Garrett Jones: Life Is Good
May 2011 Issue
Mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis. All things change, and we change with them.
Improvise, adapt, overcome. This is the "unofficial" mantra of the U.S. Marine Corps, and veteran Garrett Jones, 25, knows it well. The heavily decorated, Purple Heart-honored Marine corporal epitomizes these three words both as a soldier and as a man.
Jones enlisted in the Marines in 2005, about a year after graduating from high school. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008 respectively. In Iraq, he served with the 2/7 infantry, conducting hundreds of combat operations and networking with Special Forces units and Scout Sniper teams—until—with only a few weeks left of the tour—he was injured while out on a routine foot patrol in a known enemy area.
"It was July 23, 2007," Jones recalls. "Middle of the afternoon. Hot as blazes. Al Qaida was watching me.... They used the palm tree as a marker, and when I got parallel with...[it]...they detonated a 155mm military artillery shell. A 155—it's a pretty devastating explosion. The fact that I am here is truly and purely a miracle because no one steps on a 155 and doesn't end up in about ten thousand pieces...."
The Few. The Proud.
First and foremost, Jones says that god must have been watching over him that day. "He looked out for me," Jones says. "And kudos to the Marines who were with me because if it wasn't for the Marines and corpsmen, I wouldn't have survived. I would have bled to death." Not only did his fellow Marines save his life, they also risked their own in the process. All got out alive.
Jones' life-threatening injuries resulted in the amputation of his left leg just below the hip. He was immediately evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, for the first of many surgeries to come. A few days later, he was transported to the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland. He eventually was transferred to the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD), California, for further treatment. All told, Jones underwent 17 surgeries, was treated for third-degree burns, and had shrapnel removed from his back, arm, and legs. On August 20, 2007, he was released from NMCSD—just in time to see his fellow Marines of Echo Company return home from Iraq, he says.
Then the tough work started.
Jones comes from a family of law enforcement, military, and professional shooting instructors and says he joined the Marines to follow in his father's footsteps and eventually go into law enforcement himself. While his injury changed his post-Marines plans, it did not deter him from completing a second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
"Getting ready to go back was no joke," Jones says. While at NMCSD, "I was either working out or swimming or at physical therapy or at prosthetics [gait training] almost eight hours a day...." He underwent this grueling recuperation, he says, "because I knew my guys were willing to bring me back and the Marines were willing to stand for me coming back, and that's what motivated me.... So I did my part and they did their part." Jones' "part" included returning to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, where he completed all of the predeployment training: shooting, moving, getting in and out of Humvees, rolling simulators, etc. Jones performed all of the same training exercises as his fellow soldiers, often repeating exercises just to "re-prove myself," he says. He's quick to point out, however, that his speed in completing the exercises never matched the speed he had before his amputation. "I wasn't beating the streets like I did before," he notes.
Jones was deployed to Afghanistan toward the end of April 2008—just nine months after losing his limb. "It was truly my choice," he says; however, rather than returning to the infantry, he was reassigned to intelligence. He also was no longer traveling light. "I had a lot of equipment that I took to Afghanistan. I was like...a traveling circus. I had three Pelican cases full of prosthetic equipment...liners and extra parts and knees and all kinds of stuff."
Despite the challenges of traveling with a veritable lab's worth of O&P devices and equipment, Jones says, "I made the whole tour in Afghanistan—April to...late October, early November." In a 2009 online article in the War on Terror News, Jones' lead prosthetist, Peter Harsch, CP, C5 Head of Prosthetics, NMCSD, said, in retrospect, "Jones has become the fastest recuperating amputee to deploy to a combat zone."
Looking back, Jones says Harsch was crucial to his recovery—"He and Randy Whiteside, [CP], were my saving grace. They didn't put any limits on me. When I told them I wanted to do something...they said, 'Okay, let's do it.' I had two of the world's best prosthetists that I could ever ask for when making that transition [to wearing a prosthesis]."
Part of that transition, Jones says, included snowboarding again—he hit the slopes two weeks after Harsch and Whiteside fitted him with his first prosthesis. Equipped with the XT9 prosthetic knee (Symbiotechs USA, McMinnville, Oregon), an extreme-activity-specific device, his 15-year passion for the sport was immediately reignited. His success on the mountain, "really opened my eyes that being an amputee wasn't going to be the end of the road for me...," he explains, "because if I could snowboard again and do it at a high level...[then I knew] there were a lot of other things I could do, and that was a motivating factor for redeploying."
Jones retired from the military after his second tour because he wanted to eventually marry and have a family. The military life, he believes, took its toll on his fellow Marines' wives, for whom he has the utmost respect. So, despite that he "loved being a Marine and the guys and the camaraderie," he says that it was just time for him to move on.
Although he didn't have "a special someone" when he retired, Jones is now married. He is looking forward to the end of his junior year at Western Oregon University, Monmouth, where he's pursuing a bachelor's degree in community health because, he says, it has all of the prerequisites he will need to get into the master of science in prosthetics and orthotics program at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Jones is also traveling a lot lighter these days. His everyday prosthesis is "something simple because I haul around everything, and I'm such a high amputee that I go for really light stuff."
Todd Nelson, CPO, Summit Orthotics & Prosthetics, Salem, Oregon, who has been Jones' prosthetist for more than a year now, says the veteran wears an Össur (Reykjavik, Iceland) seal-in liner, Total Knee, and Vari-Flex foot, with a Fillauer (Chattanooga, Tennessee) rotator. "Garrett is very active," Nelson says. "He's a very determined young man."
While Jones says his studies are his number-one priority, he makes time to promote the online company he cofounded, which reviews and sells high-end weapons and equipment. He volunteers with Oregon Adaptive Sports, teaching wounded warriors how to snowboard, which gives him the occasional opportunity to get in a few runs and cruise the mountain on his own. He also works part time as a technician for Nelson, who says that Jones has good rapport with amputee patients of all ages. "When they hear Garrett's story, they say he changes their whole perspective," Nelson says.
"In retrospect," Jones says about his injury, "I thank god it was me and not someone else because every amputee has good days and bad days, [and] I feel like I've handled it...and I've been able to adjust to it pretty well. As weird as this may sound, sometimes it's a blessing in disguise because if I hadn't got hurt, I don't know if I'd have the wife I have or the future I'm looking forward to now.
"Life is good," he adds. "School is good. My wife is a third-grade teacher...and we've got a baby on the way this summer and we're excited." In fact, the couple just found out that they are expecting a baby boy.
Laura Hochnadel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org