A proud soldier's battle back:
"So this is what it's like to get blown up"
Spc. John West cringes in pain as a nurse helps him back into
bed at Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma, where he arrived in
September. The Army National Guard soldier was injured when his Humvee
triggered a roadside bomb in Iraq. He's now home in Federal Way and
able to walk on his own but continues extensive physical therapy.
By Warren King Seattle Times
medical reporter; December 06, 2004
In a cramped little office near Madigan Army Medical Center's
physical-therapy room, Spc. John West stares hard at a computer screen
filled with an X-ray of his spine and pelvis.
An X-ray shows the rods and bolts that stabilize his spine and pelvis.
It's the first time he's seen the image, dominated by the metal
rods and 6-inch screws that shore up his fractured bones like girders
and rebar. He is seeing his future.
"Jesus. Oh, my god," he says, his voice breaking. "So I'm stuck."
West, a 38-year-old former Marine turned software developer,
joined the Army National Guard two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, out of a strong sense of duty.
In August, he was on patrol in Iraq when a roadside bomb blew
his Humvee 20 feet in the air. His gunner was killed. The blast broke
West's back, pelvis, heel bone and leg. His platoon leader also was
While the nation mourns the 1,200 Americans who have died
fighting in Iraq, more than seven times that number have been injured
since the war began. That includes nearly 300 wounded servicemen and
women from Washington state.
Many have recovered and returned to their units. Some remain at
Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the military's
main stateside hospital for war wounded. Others, such as West, are back
home, undergoing outpatient treatment and facing an uncertain future of
adjustment and disability.
"At first, I was really angry. This seemed kind of unfair," West
said. "But really it's not. It's part of my duty — like going on
patrol. When this happens, it's your job to get better."
West, who lives in Federal Way, is a tough-minded,
matter-of-fact soldier. He tends to see his challenges clearly and deal
with them head-on. He has forged his way through life with grit and an
intellectual curiosity that has served him well — from a difficult
childhood through military service, college, a variety of jobs and
finally to the world of computers and software at Microsoft.
His story provides a window into how the military handles the
thousands of wounded in Iraq, the improvements in battlefield medical
care and the challenges these injured servicemen and women face.
Though the force of the bomb's explosion was tremendous, West's
heart and other internal organs were protected by Kevlar-and-ceramic
body armor all combat soldiers now wear. His bones suffered most in the
The sophisticated military medical system brought to bear just
moments after the blast has dramatically improved survival rates of the
war-injured over the years. About one in three of those wounded died in
Vietnam and World War II. In Iraq, about one in 10 of those injured has
Now back home, West works to heal his broken body and quiet the
fears that trouble his combat-weary mind.
West strains to lift his leg during physical therapy at Madigan Army
Medical Center. The hospital has treated 1,400 military personnel who
have fought in Iraq. About 60 have been hospitalized.
At Madigan, south of Tacoma, he takes in the image of his
patched-up back and pelvis. He turns to therapist Steve Travers and
asks what his chances are of enjoying his two favorite pastimes again:
bicycling and backpacking with his wife, Rebecca, and their four
Travers speaks frankly.
"I think you have a fair fight on your hands. Yes, it could be
rough," he says. "But I think those goals are realistic."
Getting blown up
It was blazing hot last Aug. 4 when West drove the lead Humvee
in a four-vehicle caravan patrolling outside the Anaconda supply base,
about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. A gunner poked from a turret atop
Months of the grueling duty had given the scouts — all from the
81st Brigade's 1st Battalion, 303rd Armor, out of Kent — a special edge.
"The longer you're on patrol, the more you get nervous. Where's
it gonna come from?" West said. "Out there, you never know."
This time it came from a bomb buried under the road.
West remembers only waking up, hanging nearly upside down by his
seat belt and screaming for help. His gunner, Spc. Donald McCune, later
died of his injuries. Two others were in the Humvee. Sgt. Robert
Johnson, who escaped injury, swept the area for other bombs and with
others dug frantically to free West. Lt. Timothy Ozmer, the platoon
leader, escaped but was seriously injured.
"I was having a hard time breathing," West recalled. "A lot of
them were telling me to stay calm, don't move, and I kept thinking, 'So
this is what it's like to get blown up.' "
The bomb's impact was devastating.
As West's body lurched forward, three vertebrae and five other
spinal bones were fractured. On the left side of his pelvis, a
horseshoe-shaped structure called the ischium cracked in two places.
His left heel bone fractured. His right fibula, in the lower
leg, was broken. His right lung ruptured. The blast ripped the skin and
fat from his lower back, and tore his scrotum. Later, his pancreas and
gallbladder became infected.
"I think he was very lucky," said Dr. Timothy Kuklo, the
orthopedic surgeon who operated on West at Walter Reed.
The spinal injury nearly paralyzed him.
In the ruined Humvee, West remembers, his rescuers told him he
was going home. He felt guilty for being happy about that.
About 30 minutes after the explosion, he and Ozmer were aboard a
helicopter flying to a nearby field hospital. West eased in and out of
consciousness, his pain on hold from a morphine injection.
Doctors at the Combat Support Hospital, known as the "Cash,"
temporarily stabilized his shattered bones, drained blood from his
back, installed a drainage tube in his lung and gave him blood. Two
days later, he was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a
sprawling American military hospital near Ramstein, Germany, so he
could be further prepared for the trip to Walter Reed.
Such rapid medical care is typical in Iraq. Every soldier knows
first aid; most units have a "combat lifesaver" who can provide
advanced first aid, such as starting an IV, and some have a combat
medic, trained at the level of an emergency medical technician. Field
hospitals have high-tech equipment, and long-range evacuation aircraft
are staffed with doctors, nurses and respiratory technicians.
At Landstuhl, West was agitated — when he was conscious. He
pulled at the tube in his lungs, at his neck brace and at the tube that
helped him breathe. He thinks he remembers someone tightening screws in
his pelvis, but it was really nurses turning him in bed. He remembers,
for sure, being fed ice chips by his wife, Rebecca, who had flown to
Germany to be with him.
"I think you probably knew at some level I was there," Rebecca,
30, told him recently as he struggled to remember those first days
after the blast.
After three days at Landstuhl, West flew to Washington, D.C., on
a half-full Air Force evacuation plane, beds stacked four high and two
wide. Nurses and Rebecca checked on him throughout the 10-hour flight.
Doctors at Walter Reed moved quickly to repair his wobbly spine to
prevent nerve damage and paralysis.
Dr. Kuklo fused the vertebrae from the middle of West's back to
the base of his spine. The surgeon then attached an 8-inch titanium rod
down each side of his lower spine, held in place by 2-inch screws.
The metal will stabilize West's spine and help his bones heal.
It won't be removed unless an infection develops. The same is true for
the two 6-inch bolts in his pelvis, installed in a separate operation
several days later.
West wore a shin-high cast for a month to allow his heel bone to
mend. His leg fracture healed without a cast. The skin on his lower
back healed with medical dressings, and his scrotum was sutured and
Antibiotics cured his inflamed pancreas, but his gallbladder had
to be removed at Madigan, where he arrived Sept. 3 — six months after
leaving his home, his family and his job to fight in Iraq.
Spc. John West shows progress in the healing of a surgical wound from
the removal of his gallbladder. In the background are wife Rebecca and
It's still a tough climb up the stairs of West's home in Federal Way.
But he walks on his own now, after spending months with a walker and
A home at Microsoft
West's parents divorced when he was 10, and he left California
to live with his father in Oklahoma. His two sisters stayed with his
mother. His father, an electronics technician who struggled with
alcoholism, moved from job to job — first in Oklahoma, then back in
In high school, West was "geekly," as he describes it, and
interested in science. But he didn't do well in school.
"I consistently sounded off at people because I was easily
offended," he said. "I didn't have any social skills whatever."
In 1984, West quit school in his senior year and joined the
Marine Corps. He worked as an electrician on the EA-6B Prowler
airplane, stationed in North Carolina, Japan, the Philippines and
aboard an aircraft carrier.
After four years in the Marines, he earned a two-year degree in
science, then worked a series of jobs: for an aircraft company in San
Diego, on a fishing boat and processing plant in Alaska, for a computer
company in Tacoma. He married, fathered a son and divorced after five
In 1995, West landed a temporary job at Microsoft, repairing
printers and monitors. He thrived there, often staying late to teach
himself about programming and various products. He was laid off after
two years but returned to Microsoft in a permanent job a year later.
His job was a bright spot. So was his relationship with Rebecca,
whom he had met through an on-line dating service in February 2001.
The Sept. 11 attacks left West deeply moved. He tried to
re-enlist in the Marines but was rejected, at age 35, as being too old.
He joined the Army National Guard in December 2001.
"Our country was calling and still is calling," said West, who
didn't think enough volunteers were stepping up after 9/11. "If you can
do military service, it is a duty, not really a choice."
On Nov. 15, 2003, West was called to active duty, eight months
after he married Rebecca and settled in with her and her three
children. He left for Iraq in March.
Rebecca sent him off with a lock of her hair and a foot-long
knife he kept strapped to his chest.
He called it "Becca's Fist."
Price of recovery: pain
Two times a week, West's new battle is in full swing in
Madigan's gymnasium-size physical-therapy room. He also swims once a
week and works out privately. His fellow patients include other
soldiers who served in Iraq, active-duty military personnel, retirees
and dependents. But very few have the multiple injuries he suffered.
He was bedridden for two months and now focuses on rebuilding
his cardiovascular and muscle strength and tuning up his coordination.
On a recent morning, his workout started with 10 minutes of
pedaling on a stationary bicycle, then moved to a mat for leg lifts.
His lips were set thin, his face red as he puffed with each lift. He
rolled to his right, and pain from nerve damage exploded through his
arm. "I'm pinned," he said, before rolling back and struggling to sit
West then practiced rotating his hips while sitting on a big,
orange ball, and later played catch with a small, heavy medicine ball.
Finally, Travers, his physical therapist, asked West to walk in place
while sitting on the big ball, arms swinging opposite to his foot steps.
The exercises retune his body's sense of movement and spatial
orientation — an ability called proprioception.
The hardware in his back limits his body rotation, hip extension
and arm swing. It hurts when he bends over. Putting on his socks takes
at least five minutes.
The physical therapy makes him stronger, but the price is pain.
He's frustrated that his strength is not returning faster.
"I used to be a really strong man," he said, "Now I'm one of the
Still, his progress has been steady: from agonizing,
nurse-assisted walks, to using a walker, to unassisted walks up the 19
steps from his driveway to the living room of his yellow, split-level
Terri Metzler, a physical-therapist technician at Madigan, encourages
West after he has trouble lifting his arm during a therapy session.
"He is very much a glass-is-half-full person," Travers said. "He
has been very positive every step of the way. It's very impressive that
his enthusiasm is always there."
Much of that attitude, West said, stems from Rebecca's
rock-steady support. She sympathizes, prods and teases him. She brings
him his favorite peppermint soap. She doesn't let him feel too sorry
"You're just old," she told him when he complained of fatigue.
And when he complained about his trouble bending over, she said, as
West laughed, "You'll have to go around saying to people, 'Will you tie
my shoes, please?' "
"I have every advantage to get better quickly," he said. "She is
definitely my soul mate."
Wounded on the inside, too
In September, about a week after his discharge from Madigan,
West was roaming the Puyallup Fair in his wheelchair with Rebecca and
his family when an amusement ride backfired.
Suddenly he was at war again.
"Get down! Get the kids down," West yelled, shaking and crying.
Such symptoms of acute stress affect about one in six returning
combat veterans, according to a recent Walter Reed Institute of
Research study. Experts say the symptoms disappear within a year in
about three-fourths of these veterans. But some may need medications
and long-term counseling.
The wounds to West's psyche emerged early.
Dr. Suzette Peng, the internal-medicine specialist who treated
him at Walter Reed, well remembers West's battles and his fixation on
"He thought he was in the field, even while he was awake," Peng
said. "He would ask the nurses to turn off the lights so the snipers
wouldn't see him."
One of his delusions was especially disturbing:
A Special Forces unit had "gone rogue" and was trying to free
Saddam Hussein. A surgeon in the unit, a lieutenant colonel, was
searching the hospital to kill West. So was a sergeant. The sergeant
killed Rebecca and laid her head on West's lap. He saw his father shot
and killed on closed-circuit television.
Apart from the delusions, West was certain he would die from his
injuries. He wanted desperately to go home with Rebecca and "die in
Some of the horrific images have eased since he's been home.
Still, he sees roadside objects — a box, vegetation — and
sometimes worries they hide a bomb. Rebecca has him lie down on the
van's seat so he can't see out the window. At a bookstore recently, he
saw a customer in bulky clothing and feared the man carried hidden
bombs or a rifle.
The memory of two soldiers killed on foot patrol in June
particularly haunts him.
West wipes away tears while describing the death of a fellow soldier he
was serving with in the Army National Guard in Iraq. The deaths of two
soldiers on foot patrol particularly haunt him.
One was shot in the face. The other was shot in his trunk as he
turned sideways, the bullet entering through a gap in his armor. His
body crumpled in a heap. But what West remembers most is the gleaming
wedding band on the dead soldier's left hand.
West's unit, assigned to protect the men, heard the gunfire,
ahead and out of the line of sight. But they couldn't move their Humvee
because it was surrounded by children begging for food.
He still sees the faces of the dead soldiers. "They have a right
to be in my conscious. I was part of the overwatch team, and part of me
West takes an antidepressant and occasionally sees a counselor.
But mostly he relies on Rebecca and his pastor to help steer him
through the emotional storms.
"Becca lets me talk about it for a while, and then she changes
the subject and won't let me talk about it anymore," he said. "And if
I'm scared and I think somebody is attacking, she says it's safe, it's
safe ... and then it's OK."
'No risks, no chances'
West loosely follows the war with some dismay. He thinks the
fighting was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein, but now wishes it
could end through diplomacy.
He's proud that he learned Arabic in Iraq through books his wife
sent to him. It was invaluable in gathering information from Iraqi
civilians and helped him bond with the people.
He does not know when he will be discharged from the Guard or
what kind of disability payments he will receive. He takes one day at a
time, anticipating his return to his job at Microsoft.
On a recent crisp fall morning, West sat in his wheelchair on an
outdoor basketball court at Fort Lewis. A shaft of sunlight bathed his
head, Rebecca rubbed his shoulder, and two ranks of soldiers from the
81st Brigade stood at parade rest.
Soon the soldiers snapped to attention and Maj. Gen. Timothy
Lowenberg, commander of the Washington National Guard, presented West
with the world's oldest military decoration in current use — a Purple
Heart. He cited West's "uncommon patriotism and service," thanked him
and pinned the heart-shaped medal on his left shirt pocket.
Spc. John West receives the Purple Heart from Maj. Gen. Timothy
Lowenberg, commander of the Washington National Guard. West's wife,
Rebecca, and the 81st Brigade Combat Team, Rear Holding Company,
attended the ceremony at Fort Lewis in Pierce County.
Spc. David Sorrentino greets his buddy West, in wheelchair, at award
ceremonies at Fort Lewis.
Two of West's fellow scouts, home on leave, attended the ceremony. They
later talked about his selflessness and dedication: how his Arabic
helped in scouting, how his good cheer and irreverent humor buoyed them
all, how he volunteered for extra missions, how he was like a big
brother to many.
"It was awesome having John out there," said Sgt. Rick Larsen,
West and the soldiers talked and laughed for nearly an hour
after the ceremony.
Larsen gave West his unit's cloth uniform patch and a souvenir
bolt from the destroyed Humvee. They posed for a group photo. They
planned a barbecue with beer, tequila and roast pig at West's house for
when the scouts return. They told each other not to worry.
West, the old man of the unit, worried anyway. Twice he
interrupted the conversation and looked hard at his friends who soon
would return to battle. Twice his fellow soldiers stopped their banter
and listened respectfully.
"No risks, no chances," he told the young soldiers. "I want to
see you all back here so I can give you a hard time. We're gonna drink
Warren King: 206-464-2247
Steve Ringman: 206-464-8143