View Full Version : Nobody wants a Purple Heart

04-03-06, 10:15 AM
Nobody wants a Purple Heart
But this 21-year-old Pine Bluffs man has two

By Shauna Stephenson
Published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle

CHEYENNE - In a laboratory, scientists measure the power of an explosive, such as an anti-tank mine, by finding its detonation velocity.

Using sophisticated equipment, they measure the rate at which the detonation wave moves through the materials. It can be slow, 14 feet per second, or it can be fast, 27,000 feet per second. The bigger the number, the bigger the blast.

Outside of the lab, the power is measured by the damage done. Bigger bombs mean bigger casualties.

And out here, it doesn't take much to set them off - just the sole of a shoe or the wheel of a Humvee.

"On the road again

Goin places that I've never been

Seein' things that I may never see again,

And I can't wait to get on the road again."

The sunrise in Iraq is like the sunrise in Wyoming.

It creeps slowly, pausing to rest on the horizon. The brown landscape turns to gold. It slowly warms the desert breezes, cold from the night.

The breezes brush up against the exposed area of Lance Cpl. Jay Thurin's face. The 20-year-old Pine Bluffs man perches in his gunner position in the tan Humvee, wearing his tan flack jacket and the tan Kevlar sleeves all gunners wear.

In this position, he can watch the sun come up, riding the wave of the tan road.

He scans the horizon as the miles tick by. They're long miles, sometimes 200 in a day.

Below him, Lance Cpl. Mike Probst drives. Cpl. Brian Sears rides in the passenger seat. Probst is Thurin's roommate and good friend. Out here, you have to be friends. Your fellow soldiers are like your shadow, with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Probst is older than Thurin by six years, but they share similar interests. They fill their days talking about home, the war, college, video games, sports and women. They talk about what they will do when they first get home from Iraq and how much they hate driving up and down dusty roads every day.

Sometimes they wish someone would start shooting at them or that they would find a bomb, just a little bit of excitement, a little accomplishment - something other than driving up and down the road.

Mile after mile of dirty brown landscape and rundown shacks. The air is dusty and smells like forgotten garbage. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it's windy. But mostly it's still the same roads and the same desert.

They have been driving for about three hours today. It looks like it's going to be a warm day. The sun is starting to feel hot.

From his perch, Thurin watches for signs of trouble. When he first got to Iraq, he thought this job was pretty cool. It only took about a week for that to wear off.

Now, as they roll down the road, he spots something in the road. It's an explosive.

But even an explosive isn't that exciting anymore. Their job is to provide security while it is removed. So they get to sit and watch some more.

They radio in to the military equivalent of a bomb squad, which comes out to dispose of the explosive.

Probst parks the Humvee on the road. Any other day it might not matter where they park or what road they're on.

Today it does.

From his viewpoint, Thurin watches as the device is picked up and taken away.

It's about 9:30 in the morning, two and a half hours until chow. The crew is finished, and it's time to move again.

Thurin thinks of the words in the Willie Nelson song.

"On the road again."

But those are the only words he knows.

"On the road again."

They pull the Humvee forward and make a U-turn, driving back over the spot where they were parked just seconds ago.

Any experienced soldier knows the sound of a bomb. It's like instinct, like blowing a tire; you know it's a flat. When the blast goes off, they know it's a bomb.

The Humvee drives over a mine, setting off the detonator, creating a detonation wave that races through the explosive material, creating heat and gas.

It races through the material in feet per second, detonation velocity unknown, creating a shockwave of compressed air, an intense spike in air pressure.

The air rushes out in the shape of a sphere, trying to expand, expending its energy as the molecules strain to go to a lower energy rate, releasing thermal energy as heat.

Thurin knows it's a bomb.

The blast goes off under the front left tire. Thurin is thrown in the air, flipping as he is tossed from the vehicle. The Humvee spins around, going from a 12 o'clock position to a 4 o'clock position. Thurin hits the back of it as he comes down, falling into the crater created by the bomb.

A dazed moment passes, maybe a second, maybe 30. Thurin looks at the crater he has landed in.

"Holy s---, that's huge," he thinks, or says, or maybe both. He doesn't know.

He crawls out using his left hand. He sees Sears coming from beside the vehicle.

"You OK?" he asks.

"Yeah, you OK?" Thurin replies.

"Yeah. Where the hell is Probst?"

They walk to the other side of the vehicle. The front has been blown off.

Then, in the cab of the vehicle, Thurin finds his beloved friend.

The doctors later tell Thurin that the blast killed Probst instantly.

Maybe it is their own adrenaline or shock, but when Thurin and Sears crawl into the vehicle, holding Probst's battered body, Thurin swears he is still alive.

Thurin holds him close, his own body shaking.

"Everything's going to be all right," he says. "Everything's going to be all right."

Thurin goes for the radio to get help, but it's broken.

He gets out of the vehicle, yelling for help from anyone nearby.

He's ticked off. He's ticked off at whoever did this, ticked off at the Iraqis, ticked off about being there, ticked off that someone has taken one of his best friends.

He tries to lift a board, but he can't move his right arm. That's strange.

He glances down at his pistol. It's covered in blood. His pants are covered in blood.

He looks at his arm and finds the source. It's dripping from his sleeve.

Experts say that when an explosive detonates, the pressure from the shockwave decreases exponentially with distance.

But when the bomb went off on that warm February day, the shockwave could be felt almost halfway across the world.

A mother always knows when something is wrong.

The call comes to her office at Safehouse-Sexual Assault Services in Cheyenne at about 2:30 in the afternoon. It's the executive officer of Jay's battalion.

At first Carla Thurin thinks her son might be calling to check up with the family. Jay was awarded a Purple Heart after being hit with shrapnel a few weeks before.

That time Jay had called the house himself. When Carla answered, he asked to speak to his dad, Matt. That's when she knew something was up. Jay won't tell her bad news.

Carla and Jay have an agreement. She tries not to mother him too much, and he tries to be patient. He tries not to worry her, and she tries not to worry.

Carla wasn't crazy about the idea of Jay joining the Marines.

"It's not that the military isn't good," she says. "I believe Jay has done some phenomenal things. I just did not want my child in a foreign country fighting a war."

There's no doubt Carla is very proud of Jay as she is all of her children. Like a mother hen, she loves and cares deeply for all of them. But woe to him who messes with one of her chicks.

When she dropped Jay off at the airport to be deployed, Jay and Carla made a deal they would say goodbye in the car. No hugs at the terminal, no flowery goodbyes, no tears. Keep it simple, just like Jay likes it.

He doesn't like to deal with the emotional stuff. He tries to shield her from the bad news. He doesn't want her to be upset.

But this afternoon Carla gets the bad news first.

Jay has been in a bomb blast. He's injured. The officer on the phone says he'll have Jay call in a couple of hours.

As Carla gets off the phone, Jay's younger sister, Katie, walks into her office. Katie can tell its bad news. Carla comforts Katie, calls the school in Pine Bluffs where Matt works as a teacher, then heads for home.

Matt meets Carla at their home. The phone calls roll in, none of them Jay. Carla keeps cutting it short, telling friends and family she'll call them as soon as she has more information.

Hours go by. No call.

Friends come over. They make small talk, but mainly they sit and wait, willing the phone to ring.

Carla begins to think the worst. Maybe they didn't have the right information. Maybe things are worse than she thought.

If Jay were able to talk, he would have called by now, right?

He was supposed to call in a couple of hours. That would have been 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. It's now 10:30 p.m. What could be going on? Why hasn't he called?

Finally, the phone rings.

It's Jay.

Gavin Donnelly, operations chief for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, is an expert in explosives.

He says when a bomb goes off it creates what's called an overpressure, basically a sharp increase in air pressure.

Right next to the bomb, the overpressure can be thousands of pounds per square inch.

The pressure has disastrous effects on the organs of the human body. Just five pounds can cause eardrums to fail. Forty pounds can cause lung damage.

The higher the pressure, the worse the damage to organs such as the liver and kidneys. It can even cause what Donnelly calls "dry land drowning."

Muscles can bear the impact because they are filled with water, which can transmit the shock. But what about the heart?

Nine pallbearers carry the flag-draped coffin into the church.

They walk in unison, the stripes on the legs of their military uniforms forming parallel lines that bend with each step.

Mourners fill the pews. Almost 250 people have come to pay tribute to the life of Michael Probst on this February day.

Carla watches as Jay sits silently during the service, still as stone. She thinks of the poignancy of the moment. She's proud and sad at the same time.

Here she is, a mother sitting with her child while another mother is burying hers.

She knows she shouldn't think of them as children. They really are young men, old beyond their young years.

Carla knows Jay was nervous about coming here today. He worried about what the family might say or what they might think of him. He was one of the last people to see Mike alive.

What would he tell them? Would they blame him for Mike's death?

Jay has yet to meet Mike's family. They sit across the row on the left side of the church.

The service ends, and the family stands to file out of the church behind the coffin.

The row of Marines that Carla and Jay sit with stands and walks behind them, single file.

They make their way outside, where the graveside services are held. The Probst family decided to have Mike cremated so the honors are performed just outside of the church.

Jay stands in the front of the group, at attention, stoic, still. Carla stands at his side, the Probst family in the front. The service ends with the 21-gun salute.

As the family stands to leave, Mike's mother, Judy, turns and looks at Jay.

He doesn't move, doesn't flinch.

Then she raises her hand to her mouth as if to say, "I care about you too" and blows him a kiss.

After multiple surgeries, Thurin returns home on March 1 with two Purple Hearts.

The doctors say a piece of shrapnel hit his arm, breaking the bone and causing significant muscle and nerve damage. They say if he hadn't been wearing the Kevlar sleeves, he would have lost his arm.

Carla says it has been a hard adjustment.

"It's hard to want to be there for him and know that he needed me, but yet he was not willing to take any kind of love and support," she says. "He wanted to be left alone.

"It's hard because it made me feel just like I didn't know what to do. I knew I needed to do something."

Jay says it's good to be home. But every day there is a part of him that is still in Iraq. He tries not to think about the desert. He tries not to think about the explosion. And he tries not to think about Mike.

But it weighs heavily on him.

"It's rough, you know. I mean you're not supposed to feel responsible for it, but there's no way you're never not going to feel it. I still feel responsible for it every single day. I mean, it goes through my head every single day that I should have seen it."

He pauses.

"You know, that was my job up in the turret to look for that kind of stuff. But I didn't see it, and it cost him his life.

"Yeah, I guess it was hidden well, but you still feel responsible for it. I rethink the whole situation every single day, every night, like what I could have done better, if I would have looked over here harder, if I would have just, you know, maybe re-looked a little bit more, you know, maybe found a different way out, just done something different he would have been coming home.

"I try not to think about it, but I do, all day, every day, every night."

The three-year anniversary of the Iraq war passed not long ago. President Bush held a news conference and alluded to the fact that it is long from over. Future presidents will decide when all the soldiers will come home.

At that point more than 2,300 Americans had been killed. More than 17,000 Americans had been injured. A majority of them were 21 or younger.

On March 8, Jay turned 21.

But does he feel 21?

"No," he says and then corrects himself. "Yeah . I don't know. Some days, but mostly no."

Carla says no.

"He can still act 21 and still hang with his friends and do the things that those guys are doing, but he's far past that in years because the things he's done and seen surpasses anyone his age," she says.

His father, Matt agrees. Matt says Jay has seen things it takes most people a lifetime to get over.

"Physically Jay will get over a lot," he says. "Mentally I think is the thing that will be the hardest to work through."

Toward the end of March, Jay goes to visit his cousin's and brother's school to show their classes his Purple Hearts. His cousin, Brad Haug, introduces him.

"This is my cousin Jay. He went to Iraq and got bombed . two times."

The teacher asks if he is ready to go back.

Jay clears his throat and pauses a little. He says he is as ready as he will ever be.

"There's not much choice when it comes to that."

Later, another child raises their hand. They ask if Iraq was scary.

"Yes," Jay says.

The sunrise in Wyoming is a lot like the sunrise in Iraq.

It comes up slowly, pink in the sky, turning the brown landscape golden as Jay packs the last of his things in his red pickup. He's anxious to get on the road, ready to get back to 29 Palms, Calif. He's ready to see the rest of his unit that has returned from Iraq.

His mother pulls him aside for a minute. She tells him not to bottle everything up, to visit the Probst family and most of all to take care of himself.

They hug a real hug. Both arms, tight, like the way it was before Jay was injured.

Jay climbs in his truck and drives away from his home out on the windy plains, He turns west, back to his unit, back to his brothers.

"On the road again,

Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway

We're the best of friends

Insisting that the world be turnin' our way

And our way

Is on the road again."