Taylor Morris and Danielle Kelly work on physical therapy after Morris lost both legs above the knee, his left arm above the elbow and his right hand to an IED in Afghanistan. (Tim Dodd)
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Few high school sweethearts make it past the hat toss at graduation. But Taylor Morris and Danielle Kelly have made it through so much more.
The Iowa natives stayed together and, in 2007, Morris enlisted as an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the Navy. After years of training, Morris was assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 12 and the couple moved to Virginia Beach, Va.
While Morris, a second class, was deployed to Afghanistan, the couple talked about their future plans. They considered where they would live when he got back and left the Navy, and adventures they would have, like skydiving and a trip to Africa.
But then Morris stepped on an improvised explosive device, losing both legs above the knee, his left arm and right hand. But that tragic incident has done nothing to stifle the couple's relationship.
Their story of love has crossed the globe. Twenty-two photos of Morris and Kelly were posted on BuzzFeed, a collection house of viral content on the web, under the headline "A love story in 22 pictures." As of Sept. 20, the story had more than 2.6 million views.
Tim Dodd, the professional photographer (and Morris' longtime friend) who took many of the photos in the post, said the sailor is happy his story is reaching so many people.
"What he's thrilled about right now about this story is that Danielle is receiving recognition," Dodd said. "He couldn't be happier that his love made it viral, not his recovery or the extent of his injuries. It's him and Danielle."
Even though Morris and Kelly have become Internet sensations, they still shy away from the attention.
"This is my favorite part about Danielle and Taylor. They haven't made a phone call yet today because they're busy working out," Dodd said the day after the BuzzFeed post went live. "They're not getting caught up in media storm and their priorities are no different this morning than they were yesterday."
Kelly and Morris declined an interview with Navy Times, stating that their "main focus is rehabilitation."
Dodd's photos show Kelly by Morris' side in the hospital, pushing him to work harder during physical therapy and carrying him on her back on the beach where they used to run together. Dodd said he takes pictures when he's inspired and the couple gives him plenty of reasons to shoot.
"They're not trying to pose in front of the camera and be the cutest couple, they just really are that cute," he said. "Every minute I'm with them I'm inspired. To see their love play out in front of me is worth capturing."
‘She's been there'
Kelly received a phone call the morning of May 3 and assumed it was a siding company calling about construction on the couple's home in Virginia Beach, she wrote on her and her husband's blog.
Instead it was a member of Morris' team, calling to say her boyfriend had been severely injured.
Morris was part of the lead clearing element when he triggered the IED outside Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Despite suffering injuries to all four of his limbs, he remained conscious following the explosion and realized there could be other IEDs, undetectable, around him, he told the entertainment website The Chive.
"I knew I had arterial bleeding from all four limbs and I was bleeding out fast," Morris recounted to The Chive. "I told my buddies to stop, it would only have hurt me more if somebody stepped on another one."
Finally, a second EOD tech cleared the area around him, and he received medical help.
After the explosion, 23-year-old Morris was transferred to a hospital in Germany and three days later travelled to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda, Md., for long-term care.
Kelly quit her job and dropped everything to be by his side for whatever he needed, Dodd said.
"The way she interacts with and pushes Taylor is unlike anything else," he said.
Now her daily routine is the same as Morris'. She spends her time in occupational therapy and physical therapy, and looks on while Morris' wounds are cared for and he practices with his prosthetic legs, according to the blog chronicling his recovery at http://www.taylormorris.org">www.taylormorris.org. Morris is using the Otto Bock X2s, which have a knee that can predict a patient's movement based on weight shifts.
Morris, who is still in the Navy, received a Bronze Star with Combat "V" during an Aug. 27 ceremony at Walter Reed, with Kelly by his side. He also received the Purple Heart.
After receiving the Bronze Star, he recognized his girlfriend's strength throughout his recovery.
"I just want to say one thing if I could: If I had hands, I'd take this off and pin it on Danielle, because she's helped me through everything, and it's been so hard," Morris said at the ceremony. "She's been there the whole time."
Throughout the recovery process, Morris has had a positive attitude and progressed in physical therapy faster than anyone could have imagined, Dodd said.
"It sounds really weird, but I almost laugh at his attitude. It's just ridiculous," he said. "If you tell him, ‘No you can't do that, you're not ready,' he does it. Period. That's his motivation — to do it because he can."
He did just that when Kelly had been out of town visiting family for a week. Against doctors' orders, he wore his X2 legs out of the medical center to the airport to pick up his girlfriend. In a video posted on Dodd's blog, she seems shocked and ecstatic to see her boyfriend standing tall and waiting for her before enveloping her in a huge hug.
Morris doesn't want to be called a hero, Dodd said, but he does want to inspire people with his story. Admirers around the world look up to his strength and leave comments of support on his blog, wishing him well.
One 7-year-old boy suffering from a traumatic brain injury saw a photo of Morris standing in his prosthetics with an American flag on his back and said, "That's him Mom! Superman. I want legs like his, OK?" according to his mother's blog.
The mother emailed Morris, letting him know that he was an inspiration to her son.
"That's really the only reason why we want to share [our story], to help other people," Morris said on his blog.