Marine Cpl. Timothy Read, who lost a leg in Afghanistan and has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, is applying some Rustoleum to a new drive shaft for his prized 2003 Mustang Mach 1.
It's more than just a hobby. Working on cars and motorcycles, Read said, fills the aching void in his life left when his war wounds stripped him of the ability to be a combat Marine.
"My hands are meant to be dirty," he said. "I'm meant to be busting my knuckles, doing a man's work."
With other injured Marines, Read souped up a custom-made motorcycle for last summer's Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.
He'll be in Peru this month as a ride-along mechanic for a Land Rover Discovery for a team of wounded U.S. and British military personnel during the 6,000-mile Dakar Rally. The team is sponsored by an organization called Race2Recovery, supported by the royal family.
And when he's not busy in San Diego at therapy appointments or other things, Read spends time working on his car at the auto center at the Marine boot camp. Other wounded Marines are doing the same on their cars.
"They're putting their cars back together, but what they're really doing is putting their lives back together," said Richard Siordian, assistant manager of the auto center and a retired Navy corpsman.
Read's therapist, a specialist in helping wounded veterans, agrees.
Nancy Kim, a psychologist at the Naval Medical Center San Diego's Comprehensive Combat and Casualty Care center, said that working on vehicles helps Read and other wounded personnel "regain a sense of productivity, purpose and achievement that may have been lost at the time of their injury."
Fixing a transmission or installing new brake pads or maybe finding just the right setting for the carburetor, "can serve as a healthy coping strategy to help the combat veteran manage anxiety, depression, irritability and anger," Kim said.
For Read, the work helps him recapture something that he lost in Afghanistan: a sense that the world makes sense if only you can put the parts together correctly.
"It's easy to accept a physical wound, but it's hard for a Marine to accept that his mind is all (messed) up," said the 23-year-old, who left for boot camp just days after graduating in 2007 from high school in Starkville, Miss.
Read had been in Afghanistan five months when he stepped on a buried bomb on Oct. 15, 2010, while on a walking patrol in Marjah, long a Taliban stronghold. Six weeks earlier he had taken a bullet in his left thigh during a firefight but he had refused to be sent home lest he feel he was deserting his buddies.
The explosion broke both of Read's legs and his left wrist. Shrapnel ripped through his arms and chest. He was temporarily blinded.
Military doctors were forced to amputate his left leg above the knee. He was worried that he might also lose his left hand, but it was saved through reconstructive surgery.
In the U.S., Read has received care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the Veterans Affairs medical center in Tampa, Fla., and now, the Naval Medical Center San Diego, where he is an outpatient.
Read has followed a path common to the war wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. First was the anger, depression and sense of being in danger even in America.
"You use your closest relatives as emotional punching bags," he said. "They're called family for a reason. They understand."
Sometimes Read works on vehicles with other Marines; sometimes he works alone.
Working alone, he said, "allows you to do a lot of thinking. It's like a prayer time, when you can think."
Working as part of a team, as he will do in the Dakar Rally, is like being in the Marine Corps, Read said. He went to England to meet with other Race2Recovery members and returned buoyed at the sense of camaraderie.
"You can feel it in your gut," he said. "You're able to sleep well that night. You have a sense of accomplishment. It's like being in a unit: everybody has different jobs, but we all have the same goal."
Motor sports, he said, "are a lot like combat. Lots of quick decisions, physical exhaustion, the sense of being part of a team. It fills that void you have when you get hurt."