Bryant Jacobs stands with his cane
The Salt Lake Tribune mastehead


Last Leg

A veteran's resolve grows

Bryant Jacobs is standing at the bottom of a steep gully in front of the 14th green at the River Oaks Golf Course.

He predicted the ball would end up here — it sometimes does when he tries to reach this green from the tee — but he keeps trying to clear the ditch anyway.

An arcing chip shot puts the ball back into play. He flips his wedge over in his right hand and does the same with the putter in his left.

Using the clubs as canes, he shuffles his way up the gully's easiest slope.

Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't be playing this early in the season. But these aren't normal circumstances.

For one thing, it's 62 degrees out. In Utah. In February.

For another, this is likely to be his last round of golf on two natural legs. The doctors at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City have finally consented to his wish: In two weeks, Jacobs is scheduled to have his right leg amputated.

He knows it's a gamble.

"I could run into complications," he says, lighting a cigarette after the nine-hole round of mostly par golf — played, as always, from a cart. "I could run into infections. Potentially I could lose my leg all the way up to my hip. But I also know that nothing is going to change for the better at this point unless I try."

He pats a hand on his belly. He's 50 pounds heavier now than he was when he joined the Army. He's tried to stay in shape, but his limited mobility makes it tough.

Two men in yellow sweaters — one who looks to be in his 60s and the other who might be a decade or two older — pass in a cart.

"Look at me," the 33-year-old says. "I'm walking slow. I need a cane. I can golf — and that's great because I love to golf, but I didn't think this would be my entire life.

"Tomorrow when I wake up, I'm going to be in pain. I'm going to be in pain and I'm really not going to be able to do anything at all — just because I played nine holes of golf today."

The cigarette is gone now. Jacobs grabs the remaining pack of Marlboro Lights from the golf cart dashboard and shoves it into his pocket.

"I'm ready to act my age," he says.


Aerosmith is blasting from the boombox outside.

There are alligator and crawfish sausages on the grill. Forty men are downing Buds, Coors and Millers, tossing horseshoes in alternating sun, rain and piercing wind.

This is Scott Generazo's second annual backyard horseshoes tournament. He was going to host it later in the spring, when the weather will be warmer and the sun will set later. "Then you went and screwed that all up," he tells Jacobs, whose upcoming surgery prompted the earlier date.

"This guy …" Generazo says, squeezing Bryant's shoulder. "This guy."

A retired Major League Baseball pitcher named Rheal Cormier goads Jacobs to do a shot of Fireball. Neighbor Nick Hoggan does a little online window shopping for prosthetic fairings — specialized coverings intended to give amputees a more natural contour; one is designed to mirror the matte black-and-chrome motif of its owner's motorcycle.

"That's cool," says Jacobs, who sold his Kawasaki Vulcan to his younger brother when he realized it hurt more to ride than it was worth. "But I don't need anything like that."

"Yeah, you do," Hoggan replies. "You just don't know it yet."

Another friend, Les Patterson, gives Jacobs a camouflage all-weather hunting coat as soon as the Army veteran mentions how much he likes it.

"I'm seriously not asking for your coat, man," Jacobs says. "You seriously don't need to," Patterson responds.

Noticing that others have gathered to watch the gesture, Patterson seems to grow a bit self-conscious. He grabs a chunk of Jacobs' shoulder.

"This guy," he says.

As the tournament grinds on, Jacobs sits alone on a worn gray sofa in Generazo's unfinished basement with his foot propped up on a cooler of Bud Light, nursing a Dr Pepper. "I don't really like to drink that much anymore," he says. "It doesn't mix well with my pain meds."

The tournament is entering its fifth hour. Jacobs has been out since the second round. But Dustin Marble, the friend with whom he enlisted a decade ago, is still throwing strong. And so Jacobs waits — patiently, though clearly hurting.

Horseshoes. That's all it took to leave him in pain.

Photo above: Bryant Jacobs walks with the help of two golf clubs while playing a round of golf with his friend Tony Korologos at the River Oaks Golf Course in Sandy, Tuesday, February 25, 2014.


Back home after the tournament, Jacobs' living room is madness.

Marble's kids, Zander and Mason, are playing with Jacobs' stepdaughters, Karsyn and Lillian. They're screaming and laughing and sliding in their socks on the hardwood. The Disney Channel is on.

Jacobs disappears into his bedroom and returns in pajama bottoms. He's limping hard.

Marble fills a glass with Red Bull and vodka and begins an affectionate homily to his best friend's heroism.

"This guy," he says, "was working at Discover Card. He was young and having the time of his life. Getting drunk all the time. Girls — all the girls he wanted. Am I not right?"

"You're right," Jacobs says.

"Then 9/11 happened. And we loved our country so goddamned much, so we joined up. Am I not right?"

"You're right," Jacobs says.

At some point Marble's ode to the past becomes a lament for the future.

"You know that I'd trade with you, right? I'd give you my leg. You know that, right?"

"I know," Jacobs says.

"Like, like we could share the leg," Marble says, laughing. "You could get the leg today. And then I would get it tomorrow. And then sometimes we'd fight over it."

Jacobs rolls his head back and laughs. His belly shakes and his eyes water. It's the most relaxed he's looked all night.

Photo above: Dustin Marble sits holding his energetic son Zander as he talks with Bryant Jacobs about when they both were considering enlisting in the army. He and Jacobs had just played in a horseshoe tournament in Herriman, Saturday, March 1, 2014.


The car is gassed up. A small bag of clothes with a single shoe is waiting by the bedroom door.

It is nearly midnight on the night before his amputation, and everything is ready. But Jacobs is feeling unsettled.

Not uncertain. Not afraid. His resolve is unshaken.

When tomorrow comes, there will be a lot of pain. When that subsides, there will be struggle — for him and everyone around him. And most of all, he knows, for the woman he married last year. In some ways, he thinks, this will be harder on her than it will be on him.

He looks at her; he knows she'll understand. She won't see it as a cry for help, just a need for sleep.

"Babe," he says, "can I have one of your pills?"

Michele Jacobs gives her husband one of the pills she takes for stress. Tonight she'll go without.

Photo above: Bryant Jacobs, his wife Michele, step-daughter Karsyn, sister-in-law Sara and step daughter Lilly play a board game on their kitchen table the night before his amputation surgery, Monday, March 17, 2014.


It's a few minutes after sunrise on March 18. Their mother and stepfather haven't yet stirred as 8-year-old Karsyn and 11-year-old Lillian slink from their bedroom to the family couch.

A map of Iraq flashes on the television as Lillian blasts past the cable news channels. This week marks 11 years since the beginning of the American war there. Officials are reporting 15 people have died today in a series of bombings in Baghdad.

The girls will spend their day playing board games with their aunt Sara, who emerges from the guest room to make an espresso.

"We are going to have a very good day today," she tells the girls in a breezy Italian accent.

She met Jacobs' younger brother, Zach, when he was in the U.S. Air Force and she was in the Italian Army. "If Bryant had not been injured, then Zach never would have joined the military," she says. "And if he hadn't joined, we never would have met in Afghanistan. We wouldn't have fallen in love. And I wouldn't be here right now."

She pauses for a moment to sip her coffee.

"I don't want to imagine my life any other way," she says. But of what her brother-in-law is about to do, she adds, "I would do anything if he didn't have to go through all of this."

Maybe, Karsyn adds, her mom and stepdad still would have found each other if he hadn't been injured — but they wouldn't be in this house, built for Jacobs by the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops.

Karsyn says she likes this home. She loves her neighborhood and her friends at the school down the street. She enjoys walking to the fishing pond just up the road. But she wishes her stepfather could enjoy life more.

"He really wants to take us snowboarding, but he can't because it hurts so bad," Lillian says. "He had a motorcycle but he couldn't use it. And one time he tried to get on a four-wheeler but couldn't even sit down."

"When he's in pain, he's in a bad mood," Karsyn says. "That happens a lot."

"It doesn't happen a lot," Lillian says. "It happens all the time."

"Maybe after the operation he'll be happier," Karsyn responds.

It's another hour before Jacobs limps from his bedroom, falls into his recliner and begins flipping through dozens of prayers and well wishes on the Facebook feed on his iPhone.

When it's time to go, Lillian and Karsyn rush across the living room and fall into Jacobs' arms, nearly knocking him over. He steps out the garage door, right leg first.

Photo above: Nick Hoggan looks through an online gallery of photos of custom prosthetic designs as Jacobs rests during an all-day horseshoe tournament at Scott Generazo's home in Herriman, Saturday, March 1, 2014.


Outside the window of the pre-op room at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City, the west grandstands of Rice-Eccles Stadium are glowing in the morning sun.

Between visits from nurses, anesthesiologists and doctors, Michele Jacobs glances out the window and reminds her husband of their first date — the 2008 Utah-BYU rivalry game.

The final operating team member to check in is Erik Kubiak. He's an affable, quirky and — by the accounts of everyone else on the operating team — brilliant orthopedic surgeon from the University of Utah. The VA has asked him to handle Jacobs' case.

If all goes well, in a year's time, Jacobs might be a candidate for Kubiak's study of osteointegrated prosthetics. Jacobs is enthralled by the idea of snap-in, snap-out interchangeable legs that would connect to an implant in his femur.

Kubiak, an avid ice and rock climber, is wearing a red Patagonia jacket, brown slacks, yellow socks and leather Euro-style sneakers. He reaches over and cups his hands around Jacobs' right knee.

"What's the sensation?" the doctor asks.

Jacobs' face twitches.

"That's really sensitive," he groans.

Kubiak releases his hold. He ticks off all the things amputees are doing with the latest prosthetics. Climbing. Swimming. Triathlons. Jacobs adds to the list. Hiking. Hunting. Snowboarding.

"You'll get there," Kubiak says. He signs a chart and leaves the room.

Lydia Scholes, a nurse who was at Walter Reed the same time as Jacobs, arrives to go over the pre-operative checklist. They didn't know each other there, she says, but "it's like an instant bond — like we know something other people don't."

"What did you eat today?" she asks him. "Nothing," he says, "but I could really use a Dr Pepper. Do you think you could put Dr Pepper in my IV?"

Scholes rolls her eyes and laughs.

"OK," she says, "it's time."

Michele leans over, runs her hand through the thick tangle of hair on her husband's face and kisses his lips. An orderly comes to roll him away. Her fingers brush the blanket over his leg.

Alone in the room, she slumps into a chair, then rises to gather her purse. She pauses for a moment at the window. A tear rolls across her right cheek. Her jaw trembles.

"I'm so scared," she whispers. "Everything's about to change."

Photo above: Surgeon Erik Kubiak laughs, at right, as he and other doctors and nurses talk with Bryant Jacobs and give him a final rundown of how things will go in his amputation surgery. They also asked if he had any last questions as part of the pre-operative checklist at the Salt Lake City VA, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. Nurse Lydia Scholes is at his bedside, at far right.

Next: Nine years of rehabilitation end with amputation