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Wounded Victoria Marine relives Afghan explosion

June 8, 2010 at 1:08 a.m.


WHAT'S NEXT?

This is the first in an ongoing series about Justin Rokohl, a Victoria Marine who resumes life after suffering severe injuries in the Middle East. Thursday: The story of his recovery.

ONLINE

To view video of Justin Rokohl, visit www.VictoriaAdvocate.com and click this story.

Editor's note: This is the first story in an ongoing series about Justin Rokohl, a Victoria Marine who resumes life after suffering severe injuries in the Middle East. Thursday: The story of his recovery.BY GABE SEMENZA

Justin Rokohl clutched his automatic grenade launcher, squinted at the desert glare and wiped dirt from his cheeks and goggles.

The Marine, who lives in Victoria now, remembers little else before an explosion claimed both legs.

Four Humvees rumbled north from a makeshift U.S. military base in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Heat killed the poppy crops and most of the riverbeds flowed with nothing but dust and danger.

Everywhere Rokohl looked, the 21-year-old saw crusty fields. Heat formed a blurry, translucent haze that made the horizon lines wriggle and dance. In the distance: a village, which he and others canvassed earlier for bombs and Taliban fighters.

An hour into the trip, all was quiet - but Rokohl knew silence in this place can end with a deafening roar.

When his caravan found the resupply unit, even Rokohl breathed easier. Mail from home, cigarettes and Vienna sausages would help to pass the time.

The caravan turned, flanked the resupply unit and headed toward base. Each Humvee driver kept 25 yards between himself and the closest rig.

When Rokohl's Humvee hit the bomb, passengers as far back as two vehicles felt the blast.

'THAT TURNED OUT TO BITE ME IN THE BUTT'

Rokohl and his U.S. Marine battalion arrived in the Helmand province, a desert region in southwest Afghanistan, in early 2008 - three months before the explosion.

The Marines set up base in an old, roofless castle. They positioned two Humvees on each castle corner and aimed gun turrets toward the open fields.

To the north, a dry riverbed and distant mountain reminded the Marines of their solitude; to the east, open land with small villages kept them awake at night with worry; to the south and west, mud homes and worn paths posed prime areas for bombs in the soil.

Rokohl persuaded leaders to name the forward operating base "FOB Alamo," a tribute to his Texas roots.

Rokohl, now 23, is originally from Orange Grove, a rural community 15 miles west of Corpus Christi. His grandfathers served in Vietnam so fighting is in his DNA.

"I never had any second thoughts about being in the Marines," Rokohl said. "There was a war going on and I just wanted to help. It's also pretty cool to shoot a fully automatic grenade launcher."

Before joining the Marines, Rokohl liked to party, ride horses and rib friends. He also joined the occasional bar fight. The machine gunner hesitates to share those stories here because he worries his grandmother might read them, he said.

"I was a little wild back then, partying and fighting. But we are hard workers," Rokohl said. "All Marines are like that."

In most social situations, Rokohl is the center of attention. People seem drawn to him. Despite his 5-foot-6-inch, 140-pound frame, many friends look up to him.

"We are complete opposites, but we are basically brothers," Jeff Rhodes, a tall, blond 23-year-old Marine from Corpus Christi, said. "But no matter if he's dirt poor or rich, has legs or doesn't, he'll do anything to help you out. Probably most likeable person I know."

The two men met in 2006 during infantry training, served together during a tour in Iraq and transferred simultaneously to Afghanistan.

The first day in country, they found nine improvised explosive devices within a few hundred yards of their roofless base. They were ready for a fight; Rokohl, especially so.

"I think I wanted to become a machine gunner because I have little guy syndrome," Rokohl said, laughing. "That turned out to bite me in the butt."

'YOU JUST CAN'T BELIEVE IT'

As the security team escorted the resupply unit to base, Rokohl peeked out the Humvee's gun turret and studied the dry riverbed.

His vehicle led the way. Rhodes, his close friend, followed in the Humvee behind him.

Twice during the previous 10 days the men were ambushed and just the day before, they lost a close friend during fighting.

Rokohl and Rhodes scanned the road ahead, fought fresh memories and three hours of sleep to remain alert.

Both men calmed when they saw, a few hundred yards to the south, their base come into focus.

Rokohl looked at the three men in his Humvee, the countless bullets and 2,000 grenade launcher rounds. The ammunitions almost immediately ignited when his Humvee tripped a roadside bomb.

The blast forced Rokohl from his seat inside the Humvee and out the topside turret. He somehow fit through the hole and regained consciousness mid-air. He landed on the hoodless engine block.

His ears rang. "Boooooooonnnnnnnnnn."

Rhodes saw the explosion and yelled for his driver to stop. "You just can't believe it," Rhodes said.

Because the bomb hit the Humvee's diesel tank, the blast fueled a blinding fireball, which triggered the ammunitions. The scene resembled a fireworks show, only a dangerous one.

Rhodes sprinted toward Rokohl's Humvee just as its driver stumbled outside the truck engulfed in fire. Rhodes tackled the man to the ground, tossed bottled water on him and frantically patted out the flames.

He turned to the Humvee. Rokohl tried to wriggle off the engine block. Rhodes pulled him to the ground, away from the fire and bursting ammunitions.

Rhodes returned to the truck, which was twisted like junkyard scrap, and suffered shrapnel wounds. He limped to the Humvee and pulled one more buddy from the fire; he could not reach the other, who was dead.

MANGLED MEMORIES

Far from the fiery Humvee, Rokohl drifted in the dirt into and out of consciousness. His back, femur, hip and seven ribs were broken - and he'd lost worrisome amounts of blood.

Because of the pain in his ribs, Rhodes feared his friend had internal injuries. Thus, he couldn't give Rokohl pain killers.

For a moment, Rokohl regained consciousness and he looked at his legs. His right leg below the knee had snapped and pointed horizontally away from his body; the other leg pointed backwards as if he wore it the wrong way.

The heel on that leg was close enough to his face he could almost kiss it.

Because of the men's isolated position in the Afghan desert, a helicopter and hospital were hours away. Rhodes worried his closest friend would die.

Struggling to breathe, Rokohl communicated with Rhodes by squeezing his friend's hand. One squeeze signified "yes" and twice meant "no."

When nightfall came, and with it the chopper, Rokohl heard sounds he won't ever forget.

To fit his friend on the stretcher, Rhodes had to snap Rokohl's mangled legs straight. The cracking forced Rokohl's eyes closed and he wondered if he'd survive the night.

When he awoke hours later inside the helicopter, the young man opened his eyes to an all-new battle.

A Marine this wounded doesn't think it at the time, but somewhere deep down, he knew he faced the long, hard road of recovery.

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