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Olympic hopeful wrestler injured during Camp Pendleton weapon drill gets record $12 million settlement

Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base sign outside the main gate of the base. (UT File Photo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Rich Perry arrived at Camp Pendleton for a USA Wrestling training camp in 2018 with a dream to compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics.

He returned home to Pennsylvania in a near-vegetative state, with bone fragments from his shattered eye socket lodged in his brain and his wrestling career extinguished.

Earlier this month, as he continued his long recovery from those life-altering injuries, Perry and his wife concluded a lawsuit against the U.S. with a $12 million settlement. It’s believed to be the largest personal injury settlement ever against the federal government in San Diego.

Perry, a father of four who lives outside Philadelphia, was jabbed in the face by another national team wrestler wielding a Marine Corps training weapon akin to a police baton covered with dense padding. When the weapon inadvertently went through the face mask of his football helmet, the rod at the center of the weapon tore through its padding and slammed into Perry’s orbital socket.

Medics airlifted Perry to Scripps Memorial Hospital with life-threatening injuries — though his wife was initially told he’d been “poked in the eye.” It wasn’t until the next morning, as she prepared to board a cross-country flight to San Diego with the couple’s 5-month-old baby, that a neurologist told her Perry had suffered substantial brain damage. Once in San Diego, she said doctors told her Perry might not live, and if he did, he’d likely be bedridden.

But Perry survived and eventually started to heal, slowly regaining the ability to speak and walk. He had to re-learn the most basic functions of daily life, such as how to take a shower, brush his hair or even smile at his children. He and his wife credit their faith for his unlikely recovery.

“It was a dark time,” Gina Perry said this week from the couple’s home in Pennsylvania. “God kept giving us hope.”

In 2020, the Perrys sued the federal government, as well as USA Wrestling and Armament Systems and Procedures, the manufacturer of the weapon that injured Perry. Their record settlement with the U.S. tops last year’s $10.8 million settlement for a Navy veteran who lost a leg in a motorcycle crash involving a Navy driver.

“Rich is going to need future care, and this allows him to get the best and highest level of therapy,” said Robert Francavilla, one of Perry’s attorneys from the San Diego personal injury firm CaseyGerry. Francavilla also negotiated the Navy veteran’s previous record settlement.

USA Wrestling and Armament Systems and Procedures also settled with the couple, but the terms of those agreements are confidential. Neither the wrestling organization nor the weapons company responded to requests for comment.

USA Wrestling has not held any training camps at Camp Pendleton since 2018, according to the Perrys and Francavilla. Marine Corps officials did not respond to questions about whether that was related to Perry’s injury.

The Marine Corps continues to train Marines with the batons that injured Perry, according to Francavilla, who said the lawsuit uncovered a previous injury similar to Perry’s that occurred in 2010. But he said the issue was never with the training itself, which can be a vital part of preparing troops for combat. Rather, the issue was that wrestlers untrained in handling such weapons were placed into advanced-level military training exercises.

None of the defendants, including the Marine Corps, admitted fault as part of the settlements.

The Perrys said the settlements have helped lift a weight off their shoulders as they raise their children and Rich continues recovering. The couple said Rich can now be seen by the best sports therapists in the country and can pursue his coaching career without worrying about his salary or how to provide for his young family. He works with elite athletes at the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center, where he was a resident athlete at the time of his injury, as well as at-risk youth through a nonprofit program called Beat the Streets.

“I feel like it’s going to give us a lot of opportunities to pour back into the community,” Rich said this week from Pennsylvania. “It gives us peace of mind.”

Giving back to the wrestling community is non-negotiable for the Perrys because the wrestling community, and their faith in God, is what has carried their family through the past five years.

Train like a Marine

Perry’s wrestling career was trending up in 2018. The Connecticut native did not start wrestling until his junior year of high school — much later than most elite wrestlers — yet at 28 he was named to the national team for the first time. That honor is reserved for the top three wrestlers in each weight class.

In August of that year, the national team held a mandatory multi-week training at Camp Pendleton. The Marine Corps is one of USA Wrestling’s two “gold sponsors,” along with Nike, and is also the main sponsor of one of the most important wrestling events held each year, the U.S. Marine Corps U.S. Open.

During the training camp, according to the lawsuit, the wrestlers “would sleep in the barracks, eat in the mess hall, and otherwise live, in general sense, the life of a Marine.”

Francavilla, the attorney, said the event was also being filmed for Marine Corps recruitment purposes.

For one Marine-led training exercise, the wrestlers were provided helmets and the padded batons. According to the lawsuit, they were instructed “to strike, thrust, and jab at the opponent’s head and face to score ‘a kill shot.'”

Perry said the competition was organized in a tournament format, and he reached the final against a teammate from a higher weight class. But unlike the other wrestlers in the bracket who’d been provided helmets with full, cage-like face masks, the Marines provided Perry a football helmet with a gap at eye level.

The lawsuit alleges that the cloth covering on his opponent’s baton was already partially torn. When the other wrestler delivered a jab toward Perry’s face, the weapon slipped through the face mask, and its hard central rod shattered Perry’s eye socket, pushing bone fragments into his brain. Somehow, the weapon pushed his eye to the side, leaving it undamaged.

Perry can recall details of the training camp up until the injury, which occurred Aug. 27. The next thing he remembers was waking up in late September at an in-patient care facility in Philadelphia. He couldn’t speak or move the left side of his body. He had difficulty processing what the doctor was telling him had happened.

Gina Perry, meanwhile, had spent the previous month living a nightmare. When she first got to San Diego, Rich appeared lifeless in his hospital bed. She whispered in his ear that he had to fight for their family and their children. But he didn’t react.

It was a Monday when she arrived, and by Thursday Gina was beginning to lose hope, she said. But on Friday evening, as Gina was preparing to leave his hospital room for the night, she told Rich she loved him. He suddenly spoke, saying “I love you” three times. Gina believes he was addressing the three people in the room — her, their baby and Rich’s brother.

“It was like being in complete darkness, and then a match is lit,” Gina said. “That match ignited so much hope.”

Despite that initial hopeful spark, there were still acute challenges ahead. But in those difficulties, Rich and Gina Perry said they clearly saw God working miracles.

For instance, when it appeared Rich was improving during those initial weeks hospitalized at Scripps Memorial, he suffered a seizure that essentially put him back in a vegetative state. Gina said it was the most difficult period of all — but it likely saved his life. She said doctors told her that if he’d flown back to the East Coast the next day as planned, he would have almost certainly died.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” Gina said.

Shortly thereafter, doctors informed her they would now be able to perform the brain surgery that they’d been previously unwilling to perform — another of God’s interventions, Gina said. A week after the Sept. 19 surgery, the family took a medical flight back to Philadelphia.

Road to recovery

From the moment Perry awoke, he decided his goal was to walk out of the rehabilitation facility unassisted. About a month later, he did just that — thanks in large part to the assistance he had while rehabilitating. Pennsylvania is a hotbed for wrestling in the U.S., and that community rallied to support him.

A college coach made a schedule, and wrestlers from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University were there by Perry’s side whenever his friends and family couldn’t be. His old college teammates also visited often, as did athletes from the Beat the Streets program.

“I was never alone for more than 15 minutes,” Perry said. “It’s hard to be down on yourself when you have so many people cheering you on.”

Back home, the rehabilitation continued, and still does to this day.

“The thing about brain injuries is we can’t even begin to fathom the amount of things that we take for granted,” Gina said. “Not even just basic tasks, but emotions too — like how to smile at our children … This man known for his megawatt smile wouldn’t even smile unless I told him to.”

Little by little, Perry has improved in all aspects. Though he had hoped to wrestle competitively again, he was not able to do so. “I tried for two years, but I couldn’t get back to the same level as before,” he said. “My thoughts couldn’t get from my brain to my body in time.”

But he uses his story and his recovery to inspire the athletes he now coaches. And his family lives by the words of his daughter, who was 6 when he was injured and is now 10. She recently remarked that even though she’d spent years without the father she’d known before, she wouldn’t change what happened because of all the people Perry’s experience had helped bring closer to God.

“The community we’ve built, the hope we’ve been able to inspire,” Perry said, “all that makes it worth it.”


© 2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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