By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom
Over the past several years, I have become a “wounded warrior junkie.” If I go too long without meeting one or hearing their story, I need a fix. While many might find this odd—to find enjoyment from listening to stories of Soldier’s worst days and life-altering injuries—I find it humbling and inspiring.
Until I started working with the Army, I, like many Americans, took Soldiers for granted. Yes, I respected them. Yes, I recognized their sacrifice. Yes, I appreciated their willingness to serve. But no, I didn’t get really get it. I do now.
In my experience, Soldiers don’t like to talk about themselves—especially those who have been wounded or injured. To most, it’s just part of their job. A moment in their career. Nearly normal. To me, it’s an honor to listen to how men and women performed their job to the best of their ability, in some cases putting themselves in harm’s way to save others. To hear how the team came first—before the one. To listen to the medical miracles that walk amongst us. To learn about the big goals they set and achieve. It’s real life history direct from the source. It’s amazing.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to interview 17 COAD/COAR Soldiers. Soldiers who continued on active duty/reserve after being found unfit for duty as a result of being combat wounded or injured. As SFC Jarrett Jongema told me, “We all have a story to tell.” Here are highlights from a few:
- “We were the Cavalry for the Cavalry,” explained National Guardsman SGT Tony Wood of his unit in Iraq at Camp Shield. In 2005 a daisy-chain of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), an explosively formed penetrator (EFP), and two grenades exploding inside his vehicle, wiped out his entire crew and severely injured him (45 days in a coma and 25 surgeries). “The biggest thing for me is that my team is gone—that still hangs me up. I promised to bring them home.” Yet, he continues to serve saying, “It might be corny, but I believe in the Army values.”
- SSG Jonathan Looney was a senior scout in Iraq when he was injured in Iraq in 2007. “I was in the back of the convoy this day. There was no traffic. That’s never good. We were by a brick factory and boom. I felt the impact, but was more worried about my Soldiers and truck.” The explosion caused his spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury (TBI). “My goal was to serve 20 years in active duty, when I was injured I thought it was over.” But through the Army’s COAD/COAR program, he can fulfill that career goal at the Armor School at Fort Benning. “I want to be that Soldier that works with others Soldiers and show them that if I can—they can.”
- “I’m 11 Bravo,” and that’s about all you need to know about SSG John Stevenson. During his fourth deployment to Iraq he was injured by an EFP including blindness in his right eye, TBI, and the shattering of his right arm. Regarding his TBI, he explained, “My brain moved 7mm to the right inside my head.” As to why he’s continued to serve when he could have easily medically retired, Stevenson stated, “My goal for doing this is to pay it forward.” Which could also explain why he’s now an 11 Bravo instructor at Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, AL. Of wounded warriors, he states, “We have a lot to offer—a lot to give back.” And to other wounded who are considering staying in the Army, Stevenson offers this advice, “Do not let people tell you what you do not want to hear. Have a goal and stick to it. I will retire on my own terms with a college degree, having done it my own way.”
- SPC Bryan Camacho loves the cohesion and camaraderie of the infantry. “No one comes close anywhere else—we are the best at what we do. The environment sucks but we manage to have fun and look out for each other. When one is hurt, we’re all hurt. We just pick each other up and move forward.” But Camacho is now adjusting to a new job. As he explained it, he moved from the front line to a front desk after his legs were paralyzed in 2007 when he was ejected from his Humvee. But of his job at the Fort Campbell Soldier Family Assistance Center (SFAC), he explained, “I am still helping Soldiers in a leadership position—it’s just in an office and not on the battlefield.” He plans to stay in and have a full career in the Army. “I cannot quit, but that’s common among most Soldiers. We push forward and don’t stop for less than our best.”
- “Every day the doctor saw me, he said ‘you should be dead,’” SGT Lee Turner shared, then quickly added, “I am just a miracle walking.” As to what drives him, Turner explained, “I’m alive. The Army kept me alive. The Army, as a whole, is the greatest thing in the world.” As a 13 Bravo, Turner was on foot patrol with an eight-man squad when the Soldier behind him stepped on an IED. Twenty-nine surgeries later, Turner is back in uniform continuing to serve 13 Bravos as an Advanced Individual Training (AIT) instructor at Fort Sill. “My motivation is to wake up each day to train 13 Bravos. That motivates the crap out of me.”
These are just a few of the stories I heard over a two-day period. While you might think their stories are unique, SGT Molly Holub stated, “I don’t see a difference between us and other Soldiers. We can do as much—and as much good for the Army.”
After listening to each Soldier, I asked them all the same thing in closing, “Knowing what you know, knowing what you’ve been through, would you do it all again?” And while all their previous answers were personal and diverse, this question yielded the same response, a passionate, “Absolutely!”
You can listen to more of these Soldiers, as well as remarks from wounded retired GEN Frederick Franks, Jr., firsthand in a new video on the WTC website.
Finally, to those who shared their stories—thank you. And, to those who want to—just let me know when and where!