Article and photos by Sgt. Ray Lewis
Task Force 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force
CAMP BARBER, Helmand Province, Afghanistan â€“ There was blood in the water. It was a grim addition to the Iraqi sewage canal usually littered with dead sheep and festering fish.
Thatâ€™s where the Marines of Company E, 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division found their comrade after the attack.
Just seconds before, Cpl. Garrett S. Jones was patrolling the streets of Iraq with his team when he was suddenly hurled 15 feet into the air by an enemy booby trap.
â€œIt was just a big dust cloud,â€ said Cpl. Robert C. Pofahl, who stood 10 feet in front of Jones when the bomb detonated. â€œI ran toward him, and I fell in the canal. The mud was almost up to my knees. It was probably the worst smell you could smell. Thatâ€™s when I saw the blood in the water.â€
When Pofahl saw Jones lying there, he feared his friendâ€™s life was cut short. Barely alive, Jonesâ€™ life was about to be changed forever.
Pofahl remembers an explosion, tumbling forward, turning back around and hearing Jones yell at the top of his lungs. He then raced to put a tourniquet on Jonesâ€™ mangled bloody left leg.
â€œIt sounded like I was whispering and because of the explosion, I couldnâ€™t catch my breath,â€ Jones said.
When Pofahl arrived at Jonesâ€™ position, he realized he couldnâ€™t lift him out of the canal. The muddy water almost made it impossible for Pofahl to grab a hold of Jones. So, he called two other Marines to help pull Jones out.
â€œWe got him up on the side of the road,â€ Pofahl said. â€œThatâ€™s when Navy Hospitalman Matthew Beceda took over. He cranked the tourniquet one more time, but it snapped. So he had to put another tourniquet on Jones.â€
Jones was stable, but the Marines couldnâ€™t call for help because the radio that Jones was wearing was ruined from the blast. They sent three other Marines from the squad to run 1,200 meters back to their combat outpost for help. A group of Marines stayed with Jones and his squad leader who was also injured by the blast.
The next thing Jones knew, he was on board a helicopter flight headed for the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He was strapped into a gurney with a military chaplain hovering over him.
â€œThe chaplain asked me if I wanted to pray,â€ said Jones, a 23-year-old Newberg, Ore., native. â€œWe prayed. Then the doctor told me my left leg would be amputated above the knee.â€
Shortly after, Jones was in surgery. He awoke a couple days later, but said he doesnâ€™t recall much after the operation but a phone conversation with his relatives.
â€œI just remember talking to my family,â€ he said. â€œI remember saying, â€˜I hear they make really good prosthetics.â€™â€
Upon leaving the hospital in Germany, Jones was once again strapped into a gurney and flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where his wounds were cleansed and torn flesh was removed from his body.
â€œIt seemed like forever,â€ Jones said. â€œI had a bunch of tubes stuck in me. I was so drugged up I didnâ€™t feel much of anything. I donâ€™t remember much, but I do remember that one of my buddies who was shot by a sniper was also on the same flight. I didnâ€™t know what happened to him, I just saw that he had a bunch of tubes stuck in his chest.â€
Military medical officials then transferred Jones to Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) for further treatment. As a result of being restricted to a hospital bed, Jones wound up losing a lot of weight.
â€œI went from about 160 to 120 lbs.,â€ Jones said. â€œI was in the bed almost all the time. The only time I got up was to do stretching and go to the bathroom. If I wasnâ€™t in my bed, I was in a wheelchair.â€
During his recovery, Jones had a total of 17 surgeries to clean the infected area in his left leg. He was treated for third-degree burns and shrapnel that peppered his left shoulder and both legs.
On Aug. 20, 2007, Jones was released from NMCSD — just in time to see his fellow Marines of Echo Company return home from Iraq.
â€œI was at their homecoming in a wheelchair completely drugged up,â€ Jones said. â€œSeeing my guys was emotional for me because we were all so close, and I knew I wouldnâ€™t be here if it wasnâ€™t for them. When we all get together, itâ€™s like a family reunion. Weâ€™re a tight-knit group. We had difficulties at times, but what family doesnâ€™t.â€
Jones yearned to be back with his Marine family. Although he didnâ€™t say it, he kept in mind that he one day wanted to serve with the Marines who saved his life.
â€œWe all wanted him back,â€ Pofahl said. â€œHeâ€™s a good guy to have your back. Heâ€™d take the shirt off of his back if you need it. At the same time, we were like, â€˜How would he be able to do that because of rehab and all.â€™â€
In the meantime, Jones continued his appointments. In November, he finally linked up with a prosthetist who would help him become familiar with the functions of prosthetics. The prosthetist fit Jones for a total of six walking prosthetics and one snowboarding prosthetic.
An avid fan of snowboarding, Jones realized his potential during a snowboarding trip to Breckenridge, Colo., with fellow wounded warriors from NMCSD and his sister, Sara, in early December 2007. Although Jones had only been on his new prosthetic for two weeks, he was eager to go snowboarding — a passion of his for more than 15 years.
â€œThe first day, I was able to make it down the mountain,â€ Jones said. â€œAs the days progressed, I got stronger and more confident on my snowboard.â€
Surprisingly, all of the snowboarding helped him deaden some of the nerve endings in his left leg. It also helped him become more accustomed to walking on his prosthetic leg.
â€œOnce I knew I could snowboard again, I realized I was going to be able to do a lot more than just snowboard,â€ Jones said. â€œI was like, â€˜If I could snowboard, who knows what else I can do?â€™ It kind of opened my mind up to all the other possibilities.â€
Meanwhile, Jones continued his daily physical therapy, stretching, and prosthetic appointments at NMCSD.
â€œI just kept thinking about my next snowboard trip and getting back to 2/7 ASAP,â€ Jones said.
Later, in February 2008, Jones was visited by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway. Seizing the moment of this rare opportunity, he asked the Marine commander for orders to return to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., so he could once again serve with 2/7.
â€œI asked to come back to 2/7, and his assistant took my info,â€ Jones explained. â€œAnd, a couple of days later, I had orders back to 2/7. I was so excited I almost didnâ€™t believe it.â€
When Jones checked back into his battalion, many of the Marines were awestruck. They couldnâ€™t believe how much progress he had made on a prosthetic leg in less than a year.
â€œNone of us knew how advanced prosthetics were,â€ Pofahl said. â€œHeâ€™s been called a walking legend, literally. Weâ€™re all glad to have him around. Heâ€™s a really positive and hard worker; one of those guys who donâ€™t let anything get to him, obviously,â€ Pofahl said.
Although Jones couldnâ€™t return to the infantry, he was able to serve in other sections within the battalion and was subsequently assigned to the intelligence section where he is relied upon to provide his fellow infantrymen with vital information that can aid in keeping them away from harmful situations.
â€œAt first I didnâ€™t know what I was able to do,â€ Jones said. â€œItâ€™s good to be able to do something that will keep Marines safe. Although I canâ€™t be out there with them, I get to directly help them.â€
Jones wanted to deploy with his unit when it was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan in April 2008. But, he wasnâ€™t yet ready to undergo the intense Mojave Viper pre-deployment training. Regardless, he would get no handouts despite being a new amputee. Realizing he is still a Marine, he knew he would have to prove himself all over again.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t just a hookup,â€ Jones said. â€œI had to do all the training all other Marines do.â€
Jones participated in â€œhumveeâ€ scenarios, close quarters combat drills, survival training, machine gun packages, combat life saver courses, and several other pre-deployment courses. Although he had gone through this training before, this was his first time enduring it as an amputee.
â€œMy leg popped off a couple of times in the humvee scenario and once when I was leaving a range,â€ Jones said. â€œI thought it was funny because â€˜How many guys walk around with combat loads and have a leg fall off?â€™ I still did it to prove that I could deploy as an amputee.â€
Once all physical and administrative requirements were complete, Jones was ready to deploy and help the Marines who once helped him.
â€œI love being with the guys, the same people. I really do,â€ Jones said. â€œIf it wasnâ€™t for the guys in this unit, I wouldnâ€™t be here. Itâ€™s an honor to serve with them and be in a place where many Marines donâ€™t get a chance to go.â€
Recovering in just nine months, Jones has become the fastest recuperating amputee to deploy to a combat zone. Still, many people have doubted his ability to survive a seven-month deployment on a prosthetic limb.
â€œA lot a people were skeptical of me because Iâ€™m a new amputee,â€ Jones said. â€œItâ€™s been a little bit of a challenge for me, mentally at first. People were saying, â€˜Its going to be hard and I canâ€™t do it.â€™ So, being out here was a confidence builder.â€
Jones still struggles with walking. He said it takes a lot of energy to walk in combat boots for 14 hours a day with all the sweating, straining and refitting inside of his prosthetic leg.
He said he will always feel slight discomfort on his left leg because of nerve and bone growth along the skin line of his amputated leg. But, he considers it a small price to pay when comparing it to losing a life.
â€œWeâ€™re talking about a guy who almost died in battle and came back to a similar fight,â€ said Sgt. Paul E. Savage, an intelligence specialist and Boston, Mass., native. â€œThe fact that it didnâ€™t scare him to come back to his buddies truly speaks volumes of Cpl. Jonesâ€™ character.â€
Jones said he wants to stay in the Marine Corps because he enjoys serving in such a loyal organization. The career retention specialist (CRS) has even submitted a permanent limited duty (PLD) package so he can continue his military career.
â€œEveryone here has been supportive in helping me get this reenlistment package started. The CRS submitted a PLD package for me back in March 2008. We are still waiting on that to be finished,â€ said a hopeful Jones, expressing how he felt about returning to serve with 2/7. â€œA lot of people are like family here. I guess thatâ€™s partly why Iâ€™m so happy to be here.â€
Despite his abrupt loss of limb, Jones remains upbeat and always keeps his peers in high spirits.
â€œHeâ€™s always motivated,â€ said Gunnery Sgt. Michael J. Ortiz, battalion intelligence chief and Miami, Fla., native. â€œHis morale is always high. The only time I see him upset is when he sees someone hurt or killed because he takes it personal. But, he always bounces back and visits whoever it is in the hospital to see how they are.â€
Jones said he personally meets with new amputees to show them there is â€œlight at the end of the â€˜canal.â€™â€ He wants them to know just because they are an amputee, it doesnâ€™t mean that they canâ€™t reach their goals.
â€œIâ€™ve told them to keep their head up,â€ Jones said. â€œI want to show them that if I can do it, they can do it. I want to set the example for other amputees. I want to show them that a bad thing might happen, but you can still make good of bad circumstances.â€
Jonesâ€™ co-workers all feel that his commitment shows he has authentic concern for his Marines. He also has kept in contact with many wounded warriors when they returned home to the U.S.
â€œHe doesnâ€™t know a lot of these Marines, but he doesnâ€™t care. I know heâ€™s made multiple calls to amputeesâ€™ doctors to check on how theyâ€™re doing. I think itâ€™s awesome that he does that. It shows that he genuinely cares about his Marines,â€ Ortiz said.
Jones is the first Marine with an above-the-knee amputation to deploy to Afghanistan. There have not been many of these amputees to redeploy to a combat zone to date.
â€œNinety percent of the guys in his situation would have likely walked away with their disability and called it a day,â€ Savage said. â€œBut, heâ€™s still striving to make a point and itâ€™s remarkable.â€
Jones continues to push his personal, mental and physical limits. When he returns to the U.S., he wants to train in Utah in early December and represent the Marine Corps in adaptive snowboarding. Competitions will be held in Colorado, Canada, and possibly Italy. He said the competitions will help him prepare to compete in the 2010 Paralympics for snowboarding in Vancouver, Canada.
Corporal Jones wants to continue serving with the 1st Marine Division as an intelligence specialist. He also wants to keep helping fellow amputees continue their service in the Marine Corps. He said he is sending a letter to the commandant entitled, â€œBack on their Feet and Back in the Fleet.â€ The letter entails getting PLD packages completed for more wounded Marines in a timelier manner for those who desire to stay in the Marine Corps.
â€œJust because you have an injury, it doesnâ€™t mean you have to leave the Marine Corps,â€ Jones said. â€œYou just have to work hard. I want to let those guys know back in the States that there is a place for you. I plan on being one of those examples.â€