For almost a third of his life, Jason Frei served his country as a Marine. But just four days into the war, the 31-year-old captain was caught in an Iraqi ambush outside Nasiriyah.
He survived the rocket-propelled grenade that struck his Humvee, but his military career may not. The explosion blew off his right hand.
“I looked down and saw my hand was gone,” Frei recalled from his Oceanside home, where he is recovering. “I thought, ‘There’s nothing you can do now.’ ... I wrapped a radio cord around it to stop the bleeding, and I had to find out if other Marines were hurt.”
He was the only American casualty in the ambush.
His wife, Valerie, learned that her husband had been wounded when another Marine captain -- a friend of Frei’s -- knocked on her door. He wore civilian clothes, fearing that the sight of a uniformed officer would send a more ominous message.
About four days after he was wounded, Frei was flown to a military hospital in Germany, where he called his wife. Valerie Frei flew to Maryland to meet him when he was transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Frei said he feels “incredibly lucky” to be home with his wife and children Robbie, 3, and Molly, 2. The family’s strong religious beliefs have helped him endure, he said, and that faith is symbolized by the words on his key chain: “Life is short. Pray hard.”
The Hazen, N.D., native said he has been overwhelmed by well-wishers who have called and showered his family with gifts. On a recent morning, a deliveryman dropped off a large basket of cookies.
“Thank you for serving for us,” the deliveryman said.
An embarrassed-looking Frei was speechless.
“It hasn’t stopped since I returned home Saturday,” he said.
Frei, whose father served as an infantryman in Vietnam, is well aware of the contrast between his homecoming and the cold reception many Vietnam veterans received.
“I think our country has learned from that experience,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to come back from a war and face the public’s negative reaction from the time you stepped off the plane.”
Frei said he has spent much of his time since coming home watching the war on television. He tries to follow the progress of his unit, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.
He had not heard from anybody in his regiment until Wednesday morning, when Lt. Col. James Seaton Eaton, commander of the regiment, called via satellite phone from Iraq.
“Jason, I’m calling to see how you’re doing,” said Seaton, sounding more like a concerned father than Frei’s commander.
“I’m doing well, sir. They’ve got my arm all sewn up. I’m trying to get things situated here at home and figure out what I’m going to do next,” he said.
The U.S. Naval Academy graduate wants to remain a Marine but knows that war is for young men unencumbered by disabilities. Still, Frei wonders if the corps, where he has served for nine years, has a spot for an experienced but disabled battery commander.
“The Marine Corps is not a charitable organization,” he said matter-of-factly. “They don’t exist to make work for one-armed officers. If I can meet the standards and do my job, and if they’ll have me, I’d like to stay in.”
Although there is a small number of disabled servicemen in the military, a Marine spokesman said it is too early to determine Frei’s future. He is on 30 days’ convalescent leave, and Navy doctors will fit him with a prosthesis as soon as his wound heals, the spokesman said.
Gary Crossland, a veterans service officer with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, said it is unlikely that the Marines would allow someone in Frei’s situation to remain on active duty. Crossland said medical and physical evaluation boards determine a wounded serviceman’s disability and whether he can remain in the military.
Frei realizes there may not be a spot in the Marine Corps for an officer missing a hand.
If that is the case, Frei said, he might fall back on the engineering degree he earned at Annapolis, where he graduated in 1994.
“Everybody has to get out of the Marine Corps at some time,” he said. “After nine years, it may be time to get out.”
Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.