Just one month following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, James West joined the Army. Just over a year later, in December 2002, he deployed to the Middle East for the first time. In September 2005, just two years after he returned from his first deployment, SSG West deployed to Iraq a second time as a Battalion Master Driver and Instructor with the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment (the Rakkasans). On June 2, 2006, SSG West returned from a combat patrol and sent his Soldiers to eat and rest. While he was reloading and refueling the trucks, a tank full of jet fuel exploded. SSG West attempted to extinguish the flames as best he could, including pulling the pin and unloading a fire extinguisher onto himself. After medics arrived and transported him to the medical station, the last thing he remembers hearing was, “The catheter is in.”
When he opened his eyes, SSG West was in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife by his side. The next 4 years were filled with surgeries, rehabilitation, and constant trips to the hospital. SSG West survived with burns covering 40.5% of his body and the nerve damage, muscle loss, sleep disturbances, and multi-faceted chronic pain that accompany such an injury. SSG West’s wife was with him through every step of his challenging recovery, motivating him to fight through the significant hardships brought on by the injury and providing unwavering support. “She was the glue that kept the family together and the rock I had to lean on for years to come”, he says of his wife. SSG West also found inspiration in other burn survivors; the most notable was Sgt Merlin German, a 19-year-old Marine who sustained burns across 97% of his body from a roadside bomb blast in Iraq. Sgt German was called the “Miracle Man” after he not only survived, but learned to walk again.1 SSG West says he encouraged him to move from depression towards building a new life. Sgt German passed away in April 2008, but SSG West continues to be inspired by his story.
In addition to the support from his wife and other burn survivors, several organizations also influenced SSG West’s journey to recovery. Prior to his injury, SSG West loved snowboarding and the outdoors. For the first time after his injury, SSG West had the opportunity to challenge himself and revisit the sport when he joined a Colorado retreat hosted by the Vail Veterans Program. He was triumphant. Recognizing his ability to snowboard again helped give him the courage to look forward to a life beyond being a burn patient. After relocating to Huntsville, Alabama, he found support from the Semper Fi Community Task Force (SFCTF), which he credits with changing his life. In addition to helping him keep his home, finish his Master’s degree, and land his current job, SFCTF boosted his confidence in leading an ordinary life as a burn survivor. Grateful for his experiences, SSG West was inspired to ‘pay it forward’ through volunteering and is now currently serving on the SFCTF Board of Directors.
SSG West’s advocacy journey started when he met Lt Col Bryan Forney at a Wounded Warrior retreat hosted by the Vail Veterans Program. Lt Col Forney was actively serving as a consumer advocate on the programmatic panel of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs’ (CDMRP) Military Burn Research Program (MBRP); he recommended that SSG West join him on the panel. Consumer advocates are a hallmark of the CDMRP’s two-tiered review process. They are represented by patients, family members, or others who advocate on behalf of patients for improved treatment, prevention, and awareness of a disease or condition. Through their lived experience and advocacy, they provide a unique and important perspective when making funding recommendations for research. SSG West does not take his role as a consumer advocate on the MBRP Programmatic Panel lightly. He recognizes that for burn survivors, things like waking up pain-free, sleeping through the night, and even enjoying time with family out in the sun are not possible. SSG West says that what he wishes for most is normalcy. Through his advocacy, he has the opportunity and responsibility to help remind the MBRP Programmatic Panel of the unique needs of burn survivors as the panel reviews funding recommendations for research projects. Ultimately, SSG West is proud of the MBRP scientific community and its dedication to military burn science. In his words: “The commitment to giving these wounded men and women who suffer these horrific injuries a better quality of life gives me hope that one day we might have burn survivors going on with their lives without the pain and struggles that we go through today.”
By focusing on moving forward toward normalcy, in addition to his volunteerism and consumer advocacy, SSG West enjoys leisure activities such as golfing with co-workers, family, and friends, and driving his car, especially on roads less traveled. He currently works as a Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) contractor in U.S. Army aviation program management. SSG West looks forward to creating a better future for burn survivors with insight from his own journey, saying, “[your] path may fork off, but just keeping moving down the one with the most light.”
For more information about the Vail Veterans Program, please visit https://www.vailveteransprogram.org.
For more information about the Semper Fi Community Task Force, please visit https://semperfictf.org/.
1‘Miracle’ Marine loses final battle (https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna24805978).
Last updated Thursday, May 26, 2022