GEORGETOWN — If things had gone differently on June 6, 2006, in Iraq, John Wilson would likely still be in the .
On that day, Wilson, a gunnery sergeant, was in the passenger seat of an up-armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle — better known as a Humvee.
“We hit a roadside bomb, an IED (improvised explosive device),” Wilson said matter-of-factly as he recounted the story recently. “I was wounded… and had to retire after that.”
The explosion threw the 7,000-pound vehicle 12 feet in the air and opened it up “like a pop can.”
The other Marines in the vehicle were also injured — a radio operator lost part of his leg, another man fractured his pelvis. The only one who was unscathed by the explosion was the gunner — who Wilson called the “luckiest guy in the that day.”
That Marine was thrown from his turret away from the blast and was uninjured.
“I was in the front passenger seat,” Wilson said.
He took shrapnel in his left elbow, his left eye was injured and he had a “ginormous” wound on his left upper leg. Wilson also suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) because of the blast.
Wilson woke up in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., “wondering what the heck happened,” he said.
He spent about four months there being treated for his injuries, then was sent home to the Georgetown area on convalescent leave to recover. During that time, his 20-year anniversary with the came. He decided to retire and re-enter civilian life.
Wilson, now 49, is a lifelong Georgetown-area resident. He grew up in Greene Township a few miles from Georgetown proper, a 1986 graduate of South Side Area High School.
“I kind of was born to be a Marine,” Wilson said.
His father served in the Air Force, an older brother served in the Navy and a younger brother is also an Air Force vet, Wilson said.
“I knew from a very young age that I was going to be a Marine,” he said. “It was something I wanted to do. I wanted to serve my country.”
Wilson signed up before his high school graduation and initially trained to be a diesel mechanic in the corps. After he reported to his first duty station, a sergeant major encouraged him to train to become a toe gunner.
During his first deployment in 1990-1991 during Operation Desert Storm, Wilson was sent to Iraq, where he served with the 2nd Tank Battalion.
“Desert Storm was more of a mechanized, long-distance warfare type of thing,” he said. “We were involved in a couple of tank battles. We fought mortar more than anything.”
His experiences in Iraq then — along with the collective experiences of the military during that war — helped to transform the , Wilson said.
“If it wasn’t for Desert Storm, we wouldn’t have the we have today,” he said.
During the rest of the 1990s, Wilson served in various places, including Okinawa, Japan — a place he called the “best kept secret in the ” — and ended up working as a Marine recruiter in State College.
He then was called to inspector instructor (I and I) duty with a Marine reserve center in Ebensburg, near Johnstown.
As an active-duty Marine, Wilson’s job was to train the reservists.
“We basically teach them what they need to know,” Wilson said.
He was deployed three times to Iraq with that group in different parts of the country, he said.
“There’s not many places in Iraq that I couldn’t find,” Wilson said.
His biggest job was convoy security, but the mission varied.
“One day you could be securing a major move … the next day doing a security patrol looking for bad guys,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s tour ended with the incident involving the roadside bomb, and as he recovered he decided it was time to retire.
He works as a civilian with a Marine recruiting office in Pittsburgh, so he’s still close to military life, and the visible — and invisible — scars of serving in a war have lingered, he said.
“Just because a guy doesn’t have any scars, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad injury,” Wilson said, referencing the effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on all who serve.
“The pressure wave of being right on top of (an explosion) just does something to your body,” he said. “A lot of guys injured with IED blasts may not have visible wounds.”
Or, as is Wilson’s case, they may have wounds that are both visible and invisible. While he’s recovered from his visible wounds, the effects of the TBI and PTSD are something Wilson deals with daily.
“I don’t remember things. I get stuck on words,” he said.
He also battles PTSD and finds solace in talking with the Marines he served with and a few close friends to get through it.
“I think everyone who serves has some kind of PTSD,” Wilson said.
There’s a “what-if” mentality that lingers because of service in places like Iraq and Afghanistan post-9/11, where American troops were exposed to indirect fire, roadside bombs and other experiences outside the realm of traditional warfare.
Talking about it helps, Wilson said.
“I got some great guys, a great support team, it does help to sit down and b.s.,” he said.
He talks to one of the men he served with every day, often in the morning, to the point that if he doesn’t get a call by 8 a.m., by 8:05, Wilson’s calling him to make sure everything’s OK.
“Whether I’m supporting him or he’s supporting me (I don’t know),” Wilson said.
There’s also the adjustment that comes from living life as a civilian, where orders aren’t always followed. As a gunnery sergeant, Wilson led a group of Marines who listened to and acted on his words, he said.
Now, as a father, “it’s a daily struggle,” he said.
“It’s a big difference going from the military life to civilian life,” he said.
But Wilson’s proud to have served his country and would do it over again, he said.
“I love the ,” he said. “If I was 18 years old today, I’d do it again, I wouldn’t change anything.”
He’s glad to be a veteran, Wilson said, and added that being a veteran isn’t simply something that warrants discounts at certain stores or honors on holidays.
“You get all these benefits from being a vet (but) there’s nothing easy about it. You do things like everyone else does, but there’s things …” Wilson said as his voice trailed off and he choked up. “Memories are terrible for vets. Thank a vet. That’s all you can do.”
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