As a little girl, Mary Dague daydreamed that she’d grow up to wield superpowers.
She got them in Iraq.
That’s where she put herself between an explosive and her team on an Army bomb disposal squad. She “hugged the bomb,” losing her arms to shield her partners from the blast.
Now a double amputee, Dague is still saving lives.
She defuses veterans coping with traumatic experiences, using a combination of frank talk about her own life, dark humor and an online persona called Mary Wondernubs.
She’s walked people back from the brink of suicide and grieved with spouses of fallen troops.
“I would not be sitting here right now if Mary didn’t answer the phone,” one veteran tearfully said in a recent video that Kleenex produced to highlight Dague’s outreach. “I would not be sitting here right now.”
Dague, 31, says she’d prefer to hide in her Spanaway home with her husband, playing video games and inviting over choice friends. But in the eight years since she lost her arms, she’s come to recognize she has a gift for helping others heal.
“There are people out there who need help, and I’m in a situation where I can help,” she said. “I need to make myself available to them.”
She works with a black humor common among veterans that shows she understands the lasting repercussions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that she won’t let them hold her back.
“I couldn’t let this whole incident change who I was,” she said. “Otherwise, they win.”
One of her T-shirts calls her a “thumb war champion;” another depicts a short-armed Tyrannosaurus rex declaring “worst drummer ever.”
She teased students at a military school for bomb technicians just after the explosion that wounded her. She rolled through the halls in a wheelchair at the joking suggestion of an instructor shouting, “Get out now!”
That was the first time she met her husband, Staff Sgt. James Cribbett, an Army explosive ordnance team leader. They laugh about it.
“She pulled it off well,” said Cribbett, 29. “I believed her.”
That spirit lately has been pulling Dague into several high-profile projects promoting veterans’ perspectives.
She spent October filming a zombie movie in Los Angeles called “Range 15.” It was the crowd-funded brainchild of recent veterans in the Article 15 and Ranger Up clothing companies who wanted to make a war movie they’d enjoy.
Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry, a former Army Ranger and Steilacoom resident, plays himself.
Dague also appeared prominently in a book of photographs called “Always Loyal,” which was released last month by artist Michael Stokes. It shows mostly nude images of amputees from the wars in stunning poses. Most are muscle-bound men.
Stokes shows Dague as a version of the armless statue, the Venus de Milo. She also appears in images as an angel. Stokes in interviews has called her a hero time and again.
And, last summer, Kleenex released a two-minute video focusing on a veteran whose life Dague saved when she saw an appeal to help a former soldier thinking of suicide.
Dague dialed the stranger. She wanted to tell him she had survived Iraq, breast cancer and a divorce. He could make it.
“I left a message,” she said. “I explained who I was, what I’ve been through. I said, ‘Dude, don’t give up. Please don’t give up. We can get through this.’
“A few hours later he started texting me. It started with, ‘Oh, leave me alone.’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”
The conversation helped the veteran overcome his crisis and eventually reconnect with his family.
The video detailing their connection has been seen hundreds of thousands of times on social media. It’s a tear-jerker in no small part because the Kleenex company surprised Dague by bringing the veteran she helped to see her for the first time. Before then, they’d communicated only by phone.
“I know him,” she says in the video when he calls her name on camera.
Looking back, Dague said she began to recognize her ability to help others during her recovery from her wounds at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
She noticed her loved ones seemed lifted when she showed an upbeat attitude. They’d respond with positive energy she then used to help herself heal.
Brooke is one of the military’s most advanced hospitals for the wounded, treating burn victims and amputees.
“We all know everyone there is going to have a bad day,” Dague said. “When you see somebody there struggling, you’re like, ‘Come on dude, we all go together.’ ”
Dague had been serving with a Fort Lewis-based explosive ordnance company when she was wounded in the Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad. That day, an Iraqi team thought it had disabled a bomb and placed it in the back of a truck. The explosive rocked and Dague grabbed it.
Until then, the deployment was the most rewarding experience of her life. She loved the bonds she made with her teammates and the daily challenge of protecting soldiers from lethal mines.
“Man, if they gave me robot arms, I’d go right back in,” she said.
Her and Cribbett’s home is filled alternately with reminders of their military service and other mementos reflecting their mutual affection for science fiction.
Each has a “man cave” in the home where they play video games. Dague has a special controller so she can use her toes. She also communicates by text, using her “nubs” instead of fingers.
A massive flag Cribbett flew in Afghanistan hangs in their living room.
“It’s something we all sacrificed for,” said Cribbett, who serves with Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 787th Explosive Ordnance Company.
They’re joined by two dogs. One used to be Dague’s service canine; the other is a Chihuahua that followed her home.
Aside from the flag, the couple shows off their portraits with sc-fi celebrities such as George Takei of “Star Trek,” Ron Perlman of “Hellboy” and Spider-Man creator Stan Lee.
She and Cribbett share a love for those stories. They travel to Comic-Con every year in San Diego to meet the stars.
One of their friends drew a comic book version of Dague. In it, she hovers above a city in a superhero uniform. It shows her with prosthetic arms generating some kind of electrical force.
The frame calls her a real-life superhero.
“I always wanted to be a superhero,” she said. “I didn’t think it would happen.”