WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2009 – Army Sgt. 1st Class Jarrett Jongema grew up watching war movies, and later on, documentaries about military life and war, but it wasn’t until he was injured by a suicide car bomber that he gained a deeper and more personal understanding of their perspectives.
Jongema was wounded Sept. 18, 2004, while providing security in Baghdad.
“I always did my job in the military; however, [the movies] didn't necessarily impact me,” he said. “I saw ‘Band of Brothers’ before I was injured. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ moved me, but I can't say that I felt a direct connection with any of the characters. Now, it's … really different.
“I don't think that you can truly grasp the understanding of ‘comrade’ or the intent that ‘Band of Brothers’ or any of those movies tried to get across unless you have truly been in those shoes,” he continued.
I wear a [size] 9 and a half. There are many soldiers that wear 9 and a half, but there are not very many that have been in my shoes.”
Jongema entered the service in 1993 and was stationed in Germany, South Korea and at Fort Hood, Texas, before deploying to Iraq. He now serves as a career advisor and professional development noncommissioned officer in the Human Resource Command’s air defense enlisted branch in Alexandria, Va.
A ‘bad day’
“It's only a bad day if you can remember it,” Jongema said of the day he was injured. “I have no memory of it, so I really don't treat it as a bad day. The bad day started about three weeks later, when I actually woke up.”
He was based at Camp Blackjack, serving as an embedded advisor, a job that was the precursor to what is now the Army's training and transition teams for Iraqi and Afghanistan soldiers. On Sept. 18, his team was asked to augment one of the units.
“This particular mission we had was to provide security for an Iraqi contractor who was being escorted,” he recalled. “Our team of advisors was subject-matter experts in that area of operations. Everybody knows Route Irish, that lovely little stretch of bad road between Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone.”
Jongema and his team accepted the mission without hesitation. His only concern involved the team’s Humvee, which had been painted black and was not commonly used during daytime operations.
“It was a high-visibility target during the day, but with the loss of several other vehicles and a limited number of personnel, sure, we were going to assist,” he said. The team set up a three-vehicle stop on an overpass, Jongema recalled. “We had gun trucks front and rear. We stopped all traffic upon the overpass,” he said. “One of the front vehicles that we stopped was a taxicab, and as everybody was proceeding back into their vehicles, the traffic was allowed to proceed.”
The taxi moved past the on-scene commander and then quickly took position between the second and third vehicle and self-detonated. The third vehicle was Jongema’s. The taxi contained about 500 pounds of explosives, 155 rounds and projectiles. “Just nasty, nasty equipment,” Jongema said.
During the explosion, two soldiers near his vehicle were killed. Nine of the 10 soldiers remaining on the bridge, including Jongema, suffered injuries that required hospitalization.
“The explosion was so incredible that people all the way back on Camp Blackjack heard it,” Jongema said. “Several miles away, you can see photos of the mushroom cloud. The car bomb blew a 13-foot hole in the overpass. It was so powerful that it seriously blew out the complete center lane, just a perfect circle. It blew all the vehicles to the side, almost blowing them off the overpass.”
The force of the explosion blew Jongema out of the vehicle’s turret and threw him more than 50 feet away, where he was impaled on a razor-wire fence. He then bounced to the other side of the fence on the exposed side of the overpass. While hanging from the overpass, Jongema was shot several times when the group began to take fire.
Jongema believes he is alive today because his battalion commander, command sergeant major, head medic and physician assistant were responding to a roadside bombing that had occurred 45 minutes earlier and were under the overpass when it exploded.
“They realized, ‘Hey, that's some of our soldiers,’ so they immediately broke and were on the scene in less than two minutes from the blast,” he said. “We're not talking a combat lifesaver, we're talking an [emergency medical technician]/flight surgeon who was able to, you know, address the issues.”
Dead and back again
Jongema’s injuries included massive back trauma, which in turn caused a severe traumatic brain injury. He also suffered severe cuts, collapsed and punctured lungs and bullet and shrapnel wounds, and his heart was compressed and bruised.
His left knee and leg were reconstructed, and he still has more than 450 pieces of shrapnel and debris stuck in his body.
“There were so many holes in me that I bled out by the time they got us to the hospital,” Jongema said. “The total reports were that I was initially unresponsive until I began taking fire. I died twice in the Baghdad [emergency room], and once in intensive care.”
Jongema coded out four more times on the plane en route from Baghdad to Landstuhl Regional Army Medical Center in Germany. The in-flight medics continued to revive him. The damage to his lungs made it difficult to stabilize him, and he was required to remain in Germany for several days.
His family had been waiting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here for three days before he finally arrived. His 7-year-old son had to be taken away by a doctor after he saw his barely recognizable father arrive.
The doctors put Jongema in a drug-induced coma to keep him stable. “It's drug-induced, [so] you're not totally out,” he said. “To me, it seemed like weeks of just constantly being tortured on this medication, because you don't know what happened to you, and you can never really wake up.”
Road to recovery
Two weeks after his arrival at Walter Reed, Jongema came out of his coma. His first memory was of his wife, son and mother in the room, but the memories are vague. “I didn't initially recognize my wife at all,” he said. “She sat next to me for long periods of time, rubbing on my arm, just telling me, ‘It's going to be OK.’ I've known her since 7th grade and I've been dating her since, you know, 8th, 9th grade, so it was odd to lose critical parts of my life.”
Weeks after he arrived at Walter Reed, he went home to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The staff couldn't believe that he was able to move around, with and without assistance, in such a short period of time.
“I still used the wheelchair and did everything I was required to -- limited driving and everything for six months -- but, you know, just after 30 days I was back at the house,” Jongema said.
He credits a large portion of his healing process to being a master fitness trainer. When he was recovering, warrior transition units didn’t exist and the Disabled Soldier Support System was in its infancy. “I knew how to get myself healed back up, and so I did what was required,” he said. But because of his severe traumatic brain injury, he still doesn’t remember some parts of his life.
Jongema said he has undergone 36 surgeries and a large amount of plastic surgery because he didn’t want anyone to know that he was injured.
“You really can't tell I'm injured unless maybe I take [my] shirt off,” Jongema said. “I had phenomenal plastic surgeons. And that should say something about the military's medical efforts. Look how well they're able to put people back together.”
His entire healing process has been about maintaining and trying to get back to as normal a life as possible.
“If I can't do something, I'll let you know it,” he said. “As with every soldier, if there's something that we can't do, we'll let you know it. But for the most part of us, those of us who are wounded and want to stay, we just want to continue to drive on. We just want you to support us with what we want to do, and at the same time understand the challenges we may have to face both physically and mentally.”
He said he doesn’t like to be addressed as a wounded warrior. “You don't have to introduce me like that. I like it better when I show up on a level playing field. I don't want you to know anything about me.”
Wearing his brass
Soldiers are allowed to wear one bracelet with a military uniform. Jongema’s is a memory bracelet worn to honor the two soldiers who were killed on the day of the blast. It reads, “Sergeant Rosenbaum, Specialist Price, ‘Killed in action, 18 September, 2004, Iraq, 4-5 ADA, 1st Cavalry Divison.’” He noted that most memory bracelets either have a chromed, stainless finish or the typical black memory band.
“I had this brass one specially made,” Jongema said. “I can buff it. I can shine it. I still hold onto something that reminds me of the military that I came into, where you were always shining, polishing or buffing something. “It goes everywhere I go, and it's my way of remembering these two guys so that they are never forgotten.”
It has been five years since Jongema was injured, and he is still pushing on to maintain a regular life.
“I don’t run 9.5-minute two miles any more,” he said. “Never will I score in the 400s on my PT test again, either. I'm not even required to maintain the Army standard of 60 percent in each event. That is a hard pill to swallow. However, I still push myself to take all three events despite my limitation, and I do it with pride. ”
He admitted that his doctors have recommended he avoid push-ups and runs.
“I attempt to run at a 12-minute, two-mile pace; anything faster than that I'm going to feel it several hours later,” Jongema said. “I have a prescription for an anti-inflammatory, and that's really all I use -- no other pain medication at all. I keep everything in check and try to maintain that Army appearance.
“It’s at my own pace and distance, and it allows me to address my own issues and take care of soldiers as well,” he said.
(This is the 13th installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)