His mother always thought it would go away, his burning desire to become a Marine. But Kevin Denton wanted it since he was a boy. So on his 18th birthday, while still a senior at Mesa's Dobson High School, he signed up.
Almost 10 years later, on July 7, 2004, Denton's boyhood dream ended when he caught the brunt of a bomb hidden in a car parked in a suburb of Fallujah, Iraq.
Most people would have died from the injuries he suffered, which included a piece of shrapnel burrowing 3-inches into his brain. But, as an awards ceremony Saturday at the Phoenix Zoo showed, Denton was a fighter.
"It is kind of bittersweet," Denton said Saturday about the Triumph Award he received from the Brain Injury Association of Arizona.
On one hand, the 31-year-old former sergeant was grateful to be alive and nearly recovered from the severe headaches and memory loss he suffered because of the blast. Doctors "were amazed that I even survived it," Denton said.
On the other hand, all of the above means he can no longer be a Marine.
U.S. military statistics show Denton is among almost 30,000 servicemen who have been wounded since the Iraq war began five years ago this Wednesday.
About 45 percent of those, like Denton, have not been able to return to duty.
"I still pay attention," Denton said of the war. "Probably not as much as I should, but it's one of those things that it's kind of difficult for me to watch, having been there and seen first hand what is going on."
These days, Denton works in the nightclub industry in the Valley and out of state. He helps some of the businesses set up their bars, sound systems and get off the ground.
His story is similar to that of Army Sgt. Robert Bartlett, 34, of Gilbert, who also received the Triumph Award alongside Denton.
In Bartlett's case, he joined the Army in 2003 after shutting down his handyman business.
He was just outside Baghdad on his first tour of Iraq in 2005 when his Humvee was hit with a bomb. The explosion collapsed his lung, littered his body with shrapnel and cost him his left eye.
"My face was essentially cut in half by this bomb," he said.
His heart stopped three times as he was being treated. Somehow, he survived.
Both men are a testament to advances in medical care. Denton spent time at the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland, and Bartlett still goes back east for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for occasional surgeries.
Both men also are treated at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix, which helped put on the Saturday awards ceremony.
For Denton, he still wishes he could be a Marine.
"To be candid with you, I didn't agree with the war," Denton said. "But it's still our job. It's what we do. It's what we sign up for."