Swarthmore, Pa. Marine to receive hero's award
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — In his gun turret, Marine Cpl. Jason Simms was chatting over a radio with the driver of their light armored vehicle in Fallujah in 2004 when their lives changed forever.
"He was from Tennessee and talked about the country life," Simms said of Lance Cpl. Tim Creager. "He told me, 'I'm going take you bull riding' when we get back home."
Wham! A shattering explosion and bright flash from an improvised explosive device stunned Simms, who came to about 30 seconds later to find himself slumped over the vehicle with his hands in flames.
He set his face and hair on fire as he removed his helmet, which was still connected to the radio. He was shot three times by insurgents as he jumped to the ground.
Simms passed out again and awoke in a Texas hospital a week later. Creager died and two others traveling with them were injured.
But the deadly ambush and ordeal that followed never stopped Simms. The Swarthmore man endured 20 surgeries and years of rehabilitation and is now a human resources specialist for the Navy Department's Wounded Warrior Program in Northeast Philadelphia, where he finds work for other returning service members.
On Tuesday, the retired Marine will mark another milestone: receiving the American Hero of the Year Award along with $25,000 during a ceremony at Joint Base McGuire-Dix Lakehurst in New Jersey. The honor is to be bestowed by Dickies, a work apparel manufacturer, and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which sells goods to service personnel.
"I was very surprised," said Simms, 35, a Havertown native who received 15,000 online votes after being nominated for the award by his wife, Alana. "I was so overwhelmed; I just couldn't believe the amount of votes."
Though still struggling with PTSD and pain from shrapnel and other injuries, Simms has maintained a positive attitude.
"My husband deserves [the honor] more than anyone I can imagine," said Alana Simms, 34, who married Jason in 2012 and is expecting the couple's first child together next year. "Some people get a headache and post it on Facebook.
"But you would never know Jason is in pain," she said. "He will say, 'I'm fine. Don't worry about it.' "
A deadly trap
Simms joined the Marines as soon as he could after graduating in 1996 from Haverford High School. He served in Hawaii from 1997 to 2001, was discharged, and reenlisted in 2003.
By the next year, he was deployed to Iraq and was searching for insurgents on July 1 with six others in their armored vehicle when it was struck by the IED.
The enemy had rigged the road with three artillery rounds and a tub filled with gasoline, diesel fuel, and pieces of metal.
After jumping from the smashed, burning vehicle, "I put my face in the sand to put the fire out," Simms said. "I remember looking around to see where everybody was and didn't see my friend Tim.
"The next thing I know I was packed in the back of a platoon commander's vehicle and asked if I was OK," he said, recalling his answer: "Yeah, I'm fine. How are you?"
Simms lapsed into unconsciousness, and when he opened his eyes on July 8 in Texas, he saw his parents.
"My leg was in a brace, and I had bandages on my face and hands," he said. "I lost all the skin on my hands, and still have hundreds of pieces of shrapnel from the waist down.
"My little finger had to be amputated later," he said. The medical staff "wouldn't let me see myself for two or three months."
Though still on pain medications and unable to stand for long because of the shrapnel in the bottom of his feet, Simms now connects other wounded warriors with federal employment.
"I find all kinds of jobs, just about anything you can think of - IT, welder, plumber, custodian, and police officer," he said.
Simms' perseverance won over thousands of people who voted at militaryhero.com for one of five American Hero of the Year finalists from across the country. The four runners-up each receive $1,000.
"For someone to go through so much and want to help others is a pretty compelling story," said Matthew McCartin, chief marketing officer for Dickies in Fort Worth, Texas. "His attitude is why he was selected."
Though he retired from the Marines with the rank of sergeant in 2008 because of his injuries, Simm's service and fight continue.
He "has shown us that even after making those sacrifices himself, he fights every day to better the lives of his fellow military brothers and sisters at home," said Mike Howard, chief operating officer of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.
Added Alana Simms: "He's an inspiration."