AP Interview: Homecoming Inspires Wounded Marine

Published February 8, 2012 7:54AM (EST)

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Shot through the upper back on a rooftop in Afghanistan and gasping for breath after a bullet ripped through his chest, Marine Sgt. Ben Tomlinson had a fear worse than death.

Heat and shock from the round damaged his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the chest down. This injury was so much worse than one nine months before, when he'd been hit by a mortar blast during his first tour in Afghanistan. Yet through all the pain, Tomlinson was haunted by the idea people back home wouldn't remember him, that they wouldn't even know he was hurt.

"That's the worst fear for everyone that gets deployed," said Tomlinson, who now uses a wheelchair. "It's that no one is thinking about them."

Tomlinson's hometown of Jacksonville, in northeast Alabama, made sure he wouldn't feel forgotten, staging a welcome home celebration veteran groups say should be a national model now that fighting has ended in Iraq. While St. Louis is the only large city to hold a major parade for returning veterans, thousands of people lined the streets of Jacksonville and packed the town square to greet Tomlinson upon his return from the war, waving flags and giving money to help make his home more wheelchair accessible.

"We need this to happen much more around the country, but (I) do not believe it actually occurs as much as it is needed because the wars have been going for such a long period of time," said Vietnam veteran John Stewart, who heads Operation Welcome Home in Inverness, Fla.

More than being just a one-day morale boost, Tomlinson said the lavish homecoming in the city of 7,700 people inspired him to work harder on his rehabilitation so friends and neighbors knew he is trying hard to get better.

"This is not the way I am going to be forever," said Tomlinson, 24, working out with dumbbells in the TV room at his home. He's getting stronger little by little, his biceps filling out after months shuttling between hospitals and doctor's appointments, and he's hopeful of walking again one day.

Tomlinson played football and baseball and ran track at Jacksonville High School before graduating in 2006 and going to Mississippi College to play football. But college ball just wasn't the same as high school athletics, and he took a buddy's suggestion to consider the Marines. He was interested in joining a Force Reconnaissance squad, the "baddest of the bad," as Tomlinson put it. These are the Marines on the tip of the spear, the troops who go first into hostile areas.

"It sounded pretty intense," said Tomlinson. It was.

Tomlinson arrived in Afghanistan in May 2009. Three months later, while securing a road during a drug raid in a marketplace, a mortar hit the top of a building near where he was standing. Shrapnel peppered his body.

"I got a piece in the neck, a piece hit me in the nose, but the worst part of that was getting a piece stuck in the radial nerve in my arm," said Tomlinson. "There's really no relief from pain when you have something stuck in your nerve."

Surgery followed, and Tomlinson was back on duty three weeks later after taking a cast off his arm with the help of a medic, who removed his stitches. Tomlinson's tour of duty ended but he was back in Afghanistan for another seven-month stint by November 2010.

With only one or two missions left on his second tour, Tomlinson was atop a roof in an Afghan village controlled by the Taliban while other troops looked for weapons and bomb-making materials.

"We were doing that for about five or six hours. I want to say it was the middle of the day, and I got up to move and as soon as I got up ...," Tomlinson said. "It wasn't like I heard anything or really felt anything. It was like a sudden shock to my body, and then my vision went kind of obscured, and I couldn't move and I just started falling back and 'boom,' hit the roof, and that's when I realized I'd probably been hit."

The slug entered the back of Tomlinson's left shoulder near the base of his neck and traveled to his chest, damaging his spine and leaving him unable to move from the chest down. Evacuated from Afghanistan first to Germany and then the United States, he spent months at a hospital in Tampa, Fla., before returning home to Alabama on Jan. 18 to a hero's welcome: People lined the roads for miles leading from the airport to Jacksonville, and U.S. flags were everywhere. Businesses all over town put out welcome home signs.

Several thousand people filled the town square for a ceremony, and some 800 students and faculty from Jacksonville High greeted him at his house, which is directly across the street from the school.

"All I could say was, 'Wow,'" Tomlinson said.

With such a welcome home, Tomlinson said he knew he hadn't been forgotten — his worst fears weren't realized.

"People I didn't even know were thinking about me when this happened," he said.

Stewart, himself a Vietnam veteran, said such receptions can only help troops coming home from multiple deployments after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Everyone is familiar with the horrendous reception we Vietnam veterans received when returning from the war and we must never, ever let that happen again," he said. "We must honor our heroes. We must remember their sacrifices."

By Salon Staff

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