After being caught in a battle for his life during the battle for Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, Captain D.J. Skelton fought back against the pain of his extensive injuries. Seven years later, he's heading back to the battlefield to take charge of 192 men from his previous unit, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, and to confront dangerous insurgents lurking in the plains of southern Afghanistan.
Friends said his recovery should have been physically impossible. After enemy rocket-propelled grenades pummeled him, then-Lieutenant Skelton says he has scant memories of the battle that almost took his life. "I remember all my vision went out. I was completely blind. I felt no pain. It felt as if I was floating through the air on my back. My audio was still intact. ... I could hear the firefight and voices in the distance screaming, but could not make out the words. ... Then all of a sudden, I felt the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life," Skelton told ABC News.
"I wanted to die right then. I hear a voice yelling, 'Lieutenant ... Lieutenant ... oh my God ... I think the lieutenant is dead. ...' I remember being drug and put into a vehicle. ... I was screaming the whole time ... but with most of my face blown off and my mouth destroyed ... it came out as this ghostlike hollow sound ... not even human.
Shrapnel had blast through the Lieutenant's right cheek and exited through his left eye. He'd also been shot in the arm and had a "shrapnel tunnel" dug through his chest.
"My left arm was destroyed, but my hand was intact. I have no bone between my hand and elbow. My stomach and chest were split open where shrapnel and AK-47 rounds had shredded. My right leg had a fist-sized hole through the lower portion. All the bone was missing from my foot to my knee."
When he woke up from his real-life nightmare, the Army's "most seriously wounded commander" found himself at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Six years and more than 60 surgeries later, Skelton, 33, is missing his left eye, the roof of his mouth is gone, he has only partial use of his left arm and limited use of his left ankle. But his friends say his uninhibited "warrior spirit" is helping guide him back to the battlefield.
"I wanted to return to my men," Skelton says. "The fact is they never quit on me, and I wasn't going to give up my fight and quit."
His recovery wasn't always smooth sailing, however. Skelton recalls laying in recovery feeling miserable when another wounded soldier -- a double-amputee -- inspired him.
"I saw a fellow wounded warrior who had lost both of his legs. He was an enlisted soldier and was going to therapy every day and always wore a smile and a great attitude," Skelton said.
"One day my mom asked him why he was so happy, when he looked to be more injured than her own son who was being quite pathetic in [his] recovery. He didn't even hesitate, 'Well, look at it this way... at least I have my two eyes ... I don't what I would do if I ever damaged this handsome face.' Life is all relative."
From that point on, Skelton used his arduous recovery as a time to study and better himself. He's taught himself Mandarin Chinese, graduated from West Point military academy, completed a Harvard University fellowship, and wrote a book -- a caretaker's guide for wounded service members. In addition, Skelton served as a military adviser to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and co-founded a non-profit organization to help physically disabled individuals participate in outdoor sports.
"I can either dwell on what happened and be miserable and pissy and complain or I can look at what I do have left and figure out how to make the most of my new life... how to make what I have work while always looking for creative ways to make up the difference," he says.
"It is physically incapable for him to do what he is doing," Skelton's friend, retired Army officer Lt. Gen. John Nagl, says. "And I have no doubt that he will succeed."
Skelton, now a Captain, hopes to rejoin the 2nd Stryker Cavalry in the coming months.
"Capt. Skelton is providing a great example of courage, strength and commitment," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, says. "Although his body was wounded, his warrior spirit was not."