Looking at this picture of the recently married Jesse and Kelly Cottle, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were a typical young couple. But their incredible love story is far from typical; it’s simply extraordinary.
A resident of Fort Collins, Colorado, the 18-year-old Jesse joined the United States Marine Corps in 2003, straight out of high school. Then, after receiving certification as a radio operator, he was deployed to Iraq on three occasions.
It was during his third tour, however, that Jesse decided to switch to a more direct combat role. He joined an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, specializing in disarming the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) often used by insurgents.
One of the team’s assignments saw them deployed to the Afghan town of Nawzad. It was here, on July 19, 2009, that Jesse unwittingly stepped on an IED. The blast was so powerful that it threw him high up into the air.
Fortunately, Jesse survived the blast, but he did lose both of his legs in the explosion. Interestingly, the whole incident was caught on tape by one of Jesse’s comrades and became the basis for Coming Home, a moving documentary about his recovery.
The brave marine spent the next year in rehabilitation, learning to walk all over again with the aid of prosthetic legs. Rehabilitation following such a traumatic injury is a tough business, and Jesse suffered from nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including bouts of profound anxiety.
But Jesse was determined to make the best of his situation instead of feeling sorry for himself. To give himself motivation, for instance, he thought of the people who had survived even worse ordeals and still remained positive.
And, not long after he was released from the hospital, Jesse met the 24-year-old Kelly at a swimming competition in San Diego. Initially, though, he thought the gorgeous South African student of Boise State University was way out of his league.
As Jesse recalled in an interview, “I thought I’m still me, I’m not any different. But I worried if she would be weirded out.” But Kelly felt an instant connection with the recovering soldier, and the pair began dating.
In fact, Kelly has said that she was intrigued by Jesse; she didn’t care about his injury. “He was just very different, and not just because of his legs, just who he was,” she said.
A key moment in their incredible relationship came during their first trip to the beach. Kelly noticed that it was difficult for Jesse to get back to shore after an exhausting swim and offered to carry him on her back.
Although Jesse felt vulnerable and embarrassed, the moment also made him realize that Kelly truly cared about him and wanted to support him in every possible way. He finally decided to propose to her, and they tied the knot in August 2012.
Jesse’s friend from his war days, Staff Sergeant Patrick Hilty, was best man at the ceremony. And while Hilty was originally worried that Jesse would struggle with “accepting life as a double amputee,” the marriage quickly dispelled his fears.
The photo that turned the couple into social media celebrities was taken in August 2013 when they were visiting Kelly’s family in Idaho. The photographer suggested that the family stand together in the river, and Jesse had to take off his prosthetic legs as a result.
But after the big family shot, their photographer, Sarah Ledford, asked to take a couple more photos of Kelly bearing Jesse on her back. She then posted the photo on her Facebook, and the response was extraordinary.
“The picture just blew up. America just fell in love with Jesse and Kelly,” said Ledford. As one woman commented on the popular photo, Kelly “saw through the disability and fell in love with the man.”
Jesse later explained to an ABC news reporter that the photo is “very much a symbol for our whole relationship in general. She’s physically carrying me, but there’s times where she’s carrying me emotionally.” There’s no doubt that he considers himself very lucky to have met Kelly.
He even went so far as to say, “If I wouldn’t have stepped on that IED, I don’t think I would’ve met her. I wouldn’t take it back ever.” Their love is so strong that Jesse’s injury no longer seems to matter to them.
The couple said that they were very grateful for the positive response the photo received. Jesse further claimed that he was happy they had an inspiring impact on other people, while Kelly commented that she felt it was an honor to be able to represent other couples going through similar hardships.
And having recently welcomed a baby girl into the family, the couple have busy plans for the future. Jesse, for instance, is adamant that he doesn’t want to just sit around and live off disability income; he is currently taking biology courses at the University of San Diego and intends to follow that up with a graduate degree in the technology of prosthetics.