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S.I. Soldier Joins David Letterman To Talk About Arm Transplant, Impressive Recovery

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- An army veteran from Staten Island shared his remarkable story of survival and recovery Monday night on "The Late Show" with David Letterman.

Former Army Sgt. Brendan Marrocco sat down with Letterman Monday to talk about his harrowing experience, and his rare transplant operation. He is the first combat veteran to receive a double-arm transplant, and is full of optimism despite the injuries that left him a quadruple amputee.

Also appearing with Letterman was Dr. W.P. Andrew Lee, plastic surgery chief at Johns Hopkins Medicine, who led the operation in 2012.

Marrocco, 27, said he joined the Army in December 2007, and did not come from a military family.

"I just always wanted to do it, and I'd been putting it off and putting it off ever since I was getting out of high school, and finally decided to go for it," he said. "It was definitely the absolute best thing that I've ever done in my life."

Given that the nation was at war on multiple fronts, Marrocco said he knew what he was getting into at the time and was aware of the risks. And a nightmare came true just over a year after he enlisted.

He was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.

Marrocco told Letterman he was "just on pretty much of a routine just taking somebody over to a different base, and got blown up on the way back." He said the anti-armor improvised explosives device went right through the truck in which he was riding.

He the next thing he knew, Marrocco was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he was mostly just aware of the pain. But he was the first quadruple amputee ever to survive such an injury in the Iraq War, and he agreed with Letterman at any other time in history – such as in the days of the Vietnam War – he likely would not be there talking about it.

"From day one, I was really glad and blessed to be still around," he said.

Over time, Marrocco began to undergo rehab using prosthetic arms and legs. But such tools had their limits, he said.

"I always wanted real arms," Marrocco told Letterman. "From the second I was told that it could happen, I was all in."

He said U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos came to the hospital and asked Marrocco would be interested in an arm transplant. And soon afterward, he met with Lee at Johns Hopkins and found out he was a good candidate.

Lee said of all the transplants he had performed, Marrocco's was one of the most complex.

In December 2012, Marrocco underwent the revolutionary operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He also received bone marrow from the same dead donor who supplied his new arms – a novel approach aimed at helping his body accept the new limbs with minimal medication to prevent rejection.

The 13-hour operation was led by Lee was the seventh double-hand or double-arm transplant done in the United States. He led a team of 16 surgeons to perform the operation.

"Brendan had the most extensive hand transplant in terms of the arm tissues that were transplanted," he said. The transplant involved replacing the right arm above the elbow, and the donor's forearm transplanted on the existing left forearm below the elbow, Lee explained.

Marrocco has now had the new arms for about 14 months, and Letterman noted that Marrocco was doing the same with his arms as anyone else.

"That started pretty early," he said, adding that he had been moving his hands normally with prosthetics, "but this is just a little more rewarding."

He also uses prosthetic legs, and is almost ready to begin driving regularly again.

And at the Daytona 500 last week, NASCAR driver Kurt Busch dedicated the race to him Marrocco.

"Kurt and the Armed Forces Foundation had me down there with one of my buddies, and we were in the starting grid, and they were doing the opening ceremony for the race, and they were singing the National Anthem – and all of a sudden I realized to myself that I'm holding my hand over my hand over my heart, and I was pretty much completely just like zoned out at that point, just thinking, how f***ing cool is this?" he said.

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(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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