In this undated photo, double-amputee Jesse Williamson poses in Temecula, Calif. War took Williamson's legs. Climbing back onto a dirt bike -- with the helping hand of a friend -- and racing across the desert brought purpose back to his life. (Monster Energy via The Associated Press)
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War took Jesse Williamson’s legs. PTSD haunted him, toyed with his sanity. Addiction left him apathetic, hurtling toward prison, maybe worse.
Climbing back onto a dirt bike —with the helping hand of a friend — and racing across the desert brought purpose back to his life.
“I feel alive again,” Williamson said. “It’s like a new experience every time.”
Next weekend, Williamson will attempt to become the first double amputee to compete in the Baja 500 off-road race through Mexico.
It took a long journey in a short time to get there.
The last coherent memory Williamson has of Aug. 7, 2009, was the Forward Operating Base in Bakwa, Afghanistan appearing in the distance. His squad had just completed a two-day mission to protect a Humvee that had struck an IED — a blast that killed one soldier — and they were looking forward to getting back.
After that, the images are scattershot.
Lying on the ground as his buddies, fellow Marines, stood over him, asking if he knew who they were, where he was. Being loaded into a helicopter. Feeling agonizing pain as two nurses tried to remove his boots. Seeing intermittent visitors come to his hospital room in Germany, including a congressman.
It wasn’t until his parents arrived at the Bethesda, Maryland hospital where he had been moved that he began to understand what happened.
“I remember laying in hospital bed in ICU and seeing my feet, and everything was kind of coming back to me then,” he said. “I didn’t even want my parents to come in and see me.”
Williamson was riding in the gun turret on top of the Humvee when it struck the IED. Four Marines inside the vehicle were killed and Williamson shot 60 feet into the air, landing right back on top of the burning Humvee.
Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Fraley was riding in the vehicle behind and raced to pull Williamson off the wreckage, saving his life.
When Williamson regained consciousness, his entire body hurt. The blast had left him with three broken vertebrae, a broken femur and shattered all the bones in both legs below the knees.
Over the next two and a half years, Williamson had more than 60 surgeries, including amputations of both legs, suffered from PTSD, agonized over the deaths of his friends and became addicted to pain medication. When he arrived at Balboa Hospital in Southern California to continue his recovery and join the Wounded Warrior battalion, he was broken in more ways than one.
“He was in a wheelchair, using crutches, really going through a lot of challenges,” said Nick Hamm, a 1st Sergeant for the Wounded Warrior battalion at Camp Pendleton. “It was a tough time for him.”
Motocross had been a cornerstone of Williamson’s life. An accomplished rider, he loved the adrenaline rush of racing, the long days of riding with his brother Troy.
The sport took Williamson’s brother in 2008, when Troy died after crashing during a motocross race, two months after Jesse joined the Marines.
But a few years later, motocross would become his redemption.
After his injury, separated from the Marines, Williamson went into a downward spiral. He had been on pain medication for nearly three years and when his doctor refused to give him a prescription to get more, Williamson turned to heroin.
The drug eased his pain, but took a toll. He lied around the house, often crawling instead of using his prosthetic legs.
Williamson’s parents turned to Hamm, who had bonded with him over their mutual love for motocross racing.
Hamm surprised Williamson by flying up the coast to Washington to intervene. Hamm shocked Williamson even more by offering to let him live with him and his wife, who was eight months pregnant, at their home in Wildomar, California.
Hamm had saved his life again.
Hamm gave Williamson more than his home. He gave him a chance to ride again.
“I’m really glad someone cared because for the longest time, I didn’t,” Williamson said.
While working with the Wounded Warriors battalion, Hamm saw a need for combat veterans to have a place where they could bond with others who have had similar experiences and interests. There were plenty of one-time events, but Hamm, a wounded veteran himself, wanted to create something where veterans could build long-term goals and relationships.
So in 2012, Hamm founded Warrior Built, a foundation that offers recreational and vocational therapy through building and, if they’re interested, racing all types of vehicles. Once set up in a two-car garage, Warrior Built recently moved into a massive garage where the veterans can work and relax.
Hamm helped Williamson ride again for the first time since his injuries. But he had a setback when he went back to his home in Monroe, Washington, he was hit by a car and broke several bones, sending him deeper into his addiction and self loathing.
Once Williamson started living with the Hamms and joined Warrior Built, he underwent a transformation.
“Seeing the motivation that comes out of him and when he takes that helmet off, he’s just happy, just positive,” Hamm said. “That’s really a cool feeling, knowing that I helped contribute to someone looking at life a lot more positive.”
Riding was not easy for Williamson at first.
With prosthetic legs, he had a hard time shifting and telling if his feet were even on the pegs.
It didn’t stop him.
Williamson eventually started riding with what he calls his moto feet, prosthetic feet that look a little like ski boots and have shocks built into them to absorb the constant bouncing of riding a dirt bike.
He trained to start racing again and, after four months of riding, joined the Warrior Built team in the Baja 1000 last November. He rode 180 miles as part of a three-man team to become the first double amputee to compete in the grueling race across Baja California and followed that up by finishing second in his class at the Imperial 250.
Next Saturday, the day of his 25th birthday, Williamson will join the three-man Warrior Built team at the Baja 500. After that, he plans to keep working for Warrior Built to help other wounded vets and, of course, keep riding.
“Riding gives me a positive goal, something to look forward to and get out of the house,” Williamson said. “I’ve had to train pretty hard to do this. From where I was to now is a huge difference.”