The last time Tim Jeffers was on Okinawa, he had legs.
That was in February 2006 when Jeffers, then a corporal assigned to 3rd Transportation Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, as a motor transport operator, left the island for Iraq’s Anbar Province.
Jeffers was three months into a seven-month deployment the day he dismounted the lead security vehicle in a convoy, took a few steps off the road during a security sweep and had his life changed forever.
His platoon mates watched from the ground that day – the haze of dust and smoke still permeating the battlefield – as a medevac helicopter gulped up their friend, shot back in the direction the convoy came from and disappeared over the horizon.
It was the beginning of a long journey for Tim Jeffers – one that, more than two years later, brought him back here. He came back, he says, for family – the family he was taken from that day in Anbar.
Jeffers arrived on Okinawa in August 2005 and was assigned to 2nd Platoon, Motor Transportation Company, 3rd TSB (the battalion has since been redesignated as Combat Logistics Battalion 4).
He joined the Marines in 2002 as a reservist but volunteered for active duty in 2005. He was 18 when service in the Corps attracted his interest.
“I wanted a challenge, and the poster looked cool,” Jeffers says with a chuckle.
Jeffers is a smart ass. It is, his friends say, his biting wit for which they know and love him, and his charismatic personality helped forge the tight bonds that defined the Marines of 2nd Platoon.
“His personality is just awesome,” said Cpl. Jason O’Hearn, who befriended Jeffers on Okinawa. “He was the life of the party. He was a ladies man. He was like my little brother.”
Fraternal bonds run deep in 2nd Platoon, which goes by the moniker “Scorpions.” The Scorpions are fiercely proud of the glory days before Iraq when they reigned as the all-star platoon of Motor T Company. They trained hard and “played” even harder. They exercised together, went to the field together, smoked and drank together and traded tales of life back home. They did all the things Marines do to become units, to become family. They felt, as one member put it, “untouchable.”
“We were taught that if there was ever going to be anything or anyone better than us, they better be untouchable,” said Sgt. Charles Trask, the tough kid from a broken home in Kansas City, Mo., who goes by the call sign “Spartan” and wears a matching tattoo of a Spartan warrior on his left pectoral.
Trask calls the Marines of 2nd Platoon “my Marines,” and he reveres them like a proud father. His fervent pride and loyalty to his Marine family is prevalent in 2nd Platoon.
Many of them came from broken homes or dysfunctional families and found in the platoon a kinship they had never known. That kinship was at the heart of the “unbreakable chain” the platoon formed before they went to war together in 2006.
“Our belief and trust in each other always got us through,” said Sgt. Joseph Tocci, a Boston native and mellower complement to Trask’s hard-edged disposition. “Our leaders always instilled in us to be the best, and we always were.”
Before they left for Iraq, 2nd Platoon, Tocci says, had the highest physical fitness test average in the company, and the platoon won every unit competition that came along.
They were untouchable.
‘YOU EITHER FIND ‘EM, OR YOU HIT ‘EM’
When the Scorpions went to Iraq in 2006, they were assigned the mission of security platoon and worked out of Al Asad Air Base, the biggest base in Anbar Province, supporting convoys that supplied forward operating bases in the area. The mission was arduous, nerve-racking and never-ending.
The battalion the Scorpions supported lost eight Marines within the first six weeks they were on the ground, and the harsh realities of war quickly set in for them.
“It was definitely a culture shock,” Tocci says. “We were like, ‘It’s no joke over here.’”
With improvised explosive devices and snipers the two biggest threats in Iraq, the Scorpions’ mission was to find and protect against those threats during convoy operations.
“You either find ‘em or you hit ‘em,” Tocci said about the stark reality they faced either spotting IEDs or triggering them. “We were the ones right in front looking out. You have to really have that eagle’s eye to see them.”
The platoon was attacked with IEDs continuously. Trask was hit with an IED himself but suffered only minor injuries and returned to duty.
“It was IED after IED after IED,” he said. “I expected the enemy to be right in my face like a football game. It wasn’t like that. It was an enemy that was right there in our face that we couldn’t see.”
The invisible enemy loomed constantly under roadside rocks and rubble. The Marines regarded every object with suspicion and contempt.
‘YOU TELL THEM WHAT THEY NEED TO KNOW’
Marines have an informal doctrine for mourning. A Marine’s mourning process is often abbreviated and stored away, to be indulged in some time later when it isn’t a battlefield liability. It is a very unnatural act to swallow a heart full of sorrow, but it is a necessary sacrifice Marines make for the sake of the mission.
“You tell them what they need to know,” Trask said, describing the process. “You give them the least bit of information to carry on, and when the mission is accomplished, you give them some time to mourn. Then you get them focused again.”
The day Jeffers was wounded, Cpl. John Rockwell, Jeffers’ next-door neighbor in the barracks on Okinawa, was on a separate convoy. When the Marines reached their destination, a lieutenant pulled everyone together and passed the news.
“She told us one of our own got hit,” Rockwell said. “She didn’t tell us how bad until later, but they don’t tell us somebody got hit unless something bad happened.”
Rockwell and Jeffers, who both hail from Orange County in Southern California, forged a strong friendship on Okinawa.
“Me and Jeffers got really close,” Rockwell said. “We were a lot alike because we’re from the same area.”
When Rockwell learned what had happened to Jeffers it hit him hard.
“I can’t really explain the feeling,” he said. “It’s horrible. It’s just the worst feeling possible.”
O’Hearn, who was attached to an engineer unit, also got an initial vague report.
“At first, I thought, ‘he’s fine,’” he said. “I had to tell myself that. That’s like my brother. I had to tell myself that to stay sane.”
He found out the next day how bad Jeffers had been hit.
“I broke down,” O’Hearn said. “I was bawling. When I heard the extent of his injuries, I didn’t think he was going to make it. I thought ‘how could anyone live through that?’”
Cpl. Carl Drexler was in the convoy with Jeffers, but he was far back in the snaking procession of vehicles.
The convoy stopped when a vehicle in the rear was hit with an IED. Jeffers, who was the pace vehicle commander, did what he was trained to do. He got out to sweep the area around his vehicle for IEDs or insurgents.
Drexler heard the call come over the radio moments later: “We lost a man.”
He initially assumed it wasn’t anyone from 2nd Platoon. “We figured maybe it was a contractor or something because they didn’t say Marine.”
But when the convoy arrived at Al Qaim, Drexler saw someone else in Jeffers’ seat.
“As soon as I saw he wasn’t there, I knew it was bad,” he said. “I’d seen a lot of guys get hit, and they don’t get medevac’d. They just go in a different track.”
Drexler grabbed a Marine who had been close to the incident and demanded to know what happened. He asked three times before the Marine revealed his horrible secret.
“He told me both his legs got blown off.”
Drexler figured his friend was dead. He thought he would have bled to death on the chopper ride.
“I just wanted to stop,” he said “I didn’t want to go back out there.”
The platoon’s leaders knew the other Marines would have similar thoughts. They pulled the Marines together.
“When you take that unbreakable chain you’ve built and then break it, the whole thing can fall apart,” Trask said. “Our staff sergeant brought us together and told us ‘no matter how much we want to quit, no matter how much we hate this situation, we can’t let it tear us apart.’”
And they didn’t let it tear them apart, but, as Drexler put it, none of them were the same after that.
“We were all just down for the next few weeks.”
While they were down, Jeffers was in a coma.
“I just remember screaming and swearing a lot.”
That’s how Tim Jeffers recalls May 18, 2006 – the day an improvised explosive device claimed both his legs, one eye, nearly half his skull and his right ring finger.
Everything is dark for about a month after that – the frozen time when his world was eclipsed by coma – before he woke up at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland.
“I just remember waking up with my dad’s ugly face looking over me,” Jeffers says in his usual jocular tone. Bethesda was the third or fourth stop on his trip from that roadside in Anbar. There was the first stop at the field hospital at Al Asad, where, a lieutenant from his company tells him, he “got a little mouthy.”
He probably spent some time at the largest American hospital in Iraq at Balad Air Base before he left the country four days after he was hit, but Jeffers can’t be sure.
He was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany – the standard go-between for wounded service members from Iraq to the U.S. – where Cpl. Chris Jeffers, a motor transport operator stationed on Camp Kinser at the time, was sent to be with his brother and take him home. Chris was dispatched there, Tim says, by order of then Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Michael W. Hagee.
“General Hagee asked if there was anything he could do,” Tim said. “And my dad said, ‘Send Chris to be with him.’” After Tim awoke at Bethesda, he was there for about two weeks before he moved to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., one of the country’s premiere providers of the Polytrauma care required by people like Tim who have suffered multiple traumatic injuries.
He spent eight months in Palo Alto undergoing full-time rehabilitation. Every Monday through Friday, his days were packed. He underwent speech therapy and worked with a neuropsychologist to reacquire some of the cognitive skills he lost from his traumatic brain injury. He worked with occupational therapists to overcome the moderate paralysis he suffered in his right arm. He went through blind rehabilitation to adjust to the loss of depth perception that comes with having only one eye. And then there was the physical therapy and prosthetics training, which Tim did twice daily.
“I was the one in the worst condition at Palo Alto,” Tim said. “It was kind of depressing to see other patients coming in the door and then having to watch them go right back out a few weeks later. It sucked because I was there forever.”
But forever at Palo Alto came to end, and Tim was transferred to the Marines’ Wounded Warrior Battalion West at Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego, one of the top prosthetics training facilities in southern California. Tim was happy to be with a Marine unit again. There were formations and field days and cammies – not that he necessarily missed those things. It was the Marines he missed, the people.
Tim was exempted from most of the regimentation and formalities at Balboa, which were aimed primarily at the Marines who would return to duty.
“It’s not the same as the fleet because the primary mission is rehab,” Tim said, describing life at Balboa. “But a lot of Marines there aren’t getting out; they’re going back to the fleet. The environment is intended to set everyone up for success.”
Tim was on his way to a medical retirement, and he assumed a quiet, comfortable role in his new unit.
“If you’re a (noncommissioned officer), you act like an NCO out there. I was just Cpl. Jeffers, the funny crippled corporal,” he quipped.
While Tim was adjusting to life with his new unit at Balboa and preparing to leave active duty, his old unit was starting another deployment training cycle and preparing to leave for Iraq.
ONE YEAR LATER
It was Iraq that fractured 2nd Platoon’s family, and it was Iraq that brought them back together.
Okinawa units deploying to Iraq have to travel to California or Arizona for desert training. That’s how Combat Logistics Battalion 4 came to be in the Mojave Desert almost one year from the day Jeffers was wounded. The unit deployed to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twenty-nine Palms, about a three-hour drive north from Balboa.
Tim’s 2nd Platoon brothers saw an opportunity to reunite with their friend. They piled in a van and made the trip to San Diego. It had been a yearlong fight for Tim – the wounds, the pain and suffering, the emotional turmoil, the struggle to retake control of his life. The Marines were nervous. What would Tim be like? How would he act? Would he still be Tim?
Cpl. Carl Drexler remembers waiting anxiously at the medical center to meet his friend. Tim saw Drexler first and called to him from a distance. For a moment, Drexler didn’t recognize the Marine he described as his “smoke break buddy” in Iraq.
“It was kind of hard to see him in that condition,” Drexler said. “It kind of took me back to the day it happened for a second. The last time I saw him, we were just smoking like it’s cool before a convoy.”
Drexler stood frozen as the other Marines flocked to Tim, exchanging handshakes and hugs. It was a moment before Drexler could see the friend he remembered.
“Once I saw he was the same old Jeffers, I was just glad he was still the great person I remembered,” Drexler said.
All the Marines had shared the same human hope in those anxious moments – that the way things were might still be within reach. As if anyone remains unchanged by a year’s passing. As if anyone is unchanged by the brutal lessons of combat.
“We were all remembering what he was like and thinking, ‘I hope he’s the same person,’” said Cpl. Jason O’Hearn. “I wanted to cry when I first saw him. I’d never seen anybody who’d been wounded like that before.”
But on the other side of the Marines’ anxiety and nervousness was a glowing Tim. The man who had been through hell and back had emerged with all the virtues and warmth of character that made his friends love him. Tim was still Tim.
“He’s still a wisecracker, the same joker as before,” O’Hearn said. “He’s still the same old Tim – my brother – just a little bit smaller.”
Without saying anything, Tim taught his friends a lesson that day – about looking forward, about being thankful for friends, for family, for life. And Tim felt, at the same time, the healing power of getting back some of what was lost. The friends and memories, the handshakes and hugs, the smiles and laughter – those things had emerged unscathed from that violent flash in Anbar.
A NEW FRIEND
Tim spent another year in rehabilitation. He made the transition from active duty and used his medical retirement income to buy a place in San Diego where he could be close to Balboa and continue his prosthetics training, the portion of his rehabilitation he has found particularly cumbersome.
“It’s very difficult for above-knee, bilateral amputees,” Tim says. “It’s agitating watching other amputees walk after three months. I mean, I’m happy for them, but I just wish I could do it as easily.”
Tim works hard at walking on his prosthetics. He makes the trip from his condominium in the east San Diego suburb of La Mesa to Balboa three or four times a week. Balancing without help of a cane is difficult. Walking is quite a chore without legs.
Getting around in general is an involved process these days. Tim’s Traumatic Brain Injury causes a seizure disorder that the California Department of Motor Vehicles deems a safety risk behind the wheel, and his driver’s license was suspended as a result.
Traumatic Brain Injury has many debilitating effects, but Tim stubbornly refuses to let the injury deter his quest for independence.
“I don’t like to admit I have as much TBI as I do,” he says. “I don’t feel I have a bad memory problem. I get brain farts here and there, but it’s not that bad.”
Tim lives alone in his two-bedroom condo, and he is, for the most part, independent. He likes having a place to himself, but he also appreciates having his new Marine family close by in San Diego.
He remains in contact with Marines at the Wounded Warrior Battalion, and despite having no official obligation, Tim’s gunny from Balboa provides him transportation whenever he needs it.
“I call him for rides, and he always comes, no questions asked,” Tim says.
Marines take care of Marines. That unofficial mantra is inherent among them. From the closest bonds fortified by war, to strangers in a bar whose only commonality is the title – there is a tendency among Marines to go out of their way to help one another.
While Tim sought to become independent, he leaned comfortably on that tendency.
When he made the transition to the Veterans Affairs health system, Tim added another member to his Marine family, one that he was connected to in more ways than he could have imagined.
Retired Master Sgt. Joe Sturdivant left Okinawa May 23, 2005, two days before Tim officially transferred from the reserves to active duty. The position Sturdivant left was motor transportation chief at Motor T Co., 3rd Transportation Support Battalion – the unit Tim joined a few months later.
Sturdivant moved on to his final duty station at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and deployed to Iraq a few months later. In Iraq, he worked out of Camp Korean Village, a forward operating base in Anbar that protected the Syrian and Jordanian borders from insurgent activity. Jeffers protected convoys that supplied the base.
Sturdivant returned from Iraq March 29, 2006 and retired from the Corps Sept. 30 of that year. He started working as an addiction therapist a few months later at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in La Jolla, the opulent, coastal suburb in San Diego.
When the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs mandated the establishment of Seamless Transition Teams to provide better continuity of care from the DoD health care system to the VA, Sturdivant became a Transition Patient Advocate. TPAs serve as caseworkers for vets like Tim, tracking progress and providing a constant arm of support within the system for everything from explaining entitlements to helping TBI sufferers make it to appointments.
The TPA concept, Sturdivant says, was to hire combat vets who could provide patients the one thing medical staff couldn’t: empathy through shared experience.
“A lot of clinic staff don’t know how to connect and communicate with these vets,” Sturdivant says. “That’s where we come in.”
Their similar backgrounds helped Sturdivant and Tim connect easily, and their working relationship quickly blossomed into a friendship. As his family in San Diego grew, Tim kept in touch with 2nd Platoon in Iraq. He watched the calendar, kept them in his prayers and looked forward to their safe return.
As the end of their deployment approached, Tim planned another reunion – one that wouldn’t be abbreviated and rushed. He asked Sturdivant to go back to Okinawa with him.
“At first, I was like ‘Are you serious?’” Sturdivant says. “I was flattered that he would ask me. I broached it with my program manager, and he absolutely supported it. This is a special case; this guy’s coming back here for closure.”
Tim dismisses the notion that the trip was about closure. He says it’s simpler than that.
“I wanted to keep in contact with these guys,” he said. “They’re the ones who kept me from dying, and I wanted to see them together before they all change duty stations and get scattered all over.”
“It’s family; ya’ know?”
DIFFERENT IRAQ, DIFFERENT PLATOON
In the summer of 2007, 2nd Platoon returned to a much different Iraq than the one they left a year earlier. The tides had turned in Anbar Province. The area that was once one of the most volatile insurgent hotbeds in the country had become one of the most secure areas in Iraq.
Sunni tribal leaders in the region, tired of the brutality insurgents wielded against their people, turned against the insurgency and allied themselves with American forces, embracing the security the alliance provided.
And while the operational tempo on the ground had changed, so had the platoon dynamic. As platoon members were spread out to different areas and sections with different missions, the tightness the Marines had known before unraveled.
They enjoyed more security, but the Marines regarded the new calm with unease. Mostly, they missed the closeness they knew before.
As is often the case in war, the rigors they faced in 2006 had a galvanizing effect on the Scorpions.
“The situations we’re put in, having to depend on each other – you get used to it,” says Cpl. John Rockwell. “You don’t ever have to think about whether your brothers will have your back; you know they’re there. It’s a way of life.”
‘THE HARDEST THING I EVER DID’
Combat Logistics Battalion 4 returned to Okinawa March 20. They filed off busses to meet friends and family at the Community Center on Camp Foster.
To most of the returning Marines, the small, spectacled young man in the wheelchair was a stranger. To a handful of seasoned Marines from Motor T Company, he was the missing man who had finally come home.
“There’s nothing I would ever trade in the world,” says Sgt. Charles Trask, “for that moment – when I saw Jeffers sitting there waiting for us, just waiting for us to say hi. To see our brother just waiting for us to come back and welcome us home …”
He tapered off.
Trask and Tim were corporals together in Iraq. Tim slept in the bunk above Trask at Al Asad. Tim’s was usually the first face Trask saw every day when he woke up.
Trask was the turret gunner in a scout vehicle ahead of the convoy the day Tim was hit.
When the rear vehicle was hit with the first IED, Trask’s vehicle got the call to provide security. The crew made their way to the rear of the convoy. Mortars started impacting nearby, and one hit an oil tanker. The tanker erupted into a mass of flames and black, billowing smoke.
“I thought, ‘Oh f—,” Trask said. “This is a bad day.”
Then Trask heard the radio transmission that a man was down.
Again, the crew was redirected to provide security. Driving back toward the front of the convoy, Trask wondered who had been hit.
“I was thinking ‘who could it be?’” he said. “I thought it couldn’t be Jeffers because he’s the only Marine who was in church every Sunday.”
When Trask arrived, a Marine from Tim’s vehicle and a corpsman were treating the wounded Marine, scrambling to tie tourniquets on his legs and control the bleeding from his head.
The violent scene pulled Trask’s eyes from the direction of his gun toward his brother, now a bloody mess on the ground. He traced the trails. There was so much blood. His heart twisted in his chest. Adrenaline set his thoughts afire. His emotions shot through him like hot shrapnel from an artillery blast.
Trask felt the unrelenting force of instinct pulling him to Tim – the same unexplainable compulsion that causes Marines to lurch forward in battle when other men would shrink, the same compulsion that had already pulled Tim’s gunner, Sgt. Joshua Vee, out of his turret to immediately tie the tourniquets that saved Tim’s life.
“The hardest thing I ever did was have to sit in a gun turret and watch him laid out on the ground while other people fixed him,” he says. “All I wanted to do was be there next to him, but I had to stay right there in that gun turret, not because I wanted to, but because my staff sergeant told me to – to do my job and pull security.”
Trask scanned his sector, violent thoughts of retribution flooding his mind: “Let this be the day the enemy reveals himself – a trigger man, an ambush, anything.” Trask looked for a target on which to unleash his agony in those tortured moments as he called out to let Tim know he was with him.
“I love you, Jeffers!” he screamed at the top of his lungs from the turret. “I love you! You’re gonna be all right!”
He kept screaming. The medevac helicopter swooped in and grabbed Tim, and the convoy drove on.
“We delivered the goods and got home,” Trask says. “That’s our sacrifice.”
When 2nd Platoon returned from Iraq last month, there was much to celebrate. Everyone had made it back alive and in one piece, and the only man who was missing from the return flight to Okinawa the first time was finally back with his family.
About a half dozen of the original Scorpions planned a celebratory weekend getaway at the Okuma Recreation Facility on Okinawa’s northwestern coast March 28-30. It was the perfect setting to have the reunion they had wanted to have for so long.
They spent the weekend getting back – back to Okinawa, back to family, where they had been before. They went jet skiing, talked about girls, smoked and drank, talked about life, cracked jokes, razzed each other endlessly.
“This is probably the best weekend I’ve had on Okinawa,” said Cpl. Jason O’Hearn. “This is about family, about relaxing after a deployment. It’s a calming therapeutic feeling – being out here with the crew. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Trask says the Marines who gathered that weekend had bound themselves to one another long ago in the untouchable days before Iraq.
“Before or after what happened to Tim, any one of us would give our life for each other,” he says.
Sgt. Joseph Tocci says it’s a feeling that can’t be articulated to outsiders.
“These guys are the best people in the world,” he said. “You think you have friends back home, but those friendships don’t compare to this. There’s no better feeling.”
That Sunday afternoon at Okuma, the Marines packed their things and went back home. Tim flew back to California the next day. It was probably the last time they’ll all get together that way.
Trask, O’Hearn, and Cpl. Daniel Lopez all reenlisted to stay in the Corps at least a few more years. Tocci, Rockwell and Drexler are all getting out.
Life will propel them all forward, further into the uncertain depths of tomorrow. And when it does, they’ll look over their shoulders from time to time and glance back at the days of youth when the world was theirs, when the only thing they needed was each other – the days when they were untouchable.