“She Lost Her Legs, Too, That Day”
March 06, 2018 | 6-minute read
Take a breath.
As he lay there on the ground, somewhere in Afghanistan, Julian remembered the advice from a platoon commander in Washington: “If you’re a leader, and you get on the com, you have to take a breath before you talk. Because … the people you’re leading, they know your voice. And if you sound panicked, who’s going to lead them?”
So Julian took a breath.
“Hey,” he called out. “I’m hit. I’m over here, and I need some help.”
The call came early in the morning. Ashley and her newborn son had moved back to the West Coast to be with her family while Julian was deployed. And now her husband’s lieutenant colonel was on the other end of the line.
“At the time, they told me he had lost one leg, and he was in his surgery,” Ashley says. “I’m just kind of like going through the motions that day, talking and getting the phone calls.”
Finally, she got to talk to her husband. “That helped a lot. And he made a joke with me about, you know, ‘I’m OK. I’m a little shorter now, but I’m OK.’ … He’s always kind of lightening the mood — making sure I’m keeping smiling.”
Truthfully, Julian had been more worried about the trees that day. They’d been finding treehouse-like sniper positions. And there had been reports of IEDs being hung in the trees.
“I wasn’t even looking at the ground,” he says. “Really, I was like, I don’t wanna get my face taken off. I’ve got a boy, you know?”
They’d just been in a heavy firefight and were on their way back when someone spotted what appeared to be an indicator. Julian never saw it, but he imagines it was a piece of cloth, tied to a reed. Just something to alert the locals about an IED, or a machine gun position, or a pickup location.
Julian volunteered to go back and check the junction of road they had just crossed. He was the closest. If someone were going to be in danger, he wanted it to be him. He was the seventh person to cross the road that day. Then the eighth. And finally, fatefully, the ninth.
“I remember the light from the energy of the blast enveloping me,” he says. “I remember all the little tick-tick-tick, all the little dirt particles hit my face. I remember the going straight up, and seeing my shadow on the ground, and being like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’”
Ashley and Julian met in high school. They were sophomores then, and by the end of their senior year, they were headed to prom together.
“And then it was just kind of like on after that,” Ashley says.
In May 2010, they had their first child — a son named J.J. A month later, Julian deployed to Afghanistan. And a month after that, the phone rang with news of his injury.
Julian would go through 12 surgeries. He lost both of his legs, but he was determined to walk before his unit returned — before his new son took his first steps.
It wasn’t until after the dust had settled, his unit had returned, and the go-go-go of daily rehabilitation had died down that Ashley began to notice Julian withdrawing a bit. He’d always been something of a talker, but now he’d turn his phone off for days at a time. “He just kind of didn’t know what to do now, you know?” she says.
“The first 12 months of rehab were dark, man. They were really dark,” Julian says. “I went from 100 percent, being independent, top of my game — the meanest I’ve ever been, fastest I’ve ever been … to asking for help from my wife to take me off the toilet.”
“‘Just leave me,’” Ashley remembers her husband telling her right after his injury. “I was like, ‘Not gonna do that.’ I wasn’t gonna leave him.”
She noticed Julian would get depressed if he sat in his wheelchair for too long, so she would push him to get up on his prosthetics, even if it was just to walk around the house. “I need you. I need you to … get going soon,” she told him.
“Looking back now, there were indicators for me that I was depressed,” Julian says. He also was questioning a lot. “I would ask myself, like, how do I still become an effective father, an effective husband, a friend, a cheerleader, a mentor, a coach, you know, a teacher? I was missing like half of my body.”
When there were tsunami warnings in San Diego after an earthquake hit Japan in 2011, Julian remembers Ashley waking him up and saying they had to go. “I was just like, ‘Just take J.J. I’ll stay here. I’m ready,’” he recalls. “And looking back at that now, I was like, what? How could you say that, dude? … Luckily my wife is who she is, and she was like, ‘Bullshit.’”
Eventually, though, Julian and Ashley realized they weren’t communicating, so they turned to counseling. There, they began to talk — to be more open and honest with each other. They began to discuss their newfound roles in the house. They began to rediscover something.
“At one point, you were like my knight in shining armor, you know, my queen,” Julian says. “Let’s get back to that, because that felt good, and I wanna feel good. I don’t want to feel alone. I don’t want to feel like I’m by myself. I don’t want to feel like I’m a burden.”
Ashley began to see what was triggering Julian’s frustrations, and she learned to let go a bit more as he advanced in his therapy. She realized that it was OK to leave him at home with their son — that they would be fine.
“[Counseling] just gives you the right tools,” Ashley says. “It doesn’t solve everything, but it just shows you what you can do.”
It gave them tools to confront Julian’s physical recovery as well.
“It’s a team effort in every regard,” he says. “So when you get hurt, the mission is no longer counterterrorism. The mission’s you and your rehab. … You know how to give orders, you know how to receive orders. So, give yourself an order. Draft up a mission. Where are you going to go?”
There was a time when Julian couldn’t carry a gallon of milk without dropping it. There was a time when he lacked the motivation to even push the lawn mower around their little yard. But a year into using his prosthetics, he was carrying J.J. and then later, his daughter. Ashley saw another shift in Julian when she was born.
“He was like … ‘I’m ready. I just want to be a dad, like be there, and serve other Veterans in a different way.’”
If he couldn’t exercise physically, Julian began to train his mind. He’d memorize a poem and then repeat it over and over. He found podcasts and documentaries. He analyzed the nutrients on the labels of foods he ate. He went to a leaders summit.
Julian found strength in peers, in amputees who were ahead of him in their recovery, in new friends like Jack — another Veteran who became a powerful sounding board. And, of course, in Ashley. “She was really the driving force for me to get better,” he says.
“You’re not the only one that gets hurt,” he says. “You’re not the only one that loses his legs. She lost her legs, too, that day. And it left an imprint on her. … We gave it an honest effort, and I think now we’re stronger than ever.”