Bryant Jacobs stands with his cane
The Salt Lake Tribune mastehead


Last Leg

‘It all comes down to luck’

On any other night, he'd smoke this cigarette hard and fast. Long draws on the filter. Abrupt flicks of the ash.

Sixty seconds, tops, and Bryant Jacobs would be out of the cold, the storm, the sputtering snow. He'd be warming himself on the radiant hardwood floors of the home he shares with his wife and two stepdaughters in this southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley. He'd slouch back into his favorite recliner, nestled into a fuzzy University of Utah blanket with a tiny white dog on his lap.

But tonight, the 33-year-old Army veteran has told himself, he's kicking this 18-year habit. So damn the cold, damn the wind, he settles into a chair on his backyard patio, staring blankly at a shimmering vinyl fence as it sways in the storm.

Squeezing the cigarette against the stub of his long-lost index finger, he sips it like a good bourbon, as he will the thousand-dollar bottle of Pappy Van Winkle a friend brought over earlier this evening.

Tomorrow, when the sun rises above the bright white ridges of the Wasatch Mountains, Jacobs will wake up, shower, place a single sneaker into a small travel bag, and drive to the hospital.

There, he will go to sleep. And when he wakes up, his right leg will be gone.

It's been nearly 10 years — likely the longest any wounded veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan has endured before resorting to amputation. In that time, he's learned to walk again. With a cart, he can golf. On an ATV, he can hunt. He's grateful for his life.

But he's tied to a cane. A wheelchair for longer trips. Exercise can be excruciating. A careless touch can send shocking pain through his leg. A trip to the mall can cost a day of recovery. He feels so old.

And so he's made a choice — a wager that becoming less will make him more.

Jacobs takes one last drag and gives the ash to the wind. It disappears among the flurries of snow.


Jacobs is 10 or 11 when he gets his first glimpse of war.

His stepfather, a helicopter pilot who earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam, hangs a sheet on a wall in their California home. He pushes an 8mm projector into the middle of the room.

Jacobs stares in awe at the flickering images of Stephen Scheiding as a young man wearing flight gear and standing stoically beside his chopper.

"I don't even remember what all the pictures were of," he says today. "But I remember thinking that he was cooler for having been in the military."

Scheiding tells his stepson about how he and a close friend joined up. But he never senses Jacobs has any interest in doing the same.

Later, though, between dribbling basketballs, dialing up the 15-inch subwoofers in his Pontiac Sunfire and flirting with girls at Tracy High School in California's Central Valley, Jacobs briefly considers following his stepdad into the service. He likes the idea of being a Navy SEAL.

Like a lot of teenage whims, it's fleeting. After graduating in 1999, he moves to Utah to be close to his dad and other relatives.

Jacobs' parents had divorced when he was a toddler. His father, Rex, is working for a plumbing company and living in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Jordan.

They drink together. They party a lot. One day, at 5 a.m., the younger Jacobs rouses a crowd of revelers in various states of drunkenness and drives them out of their shared apartment.

"That sort of thing happened a lot," he says. "It probably wasn't real healthy, but it was fun for a while there."

He gets a job tracking down debtors and persuading them to make payments on their credit cards.

"It was a job, but not a career," he says. "It sure as hell wasn't an adventure."

For that, he heads for Big Cottonwood Canyon, where there's lots of snow and plenty of speed on the aspen-lined slopes of Brighton's Clayton Peak and in the rifts and gullies of Solitude's Honeycomb Canyon.

For the avid snowboarder, it's an exciting time to be in Utah. The Olympics are coming. The party will be epic.

And then, suddenly, none of that seems important anymore.

Jacobs is grabbing breakfast in the cafeteria at his office when all of the televisions hanging from the ceiling suddenly blink to images of New York's burning World Trade Center towers.

Photo above: Bryant Jacobs in Iraq with the 65th Engineer Battalion, in 2004 near Kirkuk. Courtesy of Bryant Jacobs.


As U.S. troops spread across Afghanistan's rugged landscape in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Jacobs and his friend Dustin Marble begin visiting an Army recruiting office in a West Jordan strip mall.

"You're not where you want to be. I'm not either," Marble tells Jacobs. "Let's join."

Jacobs passes the military's vocational aptitude test with fair marks in every category. He scores highest on questions measuring clerical skills, but a desk job doesn't interest him.

Marble signs up for the infantry. Jacobs keeps looking.

"Wanna blow sh-- up?" his recruiter asks.

"Yeah, that would be neat," Jacobs says.

Fine, the recruiter says, you can be a combat engineer.

It takes more than a year for Jacobs to get a recruiting waiver for the psoriasis that has pocked and scabbed his skin since high school. As he waits, Afghanistan's Taliban-led regime quickly topples.

With a powerful political wind at his back, President George W. Bush looks to Iraq. Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, predicts a war there won't last long. "Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that," Rumsfeld says on a radio call-in show.

In late February 2003, as U.S. leaders begin piecing together a "coalition of the willing," Jacobs' medical waiver is finally approved. His enlistment contract requires no fewer than four years in the Army. His starting pay is $35 a day.

The United States invades Iraq on March 19. By the time Jacobs leaves for basic training on April 29, the Iraqi military has been decimated. Dictator Saddam Hussein is on the run, though his purported weapons of mass destruction have not been found.

Two days later, as Jacobs drops for his first pushups at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Bush stands aboard the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln before a red, white and blue banner that reads "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED."

"In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," Bush says. "We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide."

"I don't want to make it seem like I wanted to go to war," Jacobs says, "but there is this thing where it felt like something might pass you by."

But when Jacobs arrives at his first duty station, with the Army's 65th Engineer Battalion at Honolulu's Schofield Barracks, it's clear the mission in Iraq is far from over.

He's picked up at the airport by a cousin, Army officer Matt Schrom, who is assigned to the same division. Schrom teaches Jacobs how to starch his uniform and shape his beret — and tells him to get ready for war.

Before deploying, Jacobs flies home to Utah. His mom and stepfather are there to meet him; he and his stepfather drive to the desert to shoot guns.

Scheiding reminds the young soldier that he hasn't relinquished his authority to make moral decisions. "But whatever happens," he says, "we're going to support you no matter what."

The politics of the world won't matter much, Scheiding says. "From the minute you get on that plane your only job is to keep the soldier next to you alive."

When it's time to return, the following week, Jacobs pulls his mother into his chest and holds her there as she cries.

Photo above: Bryant Jacobs pauses after putting both feet on the floor as he swung his legs out of bed on the morning of his amputation surgery, Tuesday, March 18, 2014.


Desert fatigues and a hulking camouflage flak vest hug Jacobs' scraggy shoulders. A Kevlar helmet envelops his clean-shaven head. A fellow soldier lifts a camera. Jacobs clenches his jaw and squints his eyes.

It's Jan. 25, 2004, when his unit arrives in Kuwait. Two days have passed since the CIA's admission that Iraq didn't have the stockpiled weapons U.S. leaders claimed. But that changes nothing for Jacobs and his team. Some of the soldiers remain convinced the weapons are still out there. Most don't care either way.

Carlos Muniz, a specialist from South Texas, is among the few U.S. soldiers in the 65th who have already completed a combat tour in Iraq.

"In Iraq it's like, do what you're told and do whatever you have to do to protect your brothers," Muniz remebers telling his comrades. "What's out of your control is out of your control."

As most of the unit's members cross the border en route to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, the military announces the interception of a 17-page letter to senior al-Qaida figures from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Jordanian militant is Osama bin Laden's chief aide in Iraq and, at the time, one of the most famous terrorists in the world.

The American soldiers in Iraq are "mouth-watering targets for the believers," he writes in the letter, apparently intended for bin Laden. "These, as you know, are the most cowardly of God's creatures. They are an easy quarry, praise be to God."

A new war is under way. U.S. forces are no longer fighting pockets of resistance among Saddam loyalists. Now they are fighting insurgents — from Iraq and beyond — including jihadists bent on killing Americans and seeding a sectarian civil war.

The insurgents' weapons of choice are increasingly powerful improvised explosives, often cobbled together using old mortars or rockets from ammo dumps that were left unguarded after the invasion. The bombs are buried underground or hidden in roadside rubbish piles. They are detonated with pressure plates or jury-rigged remote controls.

Twenty-three U.S. service members are killed in Iraq the month Jacobs' unit arrives. The next month, March 2004, the fatalities more than double. And in April, the deaths more than double again.

"They weren't any different than me, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Jacobs says. "One second earlier and you're fine. A second later and you're not. It all comes down to luck — bad luck."

Photo above: A road near Kirkuk, Iraq, much like the one where Bryant Jacobs was injured in a IED explosion while on patrol with the 65th Engineer Battalion, in 2004. Courtesy of Bryant Jacobs.

Next: A life-altering explosion