As part of homecoming ceremonies at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state in January, Army Spc. Tyler Jeffries — with crutches and prosthetic legs — joins his unit in formation as the national anthem is played. The homecoming marked the first time Jeffries had seen his platoon since he lost both his legs in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan last October.
Florangela Davila for NPR
Though he had experience using the minesweeper, Jeffries never had a chance to discover the bomb that got him — it was set off by a remote "command wire." That means someone watched him step into the kill zone and then threw a switch.
Jeffries takes his first steps on prosthetic legs during what he described as an exhausting and painful physical therapy session at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in November 2012, less than two months after the roadside bombing.
"It took me 15 seconds to come back into reality, really," Jeffries said. "I came back to it, people were screaming my name and yelling at me, and I was like, 'What? What do you want?' Then I got people on me."
His buddies slapped him to keep him awake as they hoisted him up and carried him through a dry riverbed. Even as the medevac chopper came to a dusty landing, Jeffries didn't realize what had happened.
"I didn't even know my legs were gone. I kind of looked down, and that's when I saw that my legs weren't even there," he said. "They fixed me up pretty quick, put the tourniquets on me. I think I had like two on each leg. It was actually close friends of mine that ... saved my life that day."
Jeffries slipped in and out of consciousness on the way to a combat hospital in Kandahar. A few groggy days later, he woke up at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C. His family flew in to be there with him for a few days, and his mother got a leave of absence from her job as a logistics coordinator at Food Lion's corporate headquarters in Salisbury, N.C., and moved to Walter Reed to stay with Jeffries for the length of his recovery.
He'd lost one leg below the knee, the other above. In mid-October, Jeffries still felt like his legs were there.
"I get a lot of phantom pain. I still feel like I have my foot there, but I feel like my foot is being crushed, like all the time. My right foot, I get it every now and again, where I just get tingling sensations or it might sting," he said. "But my left foot feels like it's being run over by a car, like someone is literally crushing all the bones in my foot."
Setting A Goal For Recovery
What kept his mind off the pain was the thought of walking again — which has become a foregone conclusion for most maimed soldiers.
"I've been going pretty fast, healing up pretty good," Jeffries said. "I figure, the next few weeks I should be getting my legs."
As family and friends welcome the returning soldiers, Staff Sgt. Michael Blair gives Jeffries a bear hug.
Florangela Davila for NPR
The doctors first built stumps of muscle around the remaining bone. Once the swelling went down, Jeffries was cast for high-tech prosthetic legs, and just days later he got to try them out. On Nov. 30, less than two months after a bomb nearly killed him, Jeffries walked again.
It was just a dozen times down and back a short therapy mat — and he held handrails the whole way. But his therapist was more than pleased. So was Jeffries, as he settled back into his wheelchair, tired but satisfied.
"That was the first time. I had a few instances where I tripped up a little bit," he said at the time. "But most of it, it's coming pretty quick, for the first time. I didn't fall at all, so I was pretty happy with myself."
His doctors called those good first steps on what could be a long year of recovery. Jeffries had a more immediate goal in mind.
"In January, my guys come home," he said. "And I want to be there — walking — when they come home."
'The Reasons I'm Still Standing'
Many wounded soldiers say the worst part of getting hurt is leaving their buddies behind. When that medevac flew Jeffries out of the dust, his platoon still had three months of hard duty left in Kandahar. The goal of standing on his new legs to welcome them home kept Jeffries going through the holidays.
While his unit waits for buses to take them to a gym where family and friends will greet them, Jeffries sits in a wheelchair, one of his prosthetic legs visible.
Florangela Davila for NPR
On Jan. 13, the platoon came home to Fort Lewis, south of Tacoma, Wash. Wives, children and parents waited in a gymnasium on the other side of the base, but Jeffries was standing on the tarmac when the plane taxied to a stop.
Happiness at seeing his friends mixed with an awkward frustration that he should have been getting off the plane with them, not standing on the runway. But he was standing.
"You know the guys I kept telling you about? Well, they're the reason I'm still standing here," said Jeffries, inside the hangar.
The young men hugged and their eyes watered a bit, and Jeffries said thank you again and again. Sgt. Michael Blair handed Jeffries back his wristwatch, found in the dirt after the blast. Jeffries showed his new legs to Sgt. Chris Cunningham, who last saw them covered in blood as he tied the tourniquets on last October.
"We saw the blast. I ran right in. Everybody started calling his name, and then I saw him laying there, and I just ran right in, I didn't even think. Probably a dumb thing I did, but you do what you got to do, I guess," Cunningham recalled. "I dragged him back. I started putting tourniquets on him. I told him I'd bring him home."
They did get him home. But the platoon felt one man down for the rest of the tour, says Lt. Tory Hoyt, who helped carry Jeffries to the medevac that day.
"He was that last missing piece for our platoon," Hoyt said. "When we got here, it was just the culmination of the whole deployment, was him standing there waiting for us."
At this point, Jeffries sat back into his wheelchair for a moment — he hadn't taken his pain medicine that day because he wanted to be able to have a few beers with his guys later that night.
A Whole Unit Once Again
After turning in their weapons, the men took a bus across the base to where family and friends had been waiting in the gym for hours. A huge curtain divided the hall in half, with families teeming on one side, as the troops formed up at attention on the other.
When the curtain rose, the families went nuts at the sight of their soldiers, in their camouflage fatigues, tightly in formation.
In the front row, Jeffries stood at attention with his platoon — every man made it home, and now they stood as a unit again.
The joyful mob held back through the national anthem and a short speech, and then a sergeant shouted, "Fall out!"
A moment's hesitation, and then the crowd charged. Happy pandemonium ensued — kissing, embracing, a few flying-legs-around-the-waist, happy-to-see-you hugs.
Spc. Tyler Jeffries settled back into his wheelchair again. The stumps of his legs were as sore as they've ever been.