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A hero's welcome: Bainbridge grad returns from Afghanistan with a Purple Heart

Marine Cpl. a 2008 graduate of Bainbridge High School, talks with friends during a homecoming event held last Saturday. The Purple Heart recipient was the victim of a roadside bomb while being deployed in Afghanistan, but is recovering from his injuries. - Willie Wenzlau/For the Review
Marine Cpl. a 2008 graduate of Bainbridge High School, talks with friends during a homecoming event held last Saturday. The Purple Heart recipient was the victim of a roadside bomb while being deployed in Afghanistan, but is recovering from his injuries.
— image credit: Willie Wenzlau/For the Review

The last 18 months have been a nightmare for islanders Earl and Jada Williams, whose two sons simultaneously served as U.S. Marines in Afghanistan’s dangerous Helmand Province.

Beginning in late 2010 and until mid-April 2011, Cpl. Jordan Williams, 22, was a radio operator for the commanding officer of a 1st Marine Division reconnaissance battalion serving in the south-central part of the province. He’d already spent time in Iraq and had trained for a year for a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Further north, Sgt. Jonathan Williams, 25, was serving as a dog handler for the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines in the province’s Sangin District. He and his canine searched for buried improvised explosive devices (IED) and bomb-making material in perhaps the most dangerous section of the war-torn country.

“We had a lot of sleepless nights,” said Jada, “but we worried more about Jonathan because of what he was doing. I wasn’t really worried about Jordan because he was a radio operator with the commanding officer for crying out loud. That’s supposed to be a safe job.”

Jordan said it was “pretty nerve-wracking for our parents,” especially because of where Jonathan was stationed.

“Being there,” Jordan said, “I knew what was going on in Sangin – all the casualties. But for us, you just take it in stride and know that your training was for a good reason and you’ll be OK. But it was pretty bad for our parents.”

Jonathan ended his harrowing seven-month deployment at Sangin without being harmed and on April 15 flew home to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where his parents met him.

Three days later, they received a call from Jordan’s sergeant major, who said the young Marine was the victim of a roadside bomb that had just exploded beneath him as he sat working the radio in the commanding officer’s light armored vehicle (LAV). He would live, though he had multiple fractures to both legs and his pelvis, and a helicopter was flying him to a field hospital in Bagrams, Afghanistan. No other Marines in the vehicle had serious injuries.

If it happens…

In fact, the lives of Jordan and his fellow recon Marines were being threatened almost daily during the months he served in the central area of Helmand Province, where there is heavy traffic of Taliban fighters, weapons and drugs traveling to and from the Pakistani border. The IEDs are used to clear the way, simple as that.

Jordan said he had spent nearly 200 trips “outside the wire,” often lasting 24 hours and were generally repeated as soon as the men were rested.

“We were going out all the time,” he said, “so it was not if but when we were going to be hit by an IED. After a while, you just hope you can make it through the day. If it happens, it happens.”

While Jordan’s LAV was presumably less susceptible to carnage because it was to the rear of the six-vehicle convoy, he said, there are no guarantees outside the wire.

“Usually the first or second LAVs are targeted,” he said, “but this IED was a ‘legacy’ that had been there for a while and took a few vehicles to run over it before it was triggered. They told me later that it was packed with 120 pounds of explosives, which is a pretty big one.”

The bomb hit the LAV’s lower armor plate, which rammed into the vehicle exactly where Jordan was sitting. The blast lifted the 28,000-pound vehicle and threw it forward, where it bounced and then shot forward again. Four of the LAV’s eight tires were blasted off and there was a 5-foot hole in the ground from the explosion.

“I had maybe a ton of steel on me, all in pieces,” he said. “A metal radio rack had fallen on me. I just told myself not to move and then Marines started taking it away. The sergeant major pulled me out. I didn’t feel much pain when they loaded me on the helicopter, I guess because of adrenaline and the morphine. But then I went out and didn’t wake up for a day and a half.”

By then Jordan had been transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he had his first conversation with his parents.

“He told me, ‘Mom I have 10 fingers, 10 toes and everything in between. I’m fine,’” Jada said. “When you realize how many young men return with amputations from the IED explosions you can see why he was relieved.”

A lucky man

If the explosion was a blur, in contrast, the first few months of hospitalization must have felt like slow death for Jordan, who admits to being a restive soul. He spent two and a half months hospitalized in Bethesda, Md., four months in a VA hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., and is now a “wounded warrior” assigned to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, Calif., until he leaves the Marines Corps in July.

While at Bethesda, Jordan had surgery three times a week on his pelvis and left leg, both of which were placed in a “cage” that prevented movement. Fortunately, Jada has been bedside during most of the recovery, and Earl has been able to get time off from his job as a custodian at Woodward Middle School to visit his son, too.

“I hate being in a hospital and it’s been going on for eight months now,” he said during a “welcome home” event his parents and other islanders held last Sunday at Island Church. “It has been my biggest challenge.”

When he was finally unplugged from the various life-support machines, activity began with a wheelchair, then a walker, a cane and now his own two feet. He still walks with a noticeable limp and he's lost a lot of weight, but his positive outlook on life has returned.

At Palo Alto, therapy was accelerated and Jordan realized he would eventually regain his active life. He started walking in July and, despite his body still being full of pins and screws to help the mending, doctors believe he'll eventually have 100 percent movement when completely healed.

More surgery is needed because he is suffering from heterotopic ossification, which is an abnormal bone growth around soft tissue following amputations or extreme fracturing. The condition has become prevalent in Afghanistan and Iraq because of the increased number of IED-caused injuries.

While the experience has been painful for the family, it has also been rewarding.

“I worried all the time they were over there,” said Jada Williams. “But I am extremely proud of my sons and, personally, we’ve seen some amazing things going through this with Jordan. The young men we have met along the way are amazing. Their determination and spirit is a testament to what a hero is.”

For Jordan, one of his reasons for joining the Marines a month after graduating from Bainbridge High School was to use the post-military benefits to go to college and study engineering. That’s his plan now, and his benefits will be substantial as a Purple Heart recipient.

He realizes, however, that he has paid a steep price – physically and mentally – for those benefits.

“I have opportunities that I didn’t have before,” he said, “but it’s hard right now to know what all this has done for me,” Jordan said before leaving Thursday for the hospital in San Diego.

“It has changed me, I know that. And it has shown me a different side of people. I’ll never forget all the support I’ve received as a wounded warrior. And my family feels the same way. I’m a lucky man.”

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