The Home Front, Part 2:
Wounded soldier begins recovery
12/14/04 12:00AM By Steve Zind
(Host) For the first time in a long time, death or injury in combat is a very real prospect for members of the Vermont National Guard. For the families of these guard members the war has become a very personal matter.
VPR's Steve Zind has one story of a soldier's effort to recover from his wounds and the effect on his family.
(Zind) The first sight of Gary Jackson's injured left leg can be unnerving. Jackson says he's had a number of encounters like one in a store soon after he returned to Vermont.
(Jackson) "I was in a wheelchair and he looked down and me and said, 'Oh my God!' And then he looked at me and said, 'Did I just say that out loud?' And I said, 'Yeah, pretty much.'"
(Zind) Last May the 36-year-old Jackson and the 10 men he commanded in the Vermont Army National Guard were providing security at a small base in Iraq. Jackson had just finished e-mailing his wife to let her know he was doing fine when the mortars began falling.
The one that hit their bunker killed two Vermont Guardsmen. Jackson and another Vermonter were seriously injured. The explosion mangled and nearly severed Jackson's left leg below the knee. Flying debris injured his left eye.
Seven months after the attack, Jackson sits in the living room of his home on a quiet suburban street in Colchester. Beside him on the floor are two aluminum crutches. His injured leg is propped up. Below the knee his leg is enclosed in a series of metal rings held by pins anchored directly to the bone. Jackson can walk with effort, but he tires easily.
(Jackson) "Some days I can take on the world, other days I can just about take on my bed and a comforter."
(Zind) Physical therapy is helping Jackson learn to walk again. There are still difficult days, but he says the worst is behind him.
Jackson hit bottom last June. A month after the mortar attack, he was lying in a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland. His wife Lisa remembers.
(Lisa Jackson) "Gary was very frustrated and very discouraged and very, 'Oh woe is me,' and 'How could this have happened?' and 'I hate being in this bed,' and 'I hate this leg.' And I stood up and said, 'You've got a choice here, buddy. You can get busy living or you can get busy dying.' And I walked out of that room and went and did my own thing for a little while and I came back. He was sitting on the edge of the bed putting his shoes on."
(Zind) Jackson says he's also felt the psychological effects of the attack.
(Jackson) "We had the shakes one day, that was fun. I couldn't stop twitching. There was certainly depression and sadness and doubt and fears. I couldn't sleep for a while for more than about 20 minutes without waking up screaming."
(Zind) Jackson struggled with survivor's guilt. He thought a lot about the Vermonters who didn't come home. But when he looked around at the other soldiers at Walter Reed he stopped feeling sorry for himself.
(Jackson) "There are people that I saw at Walter Reed that don't have a leg to worry about, don't have an eye to be frustrated with. I do."
(Zind) Back home trying to take care of their three young daughters, Lisa Jackson was trying to spend time at Walter Reed. She was also gaining a new perspective on her community.
People from the Jackson's daughter's school pitched in and every night a different person, usually a stranger, brought the family a home cooked dinner. Local service clubs raised thousands of dollars for the families of the killed and injured guard members. Gary Jackson's coworkers from his civilian job donated part of their paychecks to the family. With their help, the Jackson's paid the bills.
When he finally returned to Vermont, life looked different to Gary Jackson. Before his injuries, Jackson ran his household with a military precision that dictated every detail - right down to the way his socks and underwear were folded. Even his interactions with his children were shaped by military discipline and efficiency.
(Gary Jackson) "When the kids went outside to play in the winter, I lined them up in formation - checked them out, inspected their attire, made sure they were properly equipped and sent them out on a mission to go play."
(Lisa Jackson) "Seriously! That's the way it was."
(Gary Jackson) "Dinnertime was the same way. 'Alright, everybody get your plate, get your drink, get your silverware, okay. Get a napkin. Okay. Everybody sit down. Take your seat. Prepare to eat. Eat! It's just insane."
(Zind) Lisa Jackson says in spite of the hardships, her husband's injury has taught her valuable lessons about community and family.
(Lisa Jackson) "I wouldn't wish it on anybody. But I'm sort of thankful for it because I was in a point in my life where I didn't appreciate my relationship with him enough. I didn't appreciate my children enough."
(Gary Jackson) "To be forced to look at what you have instead of what you don't have."
(Zind) Gary Jackson says doctors tell him he should regain the use of his leg. He'll have surgery to repair the injury to his eye. The Jacksons say sometime in the future their lives will be normal again, but they'll never be the same.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.