KNOXVILLE — U.S. Army veteran Gregory Speck lost his sight, his hearing and nearly his life in a bomb blast during military maneuvers 10 years ago.
His remarkable recovery led him to the University of Tennessee, where he will be among 1,500 graduates Friday at UT Fall Commencement.
Speck, 35, who was a squad leader for the 9nth infantry regiment based at Ft. Ord, Calif., fought in the U.S. military’s Operation Just Cause in 1989 in Panama.
On Oct. 22, 1992, during a demolitions training exercise at Ft. Ord, a fuse malfunction detonated a large charge of C4 plastic explosives in his face.
The explosion knocked him 50 feet, blew his thumb and eyelids off, shattered all the bones in his skull and face and burnt most of his body.
He woke up 28 days later blind, deaf, surgically reconstructed and miles from recovery, but remained undaunted.
“Once it really dawned on me what had happened, I was astounded and overjoyed just to be alive. I was proud that I had been able to survive and surmount the odds,” Speck said.
“There is no logical explanation for me to be here. With eight and a half pounds of C4 exploding three feet in front of my face I should be cosmic dust.
“You would think of it being a horror story to wake up to such a different existence, but there was none of that whatsoever at the time. It was a sense of inspiration, of being special and important to be alive.”
After a year of rehab, Speck decided to move from California to Knoxville.
“I have family in North Carolina and Ohio,” Speck said. “We used to drive from my home in Dayton, Ohio, to Waynesville, N.C., and the Raccoon Valley Truck Stop on I-75 in Knoxville was our gas stop.
“I remember always being impressed with the mountains and how green and pretty it was. Also, the cost of living seemed right, and I wanted to go to college, so I chose Knoxville largely because of UT.”
Once, here, Speck’s family soon grew larger.
Judy Bush, a volunteer with UT’s veteran’s pre-college program, became his reader, helping him get to classes, take notes and study.
“When I met Greg, there was an instant trust,” Bush said. “After I got to know him a little, I said ‘You have got to meet my daughter’ who was going to college in Florida at the time. They were so much alike it was spooky.”
Speck eventually did meet Bush’s daughter, Cathy, and married her in 1998.
He describes his journey of the last 10 years — from accident to recovery, the move to Knoxville, marriage and graduation — as a “surreal experience.”
“The way it all goes together, you would think my life is almost like a fairy tale really,” Speck said.
“Call it coincidence, predestination, or whatever you want to call it. There’s no book that comes with being this severely disabled, so it’s been a remarkable experience learning about myself and people and life in general.”