Army Sgt. J.D. Williams of Auburn was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan last October, so he was used to being in dangerous situations.
“For a while there, we were getting shot at every other day,” Williams recalled this week.
Even so, he never imagined that on Oct. 9, he would lose his right arm and both legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
“It was probably the most beautiful morning I’d had in Afghanistan,” Williams said in a phone interview Wednesday evening, remembering the day he was injured. “It was a nice, cool, beautiful day. I was ready to get going.”
Williams and a small team, along with some Afghan police, were going through villages near the Kandahar Province looking for places their snipers could hide to keep Taliban fighters from putting out new explosives.
“While I was walking, I stepped right on the IED,” Williams said, “but it didn’t go off. The Afghan MPs looked back and yelled ‘Taliban, Taliban.’ That’s when it exploded and threw me up in the air. I was conscious the whole time.”
The Taliban had been waiting to ambush the team and were getting ready to open fire just as the IED went off.
“I remember when I got blown up it was weird, because it was kind of in slow motion,” Williams said. “There was dark yellow smoke all around me and I just fell to the ground.”
Lying there with shots flying through the air, Williams tried to find his weapon to engage the enemy. At first, he wasn’t aware of the extent of his injuries.
“When I started getting shot at, I tried to crawl away and I stuck my bone in the dirt. I looked down at my legs and saw chunks of meat and blood coming out. I actually thought I was split in half and I didn’t want to look at myself.”
At that point, Williams said his main concern was to say alive and get out of that place.
“I thought of Ashlee (his wife) and my daughter and that kept me alive. I looked up at the sky and I thought, ‘God, please don’t let me die.’ ”
Williams’ team members put him in a wheelbarrow to get him to safety.
“I was laying in this wheelbarrow and I started getting cold,” Williams recalled. “A buddy of mine was there and he was crying and he asked me about my family. So I told him about my wife and little girl. That guy said, ‘If you die, I’ll marry your wife,’ and I said ‘I’ll get out of this wheelbarrow and kick your ass.’ I just laid there and focused on breathing. I wasn’t about to give up.”
Arriving at Kandahar Air Base, Williams was still conscious. He remembers a medical worker telling him that he would be all right.
“That’s when I died,” he said. “I remember dreaming. I dreamed about my family the whole time.”
As Williams’ vital signs bottomed out, a doctor decided to try an emergency procedure. He took Williams’ heart in his hand and performed a heart massage.
When Williams woke up, he was in Germany and was able to talk to his wife.
“When I heard my wife on the phone, it was like speaking to an angel.”
After spending some time in Germany, Williams came back to the United States and is now at Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston in Texas. His wife, Ashlee, and daughter, Kaelyn, who is 15 months old, are with him now. His days are filled with appointments with doctors, physical therapy, occupational therapy and more.
“It’s like a job,” Ashlee Williams said. “And basically his job here is to get better.”
J.D. Williams takes that job quite seriously. He’s already been fitted with a prosthetic arm and has learned to use it and on Thursday, he was fitted for prosthetic legs.
“At this point, I can basically do almost everything on my own, except shower,” J.D. Williams said. And he can do most of the showering on his own, he just needs his wife to get him in there. “I can put on my clothes, I can brush my teeth. The other day I went skeet shooting and did better than I did before.”
Williams still has shrapnel in his body and faces more surgery in the next few months as well as continued therapy. He says he’s not in much pain, except for the phantom pain he feels in the limbs he’s lost.
“My right foot feels like I’m running on rocks,” J.D. Williams said. “And the other day my calf was itching and I thought, ‘That really sucks cause I can’t do anything about it.’ ”
Although J.D. Williams remains upbeat and determined, he admits that he has had difficult moments.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” he said. One of those hard times was when he left the hospital for the first time. “When I saw all those people walking around. … I thought of all the adventures I couldn’t go on.”
But J.D. Williams never spends much time worrying about what has happened and bemoaning his situation. Instead, he accepts his fate and is almost grateful that it wasn’t someone else.
“If I didn’t step on that IED that day, it would have been my buddy behind me,” J.D. Williams said, explaining that when soldiers are in the Army together, they are more than just friends. “We’re like brothers.”
“I think God picked me that day to be the person that was blown up because I can handle it,” J.D. Williams said.
He handles his injuries by focusing on the future. When he is out of rehab, which could take about a year, J.D. Williams plans to going to college and is considering a career in law enforcement.
“I could be a possible RoboCop,” he joked.
More immediately, J.D. Williams is looking forward to a hunting trip this weekend. He’s always loved hunting and is ready to get back out there. And he is looking forward to driving again in the new truck he just bought that the Army is going to refit so he can drive it with his hands.
Each day, J.D. Williams enjoys spending time with his family and friends, doing ordinary things like going out to eat and watching football games.
“I’m a Steelers freak,” J.D. Williams said, so he’ll be rooting for his team in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6.
His doctors have been amazed at his progress and attitude, he said, and they sometimes send him to talk to other injured soldiers to encourage them.
“While I’m here, I want to help other soldiers who are wounded,” J.D. Williams said.
As he continues his recovery, J.D. Williams said that through it all, he has been amazed by the support he has been shown, especially by the people of Auburn.
“Not that many people there really know me,” said J.D. Williams, who is originally from Montana. “But the town adopted me as their hometown hero and I love that town. It’s been a blessing.”
Ashlee Williams works at the Auburn Minit Mart and the business and its employees have led the efforts to help the young family, raising money and holding benefits to help with travel and other expenses. Donations are accepted at Minit Mart and an account has been set up at Auburn Bank.
The next benefit will be a Bean and Cornbread Supper and Auction from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, with doors opening at 3:30 p.m. at the Auburn Elementary School. A silent auction will be from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., followed by a live auction from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Lynne Thomas, one of the event organizers and friend of the family, said about 200 items have been donated for the auctions. Meals of beans, cornbread, drinks and dessert will cost $6.
“I can’t explain how much it means to me that we’re getting all this support from Logan County,” J.D. Williams said. “I never realized how much people care about the soldiers.”
Although J.D. Williams received a Purple Heart on Nov. 6 - his daughter’s first birthday - and is considered a hero by many, he doesn’t think he deserves that title.
“I don’t think I’m a hero,” J.D. Williams said. “I just stepped on an IED. I was just doing my job as a soldier. And I don’t regret stepping on the IED that day. It didn’t change my life. I will do everything I used to do.”
— To write to J.D. Williams, use this address:
Powless Guest House
c/o Jack Williams
3298 George C. Beach Ave.
Fort Sam Houston, TX 78234