March 17, 2008 – The first time Jonathan Lujan signed up for the Marine Corps, he was 23 and married, and the young couple wanted a way to see the world. The second time, on Nov. 1, 2001, it was because his sense of duty made him want to be part of the group seeking retribution for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil. His patriotism was shaped by his grandfathers, one who served in the 10th Mountain Division and received a Silver Star in Italy, the other who served in New Guinea, aiding Navajo codetalkers. His dad served 32 years on the Denver police force. Two uncles served in Vietnam. Injured on the fourth day of the war, when he was thrown from the back of a convoy truck under fire, he returned to Colorado partly paralyzed. Now. the Littleton father of a 16-year-old daughter is operations manager at Mathias Lock & Key in Denver.
I spent my first year at Camp Fuji in Japan. It was a beautiful duty station, and I got to do a lot of neat things, like teach conversational English to Japanese soldiers. In December, I spent a couple of weeks with my family and then checked into Camp Pendleton on Jan. 6, 2003. Three weeks later, I was standing in the sand in Kuwait.
The unit I was attached to at Camp Pendleton was an engineer battalion, sent over on a bulk fuel and water mission. The fuelers were there to make sure the coalition forces had fuel. Mine was tasked with water purification and electricity generation.
Initially, we were attached to a reserve unit out of Battle Creek, Mich., so we had active and reserves on the same team.
The first week, we were in charge of convoy security for logistical convoys moving north into Iraq. On the first day of the war, March 19, 2003, we were staging a breach to go to the line of departure. We wanted to do that to bypass combat and get our logistical trains in front of the combat teams.
It was pretty hairy. We went three or four days without sleep, constantly going back and forth.
On March 23, we were in An Nasiriyah. Our convoy was taking fire. I was sitting in the back of our vehicle, leaning out the see which direction to direct our fire. We took some fire from the front, and our vehicle swerved off the road. I went airborne, and when I came back down, I thought I got shot. But I didn’t find an entry or exit wound, so I rogered up and went on with the mission.
When I went to get out of the back of the truck, I fell. My legs weren’t working right. About 15 or 20 minutes later, I was able to stand up, carry on.
When I was injured, I told the corpsman I was good to go. It was more out of stubbornness. I promised 33 moms, dads, boyfriends and girlfriends that I would bring their loved ones home. I was adamant about the tasks that fulfilled that promise.
After three weeks, Lujan couldn’t stand up straight. He was ordered to an Army field hospital for evaluation.
I was medevaced to a hospital in Kuwait, where I was supposed to stay for four or five days, then go to Germany and then to the states for surgery. I asked my physical therapist, an Army captain, what it would take to get me out. He said, “If you can bend over and touch your toes right now, I’ll sign your discharge papers.” So I bent over and touched my toes. He said, “You must be one tough SOB.” I said, “Why is that, sir?” He said, “You must be in a lot of pain.” I said, “I am in a lot of pain, sir.”
I hitched a ride back up on a helicopter and made sure my guys got back.
I was picked to sail (home) on a six-ship armada. It was a month and a half of sea time. When we pulled into Australia, we were greeted like heroes. At Pearl Harbor, we got the same reception.
My family has a long tradition of serving the country, so mooring near the USS Arizona was really special for me.
Back in California, doctors assessed his injury and treated bulging disks with steroid injections until he could no longer tolerate the pain. On July 18, 2005, he underwent surgery to fuse his lower back. When he woke up, he was paralyzed from the waist down. He was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where he mastered a wheelchair, a walker and a cane and, eventually, learned to walk again using braces to support his lower legs.
We all know the sacrifices all of us make. We leave our friends, our family and our jobs, not knowing if we’re gonna come back. Our sacrifice isn’t a light sacrifice. We just do it because that’s how we’re built; certain people are made up to be in the military.
When I went back in, I knew I was gonna do 20. I had goals for myself. I wanted to be a drill instructor and I wanted to reach the rank of sergeant major. The injury had a pretty big impact on that. It’s been hard to adjust back to civilian life. The seven months I was in war — but when I got back was when the battle really began. I will have a lifelong battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a kid, I always wanted to be firefighter. When I went back in the Marine Corps, I was testing for the Denver Fire Department. I had gotten to the point they were going to hire me; I had a conditional letter of employment. I got that letter when I was in Japan.
So I sacrificed that, but it was something I needed to do.
If I could go back to Iraq and be 100 percent effective, I would be there in a heartbeat. Not necessarily for combat, but I really believed in what we were doing there.
When we went, we knew our mission. We thought it would be six to 18 months before we liberated Iraq. We thought we would occupy for five to 10 years. We couldn’t tell our families or friends, but we knew. But there were some poor decisions made, politically, by high people, that made the American public think, “Hey, the war’s over. Let’s bring our boys home.” They should have said, “We are not actively engaging the enemy, but we are going to occupy and rebuild.”
The last year has been pretty rough on me. I was engaged to be married. My daughter was living with me, but decided to go back to her school in Phoenix.
A lot of what happened, I can attribute to PTSD. I’ve been going to the VA to see a therapist and counselor, and they’ve been instrumental in helping me see that a lot of the anger and rage and nightmares are PTSD-related. Unfortunately, I didn’t address it soon enough, and it cost me my engagement and the loss of my daughter.
My daughter was used to being away from me during my deployments. But she didn’t have to see the aftermath of my temper tantrums and saying hateful things to her.
If I could take it all back, I would. But I’ll get better, and we’ll all just move on.