The Vietnam War veterans of Baker-Merrill American Legion Post 9 in Ogden, Utah, have vowed to ensure that today's generation of troops will not get the sour greeting they received after discharge from the service in the 1970s. That vow has changed the life of one young veteran who, in turn, is doing all he can to return the favor.
Army Cpl. Darrel "Isaac" Jensen, 27, was welcomed home to Utah by a sea of rugged leather vests and barking motorcycle exhausts. Upon his arrival, American Legion Riders and Patriot Guard riders promptly escorted Jensen to his brand-new, specially adapted home in West Point.
From that moment on, the Vietnam veterans and Jensen, who was severely wounded in Iraq, began to bond.
"The reason we welcomed him is because we could see he needed something," says Bart Young, a friend and Legion Rider. "He had a house given to him (from Homes for Troops), the VA had treated him well ... everyone had bent over backwards for Isaac. But he was still missing something. Why he took to us is still a mystery. It was something that he needed, but I think more important, we needed him. We just clicked."
While medical professionals were taking care of Jensen's combat-related needs, his new Legion friends were helping in other ways.
"Bart Young came over and was the first person to talk to me," Jensen says, tears welling up in his eyes. "He has no idea, but when I shook his hand, I knew this man was going to be my friend for life. It's just uncanny how much we have in common.
"I needed someplace to go where people understood me, (where) I didn't have to explain myself if something were to happen (like a panic attack) ... I needed to be somewhere where I would be taken care of," he says. "That is why we have these kinds of organizations, like the Legion – so we can lean on each other. That's what the Legion has done for me."
Camaraderie and friendship began satisfying Jensen's craving for "something that he needed," so he joined the Legion. To fully assimilate Jensen into both their Legion post and their lives, the longtime members knew they needed to get the Iraq veteran onto a motorcycle or something like it.
There was one catch: Jensen had lost both of his legs and the use of one arm in the war.
‘I didn't think I had it in me.'
The young corporal and two other soldiers were clearing a building on Nov. 9, 2008, in Iraq's Diyala province. One of the soldiers opened a refrigerator door, setting off two 100-pound bombs that blew Jensen's 6-foot frame to the ceiling. The impact split his helmet into two pieces and left him with two severely damaged legs and a badly wounded left hand and arm. Life-threatening as his injuries were, Jensen had the presence of mind to help his comrades apply tourniquets and administer all of his morphine, ultimately leaving him with no pain relief as they waited for help.
"I learned something about myself," he says. "I didn't think I had that in me. The guy who walked into that room and the guy they drug out of there were two different people. You can't stop me. They definitely tried, but you can't stop me." He received a Combat Medical Badge, Bronze Star, Silver Star, Combat Action Badge and Purple Heart.
Jensen was airlifted to Balad, where he underwent several operations before being moved to Landstuhl, Germany, for three days, and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
More than 100 surgeries later, Jensen continues to heal. "I don't really dwell on it," he says. "I look at it as a defining moment in my life, but it doesn't define me or who I am as a person. My life has only begun. I'm only 27. Life has yet to start for me. But I would do it again. I know that I could handle it, I know I could do it, and I'm a better person for it."
‘Wow, I can be normal.'
Like many who are wounded in war, Jensen did not want to leave military service despite the severity of his injuries. But the Army rejected his appeals to rejoin his comrades in Iraq. He was medically discharged and sent home.
"I wanted to stay," he says. "I loved the Army. I loved everything about it, and they kind of took it from me against my will. I didn't want to quit. When I left the military, it left this void inside of me. I love my family, and they are my life, but at the same time they can't fill this emptiness."
To Jensen, nothing could compare to the connections he felt as a combat medic with his fellow soldiers – that is, until he met the Ogden Legionnaires he affectionately calls the "old men." The friendships they forged were irrespective of the war eras in which they served. More importantly, the vacancy Jensen once felt was now filled.
As a double amputee, Jensen had to start his life over without legs and with limited use of his left hand and arm. For some, that would be the end. For Jensen it was the beginning of a new life – a life on wheels.
"The first time I got on my bike, it was like someone had handed me my legs again," says Jensen, who had never ridden before he got involved with the Legion. His Can-Am Spyder trike "made me feel not handicapped, that I could do anything – I could go anywhere and do anything, like a normal person. I got on and was like, ‘Wow, I can be normal.' This is cool. People don't know I don't have legs until I stand up to stretch."
Now he is just one of the guys when he's on the road with the Legion Riders or Patriot Guard.
"The day he told us he wanted to ride a motorcycle, we had to do it," Young said. "He gets on that bike now and he's just one of us. Isaac was pinned down to a wheelchair, and he was dependent on his wife, on us, or anybody who would help him. He got on that bike and put his head in the wind, and now he can get a hamburger when he wants. He can go get dinner for the family. It gave him freedom. It's amazing what it has done for him."
Prosthetic legs and a wheelchair are Jensen's modes of transportation around the house. The trike – equipped with hand controls for the clutch, throttle and brakes – allow him to cruise at highway speed alongside his fellow Legion Riders on motorcycles.
"Other veterans that see Isaac riding with us, I think it's an inspiration to them and to all of us, because here is a guy who went through some pretty traumatic injuries, and he is able to step up and get on a motorcycle and get out there and start living again," says Joe Greene, a fellow Legion Rider and friend.
Young, Greene and Ray Christensen introduced Jensen into the Legion Riders and gave him his own leather vest with his biker name, "Feet," on the upper chest.
"My name is ‘Feet' on the account that I don't have any," Jensen laughs. "I think that's funny. I love the Legion Riders. The American Legion is awesome, and sitting on top of that is the Legion Riders. The Riders is where they gave me back my legs. That is where I found my connection."
"We don't treat him like he doesn't have legs – he's one of us," Young says. "To see the change in him from the day I met him on that first ride (to his new house) to now, he is a whole person. The legs are nothing. They mean nothing."
"It's rare to find somebody like Isaac," adds Christensen, a gray-bearded Vietnam War veteran whose black cap and vest are decorated with military patches and pins. "He's a wonderful kid. I'm the oldest one in the group, and Isaac and I bonded like we were the same age. I love it. He keeps me young, and he just fits right in."
"These old men brought me in with open arms and made me feel like one of them," Jensen says. "Veterans helping veterans – that's what the Legion did for me. It was a group of veterans who pulled me in and said, ‘We understand.' If I've got a problem with something, Bart, Ray and Joe are my go-to guys. If I could put a face to The American Legion, it would be these three. I love The American Legion. I've never said those words without a smile on my face. It's something that is always going to be there to help me through anything. They have brought me to this place in my life where I've found peace."
Eldon Lindsay is photographer and videographer for The American Legion Magazine.