SHERIDAN— Jayson Zimmerman served two tours of duty as an Army medic in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service would cost him both legs and end his aspirations of becoming a nurse. It would entail a traumatic brain injury, leading to short-term memory loss, anxiety and trouble focusing. At first glance, Zimmerman left the Army with considerably less than when he went in. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“Oh, I don’t regret it at all,” he said, easily, in an interview with The Sheridan Press. “I feel proud. And I feel like I was really able to make a difference, especially as a medic.”
In the summer of 2009, Zimmerman was assigned to a bomb detection unit in Afghanistan. He was riding in the back of an RG31, a Humvee-style vehicle that has bullet-proof windows, a mine-resistant body and can weigh up to 37.5 tons, according to army-technology.com.
“I had no expectation of anything,” he said. “Basically the job is to go down the road in a team of vehicles and they look for anything alongside the road, any suspicious activity, things like that. And yeah, the bomb found us.”
How did a bomb break through a mine-resistant vehicle?
He paused but didn’t blink.
“It was a big bomb,” he said.
Another man riding in Zimmerman’s unit that day was hurt but able to return to work within a couple of days, Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman, 36, is soft-spoken. He fidgeted often throughout the half-hour interview. Born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Zimmerman has undergone an astonishing 74 surgeries, by his count, moving from Bagram Airfield near Kabul, to a first response hospital the U.S. Army uses in Germany, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and on to yet more hospitals in Colorado and San Antonio, Texas.
Aside from back surgery for a lumbar fracture he sustained in the blast, the majority of the operations were “salvage attempts” — efforts to purge a post-surgery infection Zimmerman suffered after the bomb lodged dirty shrapnel in his heel. The infection worsened, penetrating the bones of his foot, and could not be cured. Having been off of active duty status while doctors attempted to cure his legs, Zimmerman was finally forced to suspend his military service.
“Once I retired is when we started talking about amputation,” he said.
Zimmerman arrived in Sheridan in January 2013, when doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center amputated his right leg. There had been a backlog of cases like Zimmerman’s at the Texas hospital where he had been waiting. His left leg was amputated a year and a half later. It took him four months to learn how to walk on his new legs, he said.
Zimmerman stays busy at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, where he is grill master during Tuesday and Friday night bingo. He is also active at the veterans club at Sheridan College, where he is working toward an associate’s degree in criminal justice, which he plans to foray into a bachelor’s in emergency management. He likes steak and feel-good movies like “Good Morning, Vietnam.” With the occasional canoe class or four-wheeling trip in the Bighorns, Zimmerman doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
“It could be better,” he said, when asked about the network of servicemen and servicewomen in the Sheridan area. But, he said, he didn’t want to judge other veterans for not participating in groups like the VFW, and it is earnest.
Zimmerman worked as an emergency medical technician during high school, hoping to pursue a career in medicine. But, he said, the prosthetic legs he now relies on won’t be able to sustain him on the long shifts that hospital work requires. So he’s switched to emergency management.
Zimmerman said the advice he’d give to young people considering enlisting in the military is simple.
“I hope they get the enjoyment of serving out of it,” he said. “It’s definitely a privilege to be able to serve your country.”