By Harvey Cohen
At least once every week, Morningside Heights residents Justin and Dahlia Constantine go for a peaceful and relaxing walk in Riverside Park.
But back on October 18th, 2006, Justin was taking a very different kind of walk.
He was a Marine on a combat mission in the Anbar Province of Iraq on patrol in an area where enemy snipers had recently killed some other Marines.
At one point, Justin recognizing the dangers, warned an embedded reporter, with words that proved to be prescient, “Hey, don’t forget there are snipers out here,” he said. “You better move quickly because we don’t want anything to happen to you”.
Then a few seconds later, a sniper’s bullet zoomed inches behind the reporter. The reporter was saved by his quickened pace.
But that first bullet was followed by another bullet. And the second bullet hit Justin just below his helmet, entering his head behind his ear, traveling through his mouth and exiting through his face.
Justin fell to the ground, not breathing; he was actually proclaimed dead. But a Navy Corpsman didn’t give up. He began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and also cut Justin’s throat open and performed an emergency tracheotomy. All this while sniper bullets continued above.
After much effort, Justin began to breathe again and came back to life — back from the dead. Still in shock and losing blood, he was driven to a field hospital four miles away driving through an area filled with improvised roadside bombs. There another operation was performed and he was finally stabilized. But his jaw was destroyed. His teeth lost. His throat damaged. And the vision in his left eye permanently gone.
He was medically evacuated to a military hospital in Germany and then to the Naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He was a patient there for five weeks and then an outpatient for seven more months. His only salvation being that Dahlia, then his girlfriend and now his wife, put her life on hold, dropped out of her Ph.D. program at Cambridge University and came to be by his side.
As Justin says, “hospitals can look very busy, but they are really very lonely. Without Dahlia there to keep me focused on my recovery and to keep my spirits from dropping, I might not have made it through.”
Eventually, Justin had over two dozen surgeries with the last one being in 2016. He also received a year and a half of counseling for PTSD.
But Justin now uses his experience to help others learn to not give up, reach their higher potential and find success even when failure seems to be approaching — a mission that has led to his meeting Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama.
Justin and Dahlia moved to Manhattan in August of 2015 when Dahlia was accepted into the doctoral program at Teachers College at Columbia University. Dahlia recently just completed her third year in her doctoral program while also teaching as an adjunct professor at CCNY in Manhattan.
Justin now speaks to many business and community groups across the country including CBS, the New York Federal Reserve and others right here in Manhattan. He has written two books offering advice on leadership, dealing with adversity, the upside of change and most importantly, the idea that people are stronger than they think and can overcome obstacles that appear insurmountable.
One can easily see that his ideas will be of value to any leader or individual. He offers six basic points:
1. Taking care of people is always priority number 1
2. Lead from the front and set the right example
3. Give lots of feedback – positive and negative
4. It’s OK to ask for help
5. Teamwork is critical
6. Change is opportunity
One thing Justin stresses in his appearances is that too many people stigmatize returning soldiers with PTSD. He points out that fully 8 percent of all Americans suffer from PTSD, while 20 percent of vets are PTSD sufferers. So it’s not just a military problem, but a national issue.
Through it all, Justin remains happy about his service to America and proud of his accomplishments. Above all he remains a total optimist.
“Life is amazing” he says. “Yes, it can be horribly cruel and we all suffer in some way. But life is good and people are good.”
Now Justin has a purpose and a passion — helping others recognize their own potential and doing what he can to create an environment where soldiers, civilians and others can succeed.
“Every minute counts,” he says. “Life can end in an instant.” So he makes the best use of his time.
And, of course, that includes his walks in Riverside Park, along with membership in New York Athletic Club and the Central Park West CSA.
He also regularly visits his favorite cookie store, the Levain Bakery in Harlem and is in a constant search to find the best slice of pizza in Manhattan.
You can learn more about Justin at: justinconstantine.com