day before his one-year wedding anniversary with Kenna, Hunter’s unit engaged enemy fire. During the scramble, Hunter’s foot found a booby trap.
Lying on the ground, he kept telling himself, “Please be alive, please be alive.”
Emergency responders kept him in a medically induced coma through the next day, and when he finally got Kenna on the satellite phone a day late, he apologized for missing their anniversary.
“She didn’t want to hear that at all,” he said, as Adley crawled over and under coffee tables and chairs. “She just wanted to hear my voice and be sure that I was OK.”
While he was at Walter Reed, he was buoyed by visits from a variety of supporters. Pop songster Neil Diamond came by and brought him an acoustic guitar, so he could revive his front-porch picking. The members of Kiss signed his guitar while he was in surgery one day.
Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters drafted Hunter to play with the MusicCorps Wounded Warrior Band, and Hunter found himself performing at Madison Square Garden with the rock star.
But the pain wasn’t going away. Eventually Hunter was on 30 Oxycodone pills a day. He decided to quit cold turkey. “That was a week and a half of the worst time in my life,” he said. “Getting blown up wasn’t hard, that was the easy part.”
It’s not a surprise that he is at ease before the camera with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. Hunter has accepted a few acting jobs, including the lead in an independent movie, “In the Middle of the River.”
He and his family are also looking forward to moving into a specially built house in Fayetteville, with the support of the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Hunter also speaks to school groups, including ROTC cadets, who are sometimes surprised to see him enter the classroom on his artificial leg.
“I walk in and their faces turn ghost white,” Hunter said. The students are clearly wondering whether they’ve made a mistake with plans to join the military.
“I tell them, ‘I support your decision.’”
CHOSEN BY VETERANS
Turner Classic Movies will welcome a group of guest hosts Saturday and Sunday, during Veterans Day weekend, all of them veterans of the armed forces.
The guest hosts each picked a different film to introduce, some choosing military-themed movies and some picking escapist entertainment, such as the Abbott and Costello comedy “Lost in a Harem,” chosen by McDonough resident and Army Reserve officer Donald Morrison.
“It’s stress relief,” said Morrison, 46, who also directs security at Turner. “Comedy is an outlet. It’s not something I have to wrap my mind around and get serious about it.”
Saturday, Nov. 11
9 a.m., “Strategic Air Command” (1955); chosen by Edward Lapinskas, Army, Vietnam veteran
11:15 a.m., “The Green Berets” (1968); Eric Hunter, Army, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran
2 p.m., “Where Eagles Dare” (1968); Paul Henderson, Army, Vietnam veteran
5 p.m., “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946); Brian Delate, Army, Vietnam veteran
Sunday, Nov. 12
11:30 a.m., “National Velvet” (1944); Maggie Dewan-Smith, Air Force, Operation Desert Storm veteran
2 p.m., “Lost in a Harem” (1944); Donald Morrison, Army, Operation Desert Storm and Afghanistan veteran
3:45 p.m., “Casablanca” (1942); Jenny Pacanowski, Army, Iraq veteran
5:45 p.m., “Bullitt” (1968); Yonel Dorelis, Marine, Air Force, Army, National Guard, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran