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Marine cpl. who lost leg reflects on injury, recovery

Jul. 9, 2013 - 10:19AM   |  
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DUNCANSVILLE, PA. — Given the chance, Jason Johnson would do it all again.

He’d keep serving in the Marine Corps — his life’s dream for as long as he can remember — for decades more. Perhaps he’d rise above corporal, the rank he held upon his discharge.

But that dream ended July 16, 2011, when the Altoona-raised Marine, then 21, stepped on a shallow canal bridge in Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

“I loved it. I’d do it again. Well, maybe not getting blown up again,” Johnson said Wednesday, laughing on the porch of his family’s Duncansville house. Working as a lifeguard at Prospect Pool while he awaits money for a college education, the 23-year-old is disarmingly casual when he describes that 2011 roadside bombing and the long physical and mental struggle that followed the loss of his right leg.

It began in 2007, when he set out for training almost immediately after graduating Altoona Area High School.

“Ever since I was knee-high, I wanted to join the military. I wanted to be a Marine because my dad was a Marine,” Johnson said. “The first time I’d ever seen my dad cry was when I graduated boot camp.”

Johnson spent the following years in a rapid-deployment expeditionary force, guarding military installations in Cuba and Europe. In 2011, he was dispatched to Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, where his unit patrolled an insurgent-prone district in the restive Helmand Province.

“Every day,” he said of the fighting there. “I still remember my first firefight. It was like 10 hours. It was a good one.”

An avid outdoorsman and fisherman, Johnson imagined hunting in the “beautiful country” and marveled at the fish that swam around patrolling Marines’ feet after the locals’ farms flooded.

During a routine patrol in July 2011, his comrades found themselves stuck on foot when weather conditions prevented helicopters from collecting them as planned. As they made their way back to base, Johnson stepped onto a footbridge no larger than a door.

“I don’t remember much,” he said Wednesday of the improvised explosive device blast that tore much of his right leg apart and all but destroyed his heel. “They said I was conscious the whole time. But with all the adrenaline and morphine pumping through me, I was out of it.”

Johnson was taken to a base hospital, then flown to military facilities in Germany and Bethesda, Md. His parents greeted him soon after he arrived, Johnson’s mother, Charlene, recalled.

He then flew to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. There, a doctor sat with Johnson for hours as he explained that cutting off much of the leg — and ultimately, replacing it with a prosthetic — might be the only way he’d walk again.

Johnson’s first call was to his father, who said the pain of keeping the leg likely wasn’t worth it.

“I told him, ‘That’s no life to live,’” Joe Johnson recalled. “And it isn’t.”

In September 2011, doctors in San Diego removed the remainder of his lower right leg.

In the ensuing weeks, Johnson painfully adapted to the prosthetic, one of several interchangeable legs he now keeps for daily activities: one for walking, one for running and one for swimming, among others.

The recovery was far from speedy. Even after a November 2011 welcome-home party in Altoona, Johnson returned to San Diego for nearly a year of hospital treatment. The first months of 2012, he said, were among his darkest days.

“I kind of shut everyone out. I thought, ‘I’m missing a leg. I’m going crazy,” he said. “You’re in a hospital room as big as this porch. It drains everything out of you. It kills you.”

After months of depression that included stretches of near-constant attention from hospital staff, Johnson slowly began to “let people back in,” he said. It helped that friends in Pennsylvania sent word that he was sorely missed, he recalled.

Last fall, with his discharge completed and his hospital stay over, Johnson drove 31 hours with his father to the family home in Duncansville.

He’s spent the ensuing months working at Prospect Pool, drinking beer at bonfires with old friends and fishing — often under a Juniata River bridge near Canoe Creek State Park.

“When I go fishing, it’s just me. I got no worries in the whole world — just me,” he said. Johnson said he feels semi-retired as he patiently awaits GI Bill funding for college.

He hopes to attend Penn State Altoona for a year, then secure a biology degree at the main campus with an eye toward work as a state game warden, he said. After that, Johnson intends to travel west, settling in Wyoming or Colorado and working in nature.

“I want to get 10 or 15 acres, build my own house, build my own pool and then retire,” he said.

Despite his urban upbringing in Altoona, Johnson said he’s never been the big-city type: As a child, he would fish, visit parks and head out for greener places whenever he got the chance. He doesn’t care for public attention and feels uncomfortable accepting perks for his military service, he said.

Once offered the chance to throw out the first pitch at an Altoona Curve game, Johnson said he flatly refused.

“I don’t like being special. I don’t like people staring at me,” he said on his porch Wednesday, a camouflage hat on his head, a dip of chewing tobacco under his lip and his detached prosthetic leg resting against a chair.

“I’m not an attention-seeker,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary guy.”

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