Special Report

Vet wounded in Afghanistan makes painful journey back to civilian life

Warrior transition units are equipped to help wounded troops bridge divide between military, civilian worlds

Staff Sgt. Marcos Jimenez steeled himself for the task ahead, one of the most difficult he had faced in nearly four years.

The stocky field artilleryman frowned in concentration. Took a deep breath. Tensed his muscles. Jumped. And managed to clear the 6-inch-tall yellow hurdle, one of half a dozen lined up in front of him in the bright, airy clinic south of Seattle.

Both legs made it over — his healthy left one and his shattered right, encased in a high-tech custom brace that Jimenez was still getting accustomed to.

"Let me tell you," Jimenez said, panting from exertion. "It took. A lot. To do that."

On March 19, 2011, on a dusty road in Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device turned Jimenez's 19-ton armored vehicle into a hulk of twisted metal. The blast fractured his right leg, his left arm, his spinal cord. Four of his front teeth were knocked out in the explosion, which also punched a hole in his forehead not far from the bridge of his nose.

For most of the last year, Jimenez lived in a tan, one-story house equipped with ramps and wheelchair-accessible showers built specially for wounded service members in the sprawl of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Across the country, the Army operates 25 such wounded warrior transition units for more than 3,600 soldiers, an effort to bridge the often yawning space between military lives and the civilian world most soldiers will have to inhabit once they heal.

It can be solitary duty, often painful, usually lonely.

"It's not an easy road," Jimenez said during a short break between meeting with his social worker at the base and his appointment for adjustments to the brace that allows him to move without pain.

The leg is healing. Less clear at that time was what Jimenez's life would be like outside the protective embrace of the warrior transition unit. His wife and three sons lived there with him on base, but it was not the same for them; they didn't have to talk themselves into going out. When people came up and wanted to talk about something, they weren't scared.

"I feel very, very disconnected," Jimenez said. "It feels like you don't belong to nothing. It feels like, when somebody is talking to you, you're there, but you just want to hurry up and go."

::

Jimenez enlisted in the Army straight out of Anaheim High School, where a recruiter at a career fair told him, "You know, not only can you travel, but you can do something for your country."

"I said, 'Sign me up.'"

He was 19 years old, sixth in a family of nine children, the only member of his extended family to have served in the military. "My father wasn't too happy with it," Jimenez said. "But he understood."

Jimenez was proud of the work he and his men were doing in Afghanistan, building wells so villagers could water their crops, feed their families, survive. These are people, he said, who "want to live their lives just like everybody else.... They needed a little bit of help getting there."

On that March day, he was leading a platoon in Logar province, part of a multinational force in a remote village called Pakhab-e-Shana. The Americans were checking wells, the Jordanians inspecting mosques for damage from a recent storm.

"The last thing I remember telling my guys was, 'Hey, it's getting late. Let's get out of here,'" he recalled. "And I wake up in the United States."

Jimenez was medevaced back to base, unconscious. And then on to Bagram air base. And Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. And Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he woke up after weeks in a coma, yelling and throwing punches, his Purple Heart pinned to his hospital bed.

He eventually returned to Ft. Sill, Okla., where he'd been stationed before he was sent to Afghanistan. That's where he joined his first outpatient warrior transition unit, where he was presented with the Bronze Star, where he began his long journey back to health.

Along the way, surgeons inserted a pole into his right tibia and another into his left ulna. They repaired the hole in his forehead; only a small scar remains to this day. He got dental implants to replace his lost teeth.

He finally learned to walk again — a slow process from hospital bed to wheelchair to walker to his own two feet. He learned again to drive, at first with a special vehicle equipped with hand controls.

The warrior transition unit, in Oklahoma and later in Washington state, was a refuge from the world at large, and for that, Jimenez is grateful. His wounds — inside and out — were cared for. His wife and three sons were surrounded by other military families, people who understood what their lives were like without explanation.

"Living with PTSD outside the military, you feel even worse and forgotten," Jimenez said.

"Being wounded is not easy," he said. "It's very, very difficult going from 100 miles an hour to zero. Being on a mission daily, and now you're in bed with all these injuries.... But I took a look at my children. That right there alone, I said, 'I've got to do something. I've got to get back up. I've got to fight.'"

::

At 4 a.m. on this Wednesday in September, the Jimenez family is sound asleep. Everyone, that is, except the soldier himself.

Alone in the early-morning darkness, Jimenez makes coffee and prepares for the day. Sleep, as always, is elusive. After a couple of hours, the nightmares wake him.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday: nightmares. Morning formation. Adaptability physical fitness. Appointments with his social worker, doctors, physical therapist, primary-care manager. Sometimes a night class en route to his master's degree in organizational leadership.

Tuesday and Thursday: nightmares. Then the rush-hour drive on Interstate 5 in his big silver pickup, its personalized license plates emblazoned with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. As an intern with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jimenez was translating documents and hoping for a job there when he eventually separated from the Army.

The homemade bomb that ushered him into the wounded warrior battalion brought an early end to his 20-year military career.

In January 2014, after what he hoped was his last surgery, Jimenez began the discharge process, a blend of paperwork, physical exams, and evaluations by the Army and Veterans Affairs to determine how much disability compensation he'd be entitled to. Transition unit staff shepherded him through the cumbersome effort.

It is among the last steps in a long transition to civilian life.

"Some of our soldiers, even if they're not so young, this uniform is all they've ever known," says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Mosso, commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Lewis-McChord. "Our thing, it comes down to the fundamentals: We've got to make sure you've got a place to live. We've got to make sure you can pay the bills. Got to make sure you can feed your family."

No amount of assistance could make the system move faster or end the uncertainty.

By September, Jimenez had already endured eight months of limbo, with no way of knowing when his new life would begin, no way of putting plans in motion.

Reticent and soft-spoken under the best of circumstances, Jimenez is even more reluctant when he talks about what he calls "the worries" — the things that haunt him in the darkness, that force him awake, drenched in sweat, his heart pounding.

"There's times when the dogs are barking, and I go outside," he said. "There's days that you feel scared. Just different things go through your head. The fact that you don't ..." The sentence trails off. Jimenez pauses. "It's hard to control your future right now."

He has, however, made progress. A few months earlier, he would never have been caught in a public place like the Gig Harbor coffee shop where he was waiting for his physical therapy appointment.

"I lost all my friends because there was a time when I just sat back and I just didn't want nobody to bother me," he said. "I was never violent or nothing. I just wanted my own space. I just wanted to be left alone."

::

The week before Thanksgiving, Jimenez's military career finally came to an end.

He moved his family to the Inland Empire city of Murrieta, into a refurbished house donated by a nonprofit group called Building Homes for Heroes. The kids enrolled at the local school. And they all began the slow transition to civilian life.

They are still getting used to the Southern California traffic. The weather. Life outside the comfort of a military base. Jimenez landed a position with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Bernardino, as an enforcement and removal assistant. He hopes to begin working toward his doctorate in the fall.

He is grateful for the warrior transition unit. He is hopeful about his life ahead. And he is moving on.

"Nothing will bring back the person I once was," he texted after work one recent day. "All I can do now is take the person I am now and move forward."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Twitter: @marialaganga

This is one of several reports on the growing separation between America's all-volunteer military and the public it serves. http://www.latimes.com/volunteer-army

 

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