CAMP MERCURY, Iraq -- Lance Cpl. Jason Willis has a new look on life after recovering from injuries he incurred just over a month ago.
While driving a seven-ton truck on a late-night re-supply mission in late February, the heavy equipment operator attached to Headquarters and Support Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, was struck by an improvised explosive device.
“I remember it quite well,” said the 23-year-old from Lakeland, Fla. “It went off right next to my door and blew it in three spots, through the window, gun port and through the floorboard.”
At first he didn’t know he was injured, thinking only of what he had to do next to keep Marines alive.
“We stopped the vehicle before it could roll off the road,” he said. “The first thing that came to my mind was he had to try to push out, but the seven-ton was dead.”
Willis started working the radio to report that his vehicle had been disabled. Reality settled in when his assistant driver, Lance Cpl. Ryan North, turned on the cab light and saw Willis had blood on his uniform. He realized he couldn’t move his left leg or grip his rifle. He remembered most, though, seeing his own blood.
“My left leg was completely covered, my left arm was covered and I had some streaming off my face a little bit,” he said. “I got back on the radio and said, ‘Yeah, we got a wounded in the truck.’”
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Richie James Secody, the company’s senior line corpsman, was riding in the vehicle behind Willis when the bomb exploded. He saw the bright flash followed by flames through his night vision goggles.
“I knew right then the seven-ton was hit,” said the 31-year-old Navajo from Tuba City, Ariz. “We kept calling to see if they were okay. When we didn’t hear anything, we pulled up beside them.”
Secody spent seven years with Marine units, treating Marines and civilians in several IED incidents. “We’re trained a lot, so you just snap into the mode and get right into it,” he said.
He rushed to the disabled truck and saw North, who told him his driver had been hit.
For Willis, the next two minutes came as a blur.
“In that movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” when they hit the beach and Tom Hanks is looking around, and everything is in slow motion and you just hear muffled sounds and see flash frames – that’s what it was like for me.”
A firefight broke out to the left of the downed vehicle as soon as Secody climbed in to assess the situation. The Marines in the convoy reacted immediately, shooting back with their rifles until the enemy retreated.
“Doc was helping me out in the truck, keeping me low because we had holes in the door and we didn’t want to take rounds,” Willis said.
“I put Willis in my lap and covered him with my body until the contact was done, then pulled him out of the truck,” Secody said. “I was thinking ‘We need to leave, we need to get out of here.’”
The shooting stopped and Secody dragged Willis to the safety of the high-back humvee. He treated his wounds, pulling out whatever shrapnel he could see and applied pressure dressings to stop the bleeding.
“He had shrapnel to his left leg, left arm and a little to his face. He also had a gash to his right leg and some minor burns,” Secody said. “He was saying he was hurt.”
“By then, the pain started setting in and it was hurting pretty bad,” Willis said.
Still dazed, Willis noticed his left hand beginning to swell and removed his wedding ring so the doctors wouldn’t have to cut it off. The convoy rushed him to Camp Fallujah’s surgical ward within 45 minutes of the initial blast.
“I thought it was pretty quick considering the roads we were on,” he said. “It was good driving.”
The Marines of K Company captured nine suspected insurgents that night, five who tested positive for gunpowder residue on their skin.
“I definitely think we got some of those guys from that night,” Willis said.
He credited the truck’s newly armored door and his body armor in part for saving his life. The door, though penetrated in three places, took the brunt of the explosion and the side armor plates and throat protector on his flak jacket stopped several pieces of shrapnel.
“Considering the size of the blast it held up extremely well,” he said. “The armor definitely did what it was supposed to do. I’m really thankful.”
Willis was taken to a hand specialist in Balad, who determined there was no permanent damage to his left hand. Soon, he was back on Camp Mercury on the road to recovery.
“I saw him again four days after his hand got looked at,” Secody said. “He thanked me. He thanks me just about every day I see him. He’s a good guy.”
“It was really amazing, his quick response,” Willis said of Secody. “He calmed me down a lot. I was hurting, scared, and he got me through that.”
Willis and his command agreed it would be good for unit morale and his own well being if he spent his recovery time with his fellow Marines on Camp Mercury. He volunteered for office duties and phone center watch to pass the time and help the battalion any way he could until he healed enough to get back behind the wheel.
“I kept wanting to get back out,” he said. “I was a bit scared, but I wanted to be with my platoon and since I’m in this for the long haul, I’ll keep pushing myself. Now that I’m clear to go again, I’ve been back on the road several times.”
Willis was born in Tennessee, and lived in Florida until he joined the Marine Corps in December 2003. He was assigned a heavy equipment operator for 11th Marine Regiment in 2004, and volunteered to deploy with the Darkhorse battalion as a motor transport operator.
Tonya Willis, his wife of two years, is attending nursing school in Florida, where they have a one-year-old son named Tyler. After the Marine Corps, Willis plans to return to Florida to raise his son and finish his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
His wedding ring now rests on his right hand, until the swelling in his left hand goes down. He said for now, he’s glad to be back at work, having gained a new appreciation for the value of life.
“I’m back in full swing, doing what I’m supposed to do and that’s what I’m trying to concentrate on right now,” he said. “It’s made me realize what I have back at home, and how lucky I am to be able to call home today.”