After losing his arms and legs in an explosion in Afghanistan six years ago, Marine Sgt. John Peck decided one morning that he would fling himself down a flight of stairs and end his life.
Then, while looking out his window at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Peck saw another patient, a double amputee, holding the hand of his young daughter and hugging his wife.
Peck, then 25, changed his mind.
“I thought, ‘If that guy can find happiness and somebody to spend his life with, then so can I,’ ” the retired military mortarman from Fredericksburg, Virginia, tells PEOPLE.
Peck, 31, has now found that happiness and is engaged to be married to Jessica Parker, an art restoration student he met through Match.com. In August, determined to hold his fiancée’s hand on their wedding day, he underwent a 14-hour, double arm transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, one of only two U.S. war veterans and 80 people worldwide to have the surgery.
About a year from now, when the nerves in his new arms are fully functional, “that’s when I want to get married,” says Peck. “I don’t want to use a freakin’ wheelchair. I want to be able to walk down the aisle with prosthetic legs and take Jessica’s hand in mine on the happiest day of my life.”
It was May 24, 2010, when Peck lost his limbs in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, while searching homes in a small village for weapons. After stepping on an improvised explosive device, “I was flung through the air and felt something kick me really hard in the head,” he tells PEOPLE. “I believe it was one of my legs.”
Peck, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury from an explosion in Iraq in 2007 before reenlisting in 2009, once again woke up in a hospital. The blast had ripped off both his legs and his right arm. Although doctors tried to save his left arm, the injuries were ultimately too severe, and it was amputated below the elbow.
Flown home to the United States, it was left to Peck’s mother, Lisa Peck, a former Army nurse, to deliver the bad news to her only child when he woke up at Walter Reed hospital after more than two months of sedation.
“My mom told me as calmly as she could that it was bad,” Peck recalls. “At first, I was very pissed off at the world. I felt alone and I didn’t see much hope there. I’d pretty much decided to end it all.”
But after witnessing the soldier with no legs having a joyful moment with his family, Peck finally said “yes” to physical and psychological therapy. Once his self-worth was boosted, he filled out a profile on Match.com, hoping to begin dating again.
“It was tough — women would read my profile and my messages, but wouldn’t respond when they saw that I was a quadriplegic,” he tells PEOPLE. “They wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.”
Then along came Jessica Parker.
Taken by the sense of humor and warmness conveyed by Peck in his profile, she messaged him last February to say hello.
“He seemed so honest and open — I was really intrigued,” Parker, 29, who lived near Peck, tells PEOPLE. “His profile contained a lot of puns — stuff like, ‘I’m a blast to be around.’ He made me laugh, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
When Peck opened Parker’s message, he initially thought it was a hoax.
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“A beautiful woman messaging me? It seemed very fishy,” he says. “But I finally thought, ‘Okay, maybe I should talk to her.’ So we met for drinks and ended up talking all night. There was an instant attraction.”
After several months of dating, Parker eventually moved in with Peck. It was her face he saw when he awakened in Boston after his double arm transplant on August 19, performed by a team of 60 doctors and nurses. The cost of the surgery was donated by Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“It was an emotional moment,” Peck tells PEOPLE. “I’d been on the waiting list for the transplant for almost two years. More than anything, I wanted to hold Jessica’s hand.”
The family of the deceased young man whose arms were donated did not want to reveal his identity, “but I want them to know their loved one’s death wasn’t for nothing,” Peck adds. “Every time I look at my new arms, I remember his gift. And I intend to put them to good use for the rest of my life.”
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Now feeling faint sensations in his arms and relearning the once simple tasks of brushing his teeth and getting dressed in the morning, Peck asked Parker to marry him on September 13 — his birthday.
“She loves penguins and had told me the story about the emperor penguin and how once he’s finds a mate, he’ll give her a smooth pebble,” he tells PEOPLE. “If the female accepts the stone, they’re soulmates for life. So I decided to ask her to marry me at an aquarium and give her a stone with the ring.”
There was only possible answer, says Parker. “Yes, absolutely!” she told him. “I wasn’t expecting it so soon,” she says, “but I’m delighted. John makes everyone around him smile. He never gives up. I can’t wait to walk down the aisle and hold his hand.”
That’s a moment that Peck knows will make him grateful once again for looking out his window on that bleak day in 2010.
“I’m happy to be alive — I have a whole new life to look forward to,” he says. “With Jessica, I intend to make the most of each and every moment.”