One Marine's determination to walk again
CAMP COURTNEY, Okinawa — July 23, 2003, started off as a typical Marine Corps training day for Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan R. White. The communications chief for 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and fellow Marines from the unit were training for parachute operations.
Out of the 21 Marines who were jumping into Drop Zone Pyle on Ie-Shima from a CH-46 helicopter, White was the only one who wasn’t making his first jump since initial training — it was about his 25th. Therefore, he was a “stick leader” and would be first off the ramp.
After a pre-jump briefing, landing practices and countless equipment checks, White and his fellow Marines were ready. Upon arrival at the island, last-minute weather checks were made before a countdown. A light in the helicopter turned green, signaling the Marines to go.
As soon as his parachute opened and White looked around to make sure everything was working right, he knew something was wrong.
“I was falling faster than everyone else, and traveling laterally across the [landing] zone faster,” White said. A quick scan of his equipment showed no problems — the parachute was fully deployed and he was able to turn.
“All I remembered is what I was taught, which is to focus on the landing,” he said.
What White didn’t know was the speed he was traveling and why he was descending so fast. He said the official report says he was caught in a major gust of cross wind, and it’s estimated that he was traveling nearly 60 mph.
“All I remember is landing … I think I landed perfectly, and then I don’t remember squat,” White said. The impact caused his body to fold forward at the chest — he head-butted the buckle on his belt.
White was lucky — a corpsman on hand was a reservist who happened to be a New York City Fire Department paramedic specializing in spinal injuries. The corpsman knew something serious was wrong and instructed the helicopter pilots to take White straight to U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa.
While White doesn’t remember much about the accident, his wife, Peggy, recalls the time in the hospital clearly.
When she first went to the emergency room, doctors thought her husband simply had the wind knocked out of him.
“He was talking to them, sort of doing the [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] thing … he was giving them nothing vital,” Peggy White said. “He was saying stuff like, ‘I want to get back to the drop zone.’
“I had a hold of his hand and a hand on his shoulder and I told him, ‘You’re not wherever you think you are. You need to snap out of this and talk to us.’”
A short while later, she said, he came to his senses.
“He said he remembered the jump, but not a lot after that,” Peggy said. “Then he paused and that’s when he realized he couldn’t feel his feet. He told me to hold his hand and I said, ‘I am.’ Then one tear came down his cheek and he said, ‘I can’t feel you.’”
A neurosurgery staff member was called in — Lt. Cmdr. Robert Rosenbaum, the neurosurgery department head.
Rosenbaum said White had no motor function in his toes and ankles, and as he worked his way up White’s body he was concerned.
“The higher you go and the longer it takes to find something working, it’s very concerning,” Rosenbaum said. “He began feeling in his lower chest.”
The problem was in White’s back. Rosenbaum said X-rays revealed that White had fractured vertebrae. The next step, Rosenbaum said, was having a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, done.
Rosenbaum accompanied White for the scan and climbed onto the table to hold White’s head still. Rosenbaum said the two were nose-to-nose inside the machine when White surprised him.
“He said, ‘Promise me I will walk again,’” Rosenbaum said. “It’s a good rule for physicians not to make promises and Jon really caught me off-guard. He got me emotional to the point where I promised him he would.”
Rosenbaum wasn’t sure he could hold up his end of the deal, as the initial diagnosis was that White would be a quadriplegic.
But after looking at the MRI results, Rosenbaum thought he might have a chance. There was a big chunk of bone lodged against White’s spinal cord. Rosenbaum thought that if he could perform surgery quickly and remove the pressure, White would have a shot at recovery.
So Rosenbaum approached the Whites and told them his plan. They agreed.
Within two hours of the accident, White was in the operating room.
White said he was lucky to have Rosenbaum as his neurosurgeon, as most in the field figure it’s better to be paralyzed than dead. Rosenbaum admitted that he’s a forward thinker and not many other neurosurgeons would have performed the operation.
During the nine-hour surgery, Rosenbaum pushed the bone chunk away from White’s spinal cord and inserted two 12-inch titanium rods and six screws to stabilize his spinal cord.
While Rosenbaum wasn’t sure the surgery would work, he saw a good sign in the recovery room.
“I was standing at his right side and when he woke up, his right knee came up and hit me in the face,” Rosenbaum said. “While it wasn’t my favorite thing, it was a good sign.”
After spending three days in the intensive care unit at the hospital, White was flown to Naval Medical Center San Diego for follow-up care which included one more surgery.
The trip back to the United States wasn’t smooth. White said he experienced problems ranging from the hospital not knowing he was arriving to staff members getting him out of bed and moving him around just days after surgery.
When it came time for the second surgery, White said he wasn’t quite sure what was going on. He didn’t know until afterward that doctors were removing one of his ribs. The doctors took the rib and the remaining bone fragments in his back and ground them up, placing the mixture in a cage surrounding his spinal cord. White said the material solidified into bone over the next six months.
Despite two successful surgeries, White said doctors in San Diego still said he never would walk again.
“They wrote me off,” White said. “They wanted to know what [Veterans Administration] hospital I was going back to.”
But retirement and paralysis weren’t in White’s plan. He was determined to walk again — and to return to duty.
When White began physical therapy in San Diego he asked, “What do I have to do to get out of this place?” He was told he had to walk around the room, to which he replied, “Let’s go.”
After three weeks in San Diego, White returned to Okinawa, but still was having some problems. His legs were numb and he needed help to walk.
“I had to train myself to walk again,” said the Marine of nearly 18 years. “I had two canes and I was out the door.”
Within three months, White was back to work. Four months later he was running again.
In May, he deployed with his unit to the Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand. While there, he secretly prepared to run a physical fitness test. He had a 10-day window between the exercise and leave and he wanted to complete the test to prove to the Corps that he was ready to carry on.
When White returned from the exercise, he surprised unit members by announcing he was running a PFT. He said the event was painful, but he was able to score a “young man’s” first class — a 237 — with a 22:39 3-mile run time, 13 pull-ups and 100 crunches in two minutes.
Now that White is back to work, he hopes to be promoted soon — another reason he wanted to run a successful PFT. The E-8 selection board meets this month and without a PFT score in the system, he said, he likely would have been passed over for promotion.
Since the accident, White has returned to the scene of the accident once and was stunned by what he saw.
“It was real creepy,” he said. “Where I landed, it was like somebody took gas and burned a body imprint into the ground.”
He said the depression his body made in the ground was about 6 inches deep. He also was shown something else that made him feel lucky to be alive — a pile of concrete rubble with steel bars poking out about 12 feet away.
While pain will be a daily reminder of White’s accident, he has no regrets.
“I’m glad it happened to me that day, out of everyone that jumped,” he said, noting the outcome might have been deadly for the other Marines since they had less experience.
“I knew when I woke up in the hospital that I was going to be all right … I was at peace early in the game,” White said. “I know there’s a plan and that was my piece. I didn’t care for it, but I knew it was my place.”