Staying Power: Wounded Corpsman Trades Alcohol, Pills for Marathons
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 12, 2008 Navy Corpsman Daniel “Doc” Jacobs didn’t know he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. But he knew he had a problem.
“I actually almost ended up killing myself because of it,” Jacobs said.
He woke up one morning in late 2006 in a pool of his own urine and sweat after mixing his prescription medications with alcohol. He had blacked out and remembered nothing after the first couple of beers, Jacobs said.
Jacobs turned 21 that year and was recovering from the blast of a roadside bomb in Iraq and still was using a wheelchair. After his left leg was amputated, Jacobs said he started having a lot of pain. He had problems sleeping for several months, and when he did sleep, it was fitful and he had nightmares.
“I fell into a stage of depression. I turned to alcohol,” he said. “I figured if the pain meds weren’t going to (make the pain go away), then alcohol would. So I self-medicated and one morning I woke up and I had no idea how I woke up out of that.”
While Jacobs hadn’t intentionally tried to kill himself, it served as a wake-up call, and marked the end of the pill-popping and boozing for him. He flushed his medication down the toilet.
“I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ I just had to quit it,” Jacobs said. “I was like, ‘I’m lucky to be alive, again. There is some purpose for me on this earth still, and I’m not going to let PTSD bring me down.’ I didn’t want to be another statistic.”
Now, Jacobs has joined the growing numbers of servicemembers who have chosen to continue to serve despite their injuries.
These wounded warriors are hard to discern from the ranks of others. Often their prostheses are covered by combat boots and their scars by their uniforms. Their post-injury jobs vary, from returning to combat to serving as trainers. But all are driven to overcome their physical limitations by a common motivation – they are simply not ready to take off the uniform.
Choosing the Navy
Jacobs is the son of a career Navy man and the grandson of a Marine. As the war stormed in Iraq, Jacobs’ dying grandfather asked him to promise not to join the Corps. At his bedside, Jacobs agreed.
But, after high school graduation in 2004, Jacobs said he was finished with school and wanted to join the military.
“I spent 12 years in school and I didn’t want to spend any more time there,” he said.
Because of the historic Army-Navy rivalry, Jacobs’ dad wouldn’t let him sign up as a soldier. His uncle, a Navy hospital corpsman, told Jacobs of the camaraderie he experienced in his work, so Jacobs signed up as a corpsman. The next year, after finishing Navy schooling that qualified him to deploy with the Marines, Jacobs was bound for combat.
“I ended up in Iraq in a Marine Corps uniform as a Navy corpsman and kept my promise to both family members,” Jacobs said. “I really, really wanted to go. I put my name on the volunteer list three times. I guess the third time is the charm. My family thought I was crazy, and they were pretty mad that I went. But I really didn’t care.”
Jacobs deployed to the Sunni Triangle, a densely-populated region northwest of Baghdad, with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines out of Twentynine Palms, Calif. He spent his days on patrol, kicking in doors with the Marines, and tending to those who needed his care.
In February 2006, Jacobs’ unit was more than six months into its deployment and slated to fly home in weeks.
The small group had just finished the first patrol of the morning and was heading back to the base, the team members joking with the Humvee driver.
“We were laughing, and just making fun of each other as we were driving back to base,” Jacobs said. “The next thing I knew, I felt my body being lifted upward and hearing a loud, horrible sound.”
The homemade bomb exploded underneath the driver, killing him.
Jacobs was sitting behind the driver.
Bomb fragments embedded themselves into his glasses and sheared fingers off his left hand. His left leg was shredded and his right leg was not much better.
As the dust cleared, Jacobs patted himself down, checking for injuries. His left leg was bleeding badly, and his right leg was bleeding less so. He snapped a field tourniquet on both and dragged himself to a safety vehicle for medical evacuation.
High on a mixture of adrenaline and shock, Jacobs said his helicopter ride to the field hospital “was cool.” He had a window seat. He stared at the Iraq countryside passing by underneath, and then became fascinated with the cartilage and bone sticking from his fingers, Jacobs said.
Doctors eventually amputated Jacobs’ left leg below the knee, but only after he spent months trying to rehabilitate it. His right leg is considered limb salvage with only four toes and most of the rest blown off.
Jacobs’ father met him at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland and stayed with him for three months, pushing his son toward recovery.
“He was always there to keep his foot in my butt. There was no giving up,” Jacobs said. “If I said ‘Dad, I really don’t feel like moving on,’ he’d find some funny way of getting around it. But in a stern way he’d say ‘Jacobs don’t quit. That’s not what a sailor does,’”
That would lead to a good-natured argument over whether Jacobs was truly a sailor, or a Navy corpsman with the Marine Corps.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Denial and Recovery
Eventually, Jacobs was transferred to the Naval Medical Center San Diego to complete his recovery. While there, he began experiencing the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a traumatic brain injury. Even though he is a trained hospital corpsman, Jacobs said he didn’t see or recognize the signs of PTSD.
“I didn’t even know that what I was going through was PTSD. I thought it was just the five stages of going through a traumatic event. I thought it was the anger phase,” Jacobs said. “Really, I was in denial that I had PTSD.”
Jacobs began staying in his room, and would turn off his phone. He said he attributed the alcohol use to being 21 – not realizing that he was self-medicating.
But Jacobs said he would black out after only a couple of beers and continue drinking even after he couldn’t remember anything said.
After he stopped drinking and taking pills, Jacobs realized that his inactivity was actually making his depression worse.
“I said ‘I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to get out of these barracks. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not doing anything.’”
Exercise – A Saving Grace
Jacobs eventually began talking to others who were experiencing similar PTSD symptoms. They encouraged him to start hitting the gym.
He started working out to make himself tired and stopped relying on drinking, he said. When the pain gets too bad, he slows down and gives his body a rest instead of turning to pills, he said.
Within a month of his decision to turn his life around, Jacobs was handcycling – riding a bike that is pedaled with hands instead of feet -- through Miami in his first marathon. That same week, he skied for the first time. It was a full week of getting out with fellow amputees and swapping stories -- and it did wonders for his spirits, Jacobs said.
“When you’re around amputees and you’re making friends with them, it’s a bond that can’t be broken,” he said. “I feel like I can relate to them and they can relate to me more than anybody else.”
Jacobs now belongs to the Achilles Track Club Freedom Team, a nonprofit group based out of New York City that trains and sponsors wounded warriors to participate in marathons. To date, Jacobs has competed in seven marathons using the handcycle. He placed fifth in his event in the Boston Marathon and ninth in the Los Angeles Marathon.
Being around others who compete in marathons with worse injuries than his own stifles Jacobs’ complaints.
“It opens up my eyes that my injury is not the worst injury you can have,” he said. “Why am I complaining when one guy doesn’t even have a leg?”
‘I Still Want to be That Ideal Corpsman’
Jacobs eventually decided to remain on active duty with the encouragement of the Navy, which has promised to keep sailors who can still contribute in the service.
After 42 surgeries, Jacobs has recovered to the point that he can pass a Navy fitness test with his prosthetic leg. He can run, swim and bicycle.
And, he is again serving with Marines at the Marine Combat Training Center here, in charge of 14 junior corpsmen and caring for five companies of young Marines attending the infantry school. In that role, he is a teacher who has “been there, done that” and knows what’s going on, he said. Jacobs also ensures that all Navy staff at the school clinic is current on required training.
Before his injury, Jacobs said he never really pushed himself physically. Now he is more apt to stay fit, just to prove himself as an amputee among able-bodied peers, he said.
“If I let a week go by that I don’t work out or try and stay in shape, I think it will take me longer to catch up than it will everybody else,” Jacobs said.
And the fitness pays dividends as he mingles with his Marines, Jacobs said.
“I take pride in my uniform… and that’s what the Marine Corps wants,” Jacobs said. “They want a corpsman that looks sharp in the uniform and he’s Johnny-on-the-spot. I still want to be that ideal corpsman.”
His combat experience also comes in useful when training the junior corpsmen on combat trauma and teaching them to treat blast injuries and gunshot wounds, Jacobs said.
Jacobs said most of his junior corpsmen are surprised to find out he’s an amputee. Because he wears a prosthetic leg with a boot, his injury is transparent to anyone who doesn’t already know about it.
In most instances, Jacobs said, he waits a while before divulging the information to a new corpsman.
“Initially, I try to keep it from them just to shock them one by one,” he said. “‘Oh you think you have it bad,’” Jacobs said he tells them when new corpsmen whine. “Well I’m out here with one leg. This is nothing. This is a cakewalk. I always try to emphasize the fact that there are always people in worse off situations than they are in.”
For the most part, though, Jacobs said he wants to be seen as any other corpsman out in the field taking care of his junior corpsmen and Marines.
“In my eyes, I don’t think of myself as being different. I come out here and I do the tasks that everybody else does,” Jacobs said. “It shows a lot to them that I can hike with one leg and I can finish a 15 (kilometer) hike with all my gear and only one leg.”
Jacobs plans to make the Navy a career and hopes to put in an application to Navy medical school to become an anesthesiologist. He wants to see the other side of the operating room, he said. The Navy’s Seaman-to-Admiral program, which allows enlisted to become officers, recently expanded its eligibility to include corpsmen.
In addition to his physical breakthroughs in recovery and exercise, Jacobs has made personal breakthroughs as well. In June 2007, he met his fiancé, Jenean Compton, and the two live near base with their puppy, Romeo.
Jacobs said he is no longer depressed, but hopeful. And while he can’t say he is cured, he knows now the signs to look for to keep his PTSD at bay. It’s not the big things, he said, it’s the little things that can make a good day go bad. But instead of turning to alcohol and pills to numb the pain, he turns to family – and man’s best friend.
Jacobs said he found that having a dog around helps him deal with his PTSD.
“You can wrestle around with them. Go for a jog with them. Talk to them or whatever, and they’re not going to judge you. They’re not going to talk back to you or think of you differently,” Jacobs said.