Extended Interview: B.J. Jackson
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SUSAN DENTZER: So you arrive [in Baghdad] April 25th, just a bit before the war is over, in effect, the combat phase. … What in general terms was your job while you were in Iraq?
B.J. JACKSON: I worked on any weapons that went down … all the supply stuff, and we lost a couple of guys due to injuries, broken bones and such. … So I just filled in different platoons doing MP [military police] duties.
SUSAN DENTZER: How dangerous did it seem in Iraq during that period before you were wounded?
B.J. JACKSON: About as bad as it is now, but the war’s not over. Everybody keeps saying it is, but there are still people getting killed, people getting injured.
SUSAN DENTZER: Tell me what happened on August 7th, to the best that you remember.
B.J. JACKSON: I was told a phosphorous land mine went off underneath the vehicle [I was in], an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] hit the side of the vehicle, and there were guys in three buildings on each side firing AK[-47]s. And the guy in my passenger seat, Specialist Mincer, lost all hearing, and the one in my turret was Mike Hunter — broke his leg and lost all hearing for a couple of days.
SUSAN DENTZER: What happened to you?
B.J. JACKSON: I lost both my legs below the knee, and 60 percent body [was burned] on my hand, arm, and my head and lower back, and lost my legs due to the burns.
SUSAN DENTZER: Your legs were not blown off in the explosion, but they were very severely burned?
B.J. JACKSON: I was told they were really burned and they must have been crushed because one of the guys that pulled me out said he thought he had ripped my tendons or something, and that’s why he thought I lost my legs. Then I talked to him on the end part of September — it was the first time I talked to him. … So he’s had a pretty hard time thinking that I lost my legs due to them, but they just saved my life instead.
SUSAN DENTZER: Do you remember any of it from that point when the vehicle was attacked?
B.J. JACKSON: The only thing I remember is yelling for my wife and my kids. And they told me I kept yelling that for almost the whole time I was in the vehicle until they got me to the bank, where they did a little first aid, and the other guys took cover fire to get me out of there.
SUSAN DENTZER: What happened from there, to the best that you have been told?
B.J. JACKSON: I was flown to Kuwait for a day. They amputated in Kuwait. I was flown to Germany, and I was in Germany for four days. On August 12th I got here. Within that time I received 25 units of blood. [When] I got here, they sutured my legs and kept me sedated for a long time until I woke up…
I was post burn 35 days before I stood for the first time. I was post burn I’d say about 50 days before I walked with my new prosthetics that they got me. I went through two sets of prosthetics at the hospital, and they didn’t work too well for me because I shrunk so fast…
SUSAN DENTZER: …What was your first thought when you saw that you had lost your legs?
B.J. JACKSON: I don’t really know. It was pretty hard at first, but I had a lot of support.
SUSAN DENTZER: And in addition to everything you were suffering physically, which obviously was enormous, how did you feel up in your head during that period?
B.J. JACKSON: Pretty good. My wife and kids — all my kids came up — and my wife was here the day I got here. So I had a lot of support from her, and the assurance that I’ll be able to walk and do things I did before, which is looking a lot more possible the longer that I go to physical therapy, and the physical therapy here is real great, all that they do.
SUSAN DENTZER: How bad were the burns on your hand, and also you mentioned the back on your head as well as your back.
B.J. JACKSON: These three tendons were exposed. I lost the tendon in these two fingers. They covered over fine, but … I can’t move them. I can just move this knuckle, and they may have to fuse them to where they stay stiff. But they already are stiff…
SUSAN DENTZER: And you had skin grafts on much of the sections of the burns.
B.J. JACKSON: They took the skin from my thigh and put it on my hand and my arm. My whole face was burnt. A little redness is still here, but it was, I guess, black when I came in, so that’s a lot better. The back of my head was burned, so I have a bald spot. I have to wear a hat all the time for the rest of my life, and I can’t be in direct sunlight for at least a year on my face and arm. I had a little burn on the small of my back. It was about the size of a fifty-cent piece.
SUSAN DENTZER: You’ll have to wear a hat for the rest of your life?
B.J. JACKSON: Yes.
SUSAN DENTZER: Why?
B.J. JACKSON: If the sunlight gets to my burns, instead of turning sunburned and then blistering, it will blister right away. So it’ll just be pretty bad, like third degree sunburn all over.
SUSAN DENTZER: I wonder if we could roll up your pants legs and talk a little bit about how the prostheses work, and how it feels. Let’s start with your left leg. Can you show me how much of it is your leg and where does the prosthetic start?
B.J. JACKSON: My knee’s right above this. It comes down to right about here. This is suction prosthetic. You just push the air out with the tube. Put your leg in, push the air out through the tube.
SUSAN DENTZER: And the suction keeps it on?
B.J. JACKSON: Yes. I have to wear a sock over the liner to slide in. Otherwise it will stick. But this part of my leg is burnt still from like here all the way around. And this, you’ve got five guys pulling this [prosthetic] as hard as they can and it won’t come off.
SUSAN DENTZER: Is that right, because of the suction?
B.J. JACKSON: Yes. They’re real easy to put on and take off. It’s a flexor foot. It’s a high energy foot, so when you step and start to walk, it springs your foot forward. When you’re an amputee, you use more energy to walk than folks that aren’t. This leg gives you a little push.
SUSAN DENTZER: Somebody could look at you in your situation and say here’s this guy, you’re 22 years old. You were working on your regular job in home improvement back in Iowa. You’re in the National Guard. You get sent over to Iraq and you end up having lost both legs. Did you ever in a million years expect that this would happen?
B.J. JACKSON: I knew it was a possibility, but you don’t really expect it. I mean, there’s not much you can do when you’re over there to avoid it, but probably, as my first sergeant’s wife put it, it’s probably better me than some of the other guys in the unit.
SUSAN DENTZER: Why?
B.J. JACKSON: Some people give up easier, I was told. I’ve always been told I’m stubborn, so I don’t really give up that easy. And then I have her to push me. She can be a pain, too.
SUSAN DENTZER: You’re 6’2″. Were you 6’2″ before and you’re 6’2″ now?
B.J. JACKSON: I was 6’2″ before. I was about 165 pounds. I think I’m a little taller than 6’2″ with these. They tried to get me about 6’2″, but no one ever really measured how tall I was without these. But before I came to the top of [my wife's] head with my chin. I still do, so it’s about right.
[When] I was sedated, I lost a lot of my muscle [as it] deteriorated, so I weighed 110 when I woke up, and they say your lower limbs weigh about, I think, 10 to 15 pounds for both of them, so that means I lost like 25 to 30 pounds of weight and muscle. I just started eating a couple of weeks ago, so I’m just now gaining the weight back slowly.
SUSAN DENTZER: What would you say to other people who are going through this? We just heard over the weekend a bunch of wounded people came in fresh from the battlefield. If one of them were here in a similar condition to you, what would you say?
B.J. JACKSON: Keep your head up. It gets better. I mean, for guys with no legs, most of the time, unless I’m really sore, I have my pant legs down, people can’t even tell I’m amputated. So there’s a lot of good information and support. I feel willing to get out of bed. There are a lot of soldiers who will come and talk to you and help you out.
I had a soldier that was on his way to Iraq, got injured, hit by a power line on a train and lost his right leg. I came in my room and was walking, and he was real good friends, and helped throughout the whole process. And he came in with canes to walk, and he came in and said, “Look, I’m walking.” “That ain’t walking, you’re using canes.” So he threw the canes down and walked just fine. And he went up to visit another soldier to help him out, and he left his canes there and never went back to get them.
But then the soldiers could be inspirational with each other.
SUSAN DENTZER: And what’s ahead of you medically? What have they said is in the future now?
B.J. JACKSON: A couple of weeks ago they said I’d have to do physical therapy for about two years. … I can’t jog yet, so I think I’ll work on that. And like I was doing in the gym, the balance ball, trying to get more balance like trying to do curbs or steps without a rail. It’s a little hard, but it’s getting easier.
SUSAN DENTZER: Abby, if I asked you that same question, what would you tell people, individuals or families going through exactly what you all have been through now, what would you say?
ABBY JACKSON: What I really hold onto right now is there’s no one to blame, just a lot of people to thank. I mean, even the physical therapists or doctors or nurses, and like in my husband’s situation, he had people who helped him out. If you just take everything for what it is and accept it, then you’ll go a lot further than trying to what-if and blame people. Just take it and move forward…