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Two-time Purple Heart recipient welcomed home

World War II veteran Ralph Gussarson (left) of Antioch talks Monday with Marine Cpl. John Peck during a blood drive in his honor at the Antioch VFW.
World War II veteran Ralph Gussarson (left) of Antioch talks Monday with Marine Cpl. John Peck during a blood drive in his honor at the Antioch VFW.

In the past week, Cpl. John Peck has met what could be considered a lifetime’s worth of noteworthy figures.

He met with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. He spent time on the court of the United Center with Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Scottie Pippen before a recent Chicago Bulls playoff game. He was introduced to Miss America.

But through the whirlwind of celebrities and dignitaries, Peck believes it’s the people closest to home he will remember the longest.

“You know, the ones that are going to stick in my mind are you guys,” Peck said to a large crowd of supporters Monday at the Antioch VFW. “You guys have been behind me the whole way.”

The Antioch Marine returned home last week for the first time since he suffered life-changing injuries while serving in Afghanistan. It was May 2010 when Peck, 25, stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) and immediately lost both of his legs and his right arm. During subsequent surgeries, doctors were forced to remove his left arm as well after it was discovered he had contracted a bacterial mold from the dirt in Afghanistan.

Peck, who has had 27 surgeries to repair his injuries and received 81 separate blood transfusions, has been undergoing therapy and treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., but he returned home for a week before he goes back to the hospital for continued treatment.

After a procession through downtown Antioch led by village emergency vehicles and local Patriot Riders, Peck attended a blood drive at the VFW organized in his honor. At the event, Peck received numerous proclamations from local and state government bodies, including one that declared May 9, 2011, as “Cpl. John Peck Day” in Illinois.

The positive attitude Peck has maintained as he adjusts to life without his limbs is in line with the message he has heard his whole life from his mother, Lisa Krutyholowa.

While raising Peck as a single mom, Krutyholowa said she always told her son that he could face any challenge that came his way. Hard work and a sense of independence was all he needed to reach whatever he aspired to, she said.

“I always dreamed that he would grow up to be the man he’s become,” Krutyholowa said.

Well-wishers helped make the two-time Purple Heart recipient’s visit home one to remember by lining the sidewalks of Main Street during the procession.

Among those cheering on Peck was Paula Merlo. The Antioch resident said she adjusted her work schedule to watch the motorcade and support Peck. Hearing his story even inspired her to give blood for the first time, Merlo said.

“He’s such a hero,” she said. “He’s our hometown hero.”

Yet Peck does not consider himself a hero. It’s the soldiers who do not return home that deserve the title, he said.

“They won’t be able to see [their families] again,” he said.

“They won’t ever be able to see their kids. I think of them as the true heroes, guys that didn’t come home.”

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