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BUCKLE UP


I OWE B.J. JACKSON this story. I got him into trouble five years ago when he and I snuck out of Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) -- leaving a network TV correspondent fuming -- and went to lunch on the San Antonio River Walk. Helping him play hooky from his PR duties was worth it just to see the kids gawking at him as he walked along the river. He had the coolest prosthetics where his legs used to be.

This isn’t a sad story; not to worry. It couldn’t be, thanks to the irrepressible B.J. and his cutie-pie of a wife, Abby. B.J. signed up for the Iowa National Guard at age 18 just to prove that a skinny five-foot-nine, 120-pound kid could. In 2003, he was sent to Iraq. He was taking a rare day off in Baghdad -- to buy a knockoff Barbie doll for his daughter -- when his Humvee hit a land mine. Trapped in the burning wreckage, he was finally pulled out by his buddies.

He woke up in BAMC in San Antonio to discover that his legs had been amputated below the knees and that he had burns over six and a half percent of his body. With two daughters at home and a stubborn wife at his bedside, there was no time for pity, however. Even when his physical therapist would call it a day after one session, Abby would push for yet another. But her bad-cop routine, as he calls it, worked. With physical therapy, he was skiing on prosthetics within a month. He started working with the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes and also visited veterans’ hospitals, listening to the stories of other amputees and burn victims and encouraging them with his own story of recovery. He and Abby had three more children -- three boys to go with their two girls.

I caught up with them as they drove the girls, ages eight and six, from Des Moines, Iowa, to Chicago for a dance competition. Now 28, B.J. is a motivational speaker and an easy touch for nonprofits trying to raise money for wounded soldiers. He especially loves talking to the young. “The middle school kids say, ‘Wow! Can I hold your leg?’ while the elementary school kids always ask, ‘Did you shoot anybody?’ ” he says, laughing. The corporate speaking gigs are harder, he says, because adults are afraid to ask questions -- except about his view of the war. (Support the troops no matter how you feel, he always says.) “I literally have to rip my leg off and throw it across the room to get them to open up,” he cracks.

His physical pain is real, but he refuses to slow down. While skiing on his new prosthetic legs in 2003, he wiped out, broke a bone, and had to start therapy over again. In 2007, he biked 51 miles of a Seattle-to–San Diego ride for a nonprofit and broke one of his prosthetics in the process, splitting his own leg open to the bone. He kept working on the leg until mid-2008, when surgeons removed the bottom two inches. This summer, he was back in the hospital yet again -- for a staph infection on his leg. “Working out is overrated anyway,” he jokes.

B.J.’s pep talks are about overcoming obstacles, showing leadership under stress, and most importantly, learning to accept help. With financial times so tough now, he says, the families of wounded soldiers face a special hell of their own. The bulked-up checks earned while on duty overseas stop. Spouses often have to leave their jobs to help their recovering vets. Marriages crumble under the stress. “You can’t bottle it up inside,” he says, testing the motivational speech he gives to veterans at Building Homes for Heroes and Eagles Summit Ranch, two nonprofits he works with. His faith helps too.

But his real rock is Abby, who’s pregnant with their sixth child. “It’s tough some days. You wake up thinking, ‘This sucks. I have to put on my prosthetics, and maybe I can’t walk as long as I’d like to.’ But you keep pushing forward, and you keep your support system close,” he says. Back in school and proud of his 3.6 GPA at Upper Iowa University, B.J. is thinking of switching his major to public relations. “My wife says I need to get into PR, because I don’t shut up and love to talk,” he says with a laugh.

Despite the strain on the family budget, he won’t give up traveling and talking to wounded soldiers. Abby sometimes chides him for being “selfish.” He agrees but says the stories he hears are far worse than his own and are part of his own therapy. He counts himself fortunate despite the nine surgeries he’s undergone. “I meet guys with 40, 50, 60 surgeries -- mostly guys with burn injuries. I may hurt physically,” he says, “but there are guys who are mentally scarred.”

B.J. travels a lot, and he’s still attracting attention wherever he goes, especially the attention of kids, who can’t miss his prosthetics covered with cartoon characters. “I’m a walking billboard,” he jokes. “Just need a sponsor.”

If you want to help, go to www.saluteheroes.org and www.buildinghomesforheroes.com.

To read an equally inspiring piece about other soldiers whose spirits couldn’t be broken, Click Here.