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Modified van, Marine mindset carry injured vet into a new chapter of life

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FREDERICK — An injury during his service in Iraq three years ago left Marine Sgt. Jason Wittling many things — a quadriplegic, competitor, interviewee, even a self-proclaimed “cripple” — but, he says, a bitter Marine he isn’t.

A sense of humor and help from a customized van have opened a new chapter in Sgt. Wittling’s life. The 32-year-old from Mason, Wis., received a wheelchair lift-equipped van in September from Rhode Island-based Operation Support Our Troops.

If everything goes as planned, this spring OSOT will donate a van to another disabled veteran in honor of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Robert Seidel III of Emmitsburg, who was killed in Baghdad last May.

Sgt. Wittling was injured in May 2003, four months after his deployment began and just days after President Bush said major combat operations in Iraq had ended.

Sgt. Wittling and a group of Marines were blowing up a cache of captured grenades and were driving away in a Humvee from the impending explosion.

As the Humvee rounded a corner, it hit a hump of sand on the roadside and rolled over. The impact burst the C-6 vertebra in Sgt. Wittling’s neck, he said during a speaker-phone interview from his home.

An injury to the C-6 vertebra classifies the person hurt as a quadriplegic, but the levels of mobility vary, according to the Apparelyzed Web site. The site offers peer support for people with spinal cord injuries.

Marines in a duty van and dress blues came to Maureen Wittling at the family’s home at Camp Pendleton, where Sgt. Wittling was stationed, to tell her the news.

Initially fearing the worst, Ms. Wittling learned her husband was still alive but in critical condition and paralyzed.

It was a Saturday afternoon, the day before Mother’s Day, Ms. Wittling said. It was a day she’ll never forget.

After being injured, Sgt. Wittling spent three months in a spinal cord unit in a California Veterans Affairs hospital. The family celebrated daughter Emily’s third birthday at the hospital, with the other patients, Ms. Wittling said.

‘I’d go back in a minute’

Sgt. Wittling joined the Marines in 1994, at age 20. He came from a military family: his brother and uncle in the Marine Corps and other family members in the Army and other branches. He’d been excited about deploying for the first time, couldn’t wait to go.

“There was no other branch I wanted to go to,” he said. “(The Marine Corps) was my first and only choice.”

Sgt. Wittling says he never blamed the military or the government. Though reporters and others have insisted he must be angry at the politicians and war that sent him to Iraq, he says the truth is to the contrary.

“If I could walk tomorrow I’d go back in a minute,” he said. “I don’t regret what happened to me. It was my job — it just so happens this is what happened to me.”

Wanting to serve again if he could is part of the Marine Corps mindset, Sgt. Wittling said. “Of everybody I’ve talked to who’s been severely injured (during their deployment), nine out of 10 say if they could go back tomorrow they would, in every branch of service.”

A fresh perspective

Despite the radical change Quadriplegia meant in his physical ability, Sgt. Wittling hasn’t been sitting on his laurels.

Since his injury, Sgt. Wittling completed in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world. In the summer 2005 games in Minneapolis, he participated in a 5K handcycling event, using his arms to pedal a handcycle instead of legs.

Sgt. Wittling met Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre and head coach Mike Sherman during a surprise trip to a Packers game against the San Diego Chargers in December 2003.

The Packers invited him to watch the game from their sideline, visit the team’s locker room, and after their win presented Sgt. Wittling the game ball, autographed by the players.

Quadriplegia has also put life in perspective, Sgt. Wittling said, keeping him from sweating the small stuff.

His time home has allowed him to become much more involved in the lives of his two children, son Cody, 9, and daughter Emily, now 6.

Sgt. Wittling’s sense of humor helps him cope with the changes in his life.

“I can joke about it– anybody else in my same shoes can joke about being in a wheelchair, being a cripple,” he said. “Guys in wheelchairs wave to each other; it’s like some kind of club.”

The road hasn’t been easy, though.

The Wittling family lived at Camp Pendleton for a year after the injury, but seeing other Marines go to war when he couldn’t was too painful for Sgt. Wittling. They moved back to his home state of Wisconsin.

Sgt. Wittling said he also did not want the Marines to see him as a quadriplegic.

“I didn’t want to see them, but I also didn’t want them to see me like this,” he said. “Here (in Wisconsin) there are no active duty Marines. I did my part, then I got hurt, so I’ll go away.”

Donation honoring local soldier

Operation Support Our Troops founder and president May Kay Salomone, whose own son has been serving in Iraq for the past two years, contacted Lt. Seidel’s parents, Sandra and Robert Seidel Jr. of Gettysburg, Pa., in early October.

Lt. Seidel died May 18 in Baghdad. He was 23, a rifle platoon leader with the 2nd Battalion in the 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y.

He graduated in 2004 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York and from Catoctin High School in 2000.

Lt. Seidel was one of the service members who regularly received care packages from an OSOT program. The van being donated this spring will be named “Rob’s Van” in his honor.

OSOT presented Sgt. Wittling with his modified van during half-time in a U.S. Naval Academy football game in Annapolis this September. The organization donated its first van in April.

The OSOT Wheels for Warriors Program has opened the road to a new chapter of Sgt. Wittling’s life. The van has allowed him to be more social and go out with his family more easily, he said.

A locking device where the passenger seat would be makes getting in and out of the van easy, allowing him to automatically lock in his wheelchair, rather than needing to be strapped in.

“I can’t even explain to you how much that organization has done for me and my family,” Sgt. Wittling said.

The donation process is tedious and finding a recipient daunting. The organization finds recipients through the Military Severely Injured Center in Arlington, Va., Ms. Salomone said.

OSOT makes its decision blindly, without knowing service members’ names, based on both physical and financial need, Ms. Salomone said. The program donates vans to veterans of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.

The Arlington center has a list of more than 8,000 service members designated as severely wounded; troops return from Iraq with injuries that would have killed them in past wars.

Military experts estimate that for each service member killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, nine have been injured.

By Alison Walker-Baird
News-Post Staff

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