Life after losing a leg in Afghanistan: 'You take the next day, one step in front of the other'
PORTLAND, Ore. — On Sept. 5, 2013, Ashlie Walker's phone buzzed.
It was 8:55 a.m., and she was stopped at a red light after dropping off her son, then 6, for his second day of school.
Something in her gut told her to answer the unknown number.
It was her husband, Jason.
"Honey, I don't want to alarm you," he said, his voice tired, fading in and out. "But my leg was blown off."
Ashlie heard the car honking behind her. She couldn't believe what had happened. She pulled into a gas station, turned off the engine and wondered how she could get to Jason.
Two or so hours earlier, Jason Walker had been patrolling the edge of a crop field in eastern Afghanistan with his unit, searching for roadside bombs. As a combat engineer for the U.S. Army, Jason dismantled improvised explosive devices and cleared roads for his unit.
Before each mission, Jason, who was known as "Brother Walker" in his unit, prayed with his fellow soldiers. "Everybody needs a little help from a godly person," he said.
Jason followed his fellow soldiers' footsteps as they climbed through a sandy trail surrounded by trees. His friend stepped on a patch of land. Nothing happened.
"There was a reason why it didn't go off for him," Jason said.
Then Jason stepped on the same spot. A landmine — the equivalent of a Gatorade bottle filled with shrapnel — erupted underneath him.
He didn't hear the explosion; it rattled his eardrums. He tripped into a nearby ditch and into knee-deep water. He tasted a mouthful of dirt.
When he pulled his left leg from the water, he saw a void. Soldiers from his unit later found his left foot in a tree.
Shrapnel ripped into his right knee and upper thigh. He placed it back into the cold water to keep it from bleeding faster.
As medical personnel rushed over to treat his wounds, Jason stayed calm and alert. After the blast, Afghan insurgents attempted to ambush the unit with a barrage of gunfire. Medics formed a barrier around Jason, while his unit fired back. During that time, he received medication.
When he awoke about an hour and a half after the blast, he recalled asking: "Hey, how are my buddies?" Until then, no one had notified his family or friends what had happened. Jason grabbed the chaplain's phone and called his wife.
"I couldn't believe that it would happen," Ashlie said. "You always prepare for it, but you don't believe that it could possibly happen."
During his medical trips to different forward operating bases, he talked to his fellow soldiers, letting them know he was OK. He was eventually flown to Germany.
Ashlie later recalled that Jason suffered an infection as medics tried to control his bleeding. She said he received his Purple Heart, awarded to soldiers wounded in battle, long before the formal ceremony in February because "they weren't sure he was going to make it."
Six days after the blast, he arrived in Fort Sam Houston, where his family met with him.
From that day forward, Jason's life had changed. He spent the next nine months at a rehabilitation center in Texas, recovering from his injuries. Thanks to Veterans Airlift Command, he flew to Oregon this week for the first time since the explosion. He will serve as best man in his best friend's wedding and visit his parents' campground in Eastern Oregon for July 4.
For Jason, life after war would focus on adapting to his surroundings, rather than letting society adapt to him.
Jason Walker grew up in a military family. His mother and father met in Hawaii in 1985, while they served in the Navy. After his parents divorced, his father and stepmother moved to Oregon and lived in the small town of Dilley, just south of Forest Grove.
Everyone in school and the neighborhood knew him as Walker. In high school, he sang in the choir and played soccer and tennis. At the end of his junior year, he signed up in the Marines Corps reserves.
He had been mulling over the decision to join the military before the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. In his father's words: "The Walkers have always stood up and served for our country."
"It was not a matter of if. It was a matter of when," Walker said. "[The war] is something that's going to be around for a few years. It's not going to be done in a month. So I knew I would be deploying some time."
After he graduated from Forest Grove High School in 2003, he trained as a combat engineer at Swan Island Reserve Center in Portland. To pay the bills, Walker worked at Fred Meyer in Cornelius, pumping gas and stocking shelves.
After his first tour in Iraq, in 2005, he rekindled his relationship with his future wife, whom he knew from choir. The two married in Tigard on Sept. 23, 2006, with Walker's grandfather overseeing the proceedings. In 2007, the year Jason took a hiatus from the military, Jacob, their oldest, was born.
Jason reported for active duty in the Army in 2010. The family moved to Fort Hood, Texas to join the 87th Sapper Company. He first deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He left again last year.
A month and a half after the explosion, Jason tried to stand.
Doctors at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio held Jason up by the shoulders, as he grabbed onto a walker. He cringed. He was not ready. He said his right foot was "pretty much useless" and he could feel the pain rushing through his body. He struggled to move it.
Months of inactivity left his right leg hypersensitive. A soft touch would "send me screaming," he said.
After the blast, he had told his unit that when they returned from deployment, he would be standing in the terminal of the Kileen-Fort Hood Regional Airport, waiting to shake their hands and "welcome them home."
In January, he greeted his unit.
"I just wanted them to know that I was just fine," he said.
When Jason received his Purple Heart in February, he refused to have the formal ceremony at Fort Sam Houston. He wanted to receive that honor with his unit in Fort Hood. He said it was the first time in three years soldiers received Purple Hearts.
"It was a blessing to see them," he said. "I wanted to receive the Purple Heart with other people in my company."
When Jason landed in Hillsboro Airport on Wednesday, he wore a black T-shirt with the words, "Called to Duty" emblazoned on his chest. He later said he felt nervous and overwhelmed around the large crowd of family, friends and veterans.
He gamboled through the honor guard on his prosthetic leg and hugged his mother-in-law. A Forest Grove fire truck awaited, ready to lead a procession back through Forest Grove.
On Thursday, Jason, donning a Superman shirt, sat in his wheelchair in the living room of his mother-in-law's apartment in Cornelius. His sons Jacob, 7, and Ryan, 1, ran around the apartment with their nephew.
He woke up sore, his right leg swollen from all the walking the day before. At times, he struggles with memory loss, so he uses an iPad to remind him of his appointments.
These days, he dislikes large crowds and old, abandoned vehicles on the side of the road. Loud noises startle him.
"It's the unknown that everyone fears," he said later.
He laughs and jokes to get through the reality set before him. Jason has faith that God has a higher mission for him.
He recently enrolled in online courses at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the hopes of becoming a teacher one day. In May, he completed what he calls a "mini-triathlon" through the Center for the Intrepid, where he spends his days in physical therapy.
On July 8, Jason and his family will fly back to Fort Sam Houston. Doctors will examine whether he needs to have his right leg above the knee amputated. Months after the incident, his knee's condition worsened. His leg swells if he stands for a long period of time.
"I feel, to be honest, that getting a prosthetic might be better, but again, I'm not a doctor. I don't know what's best. All I can do is see where this leg goes," Jason said. "There is no easy answer for what to do in this situation. Every single person is different. There isn't one way for everybody. You have to figure out what you way is."
Ashlie said the family expects to stay in Texas for the next two years, as Jason continues physical therapy. It's unsure how his leg is going to recover, or if he needs repeated knee replacement surgeries.
Through the experiences, the adjustments and the routine, Jason found ways to learn how to walk again, to do what he once considered the normal way, differently.
"Usually you'd jump up and walk across the room to grab your kid. You can't do that as easily, especially when you're not wearing your leg."
He instead drops to the ground and crawls to his kids to play with them, as if he had both his legs again.