I'll Still Conquer
WASHINGTON — They are proud, but that isn’t what they told Jon Bartlett on Wednesday as he left Walter Reed Army Medical Center after 13 months.
No congratulations. No “job well done.” No pats on the back for keeping his chin up when his spirits were down.
The mentors, nurses, therapists and prosthetists who coached Bartlett to his feet after he lost both legs during combat in Iraq had parting thoughts of a different sort for the young infantryman.
As Bartlett went to say goodbyes in the physical therapy lab on the hospital’s second floor, where he had spent countless hours sweating, grunting and putting 50 pounds of muscle back on what had been his 6-foot frame, Jack Farley stopped him.
As Farley continued down the hall, he kept talking about the 20-year-old graduate of Norfolk’s Maury High School.
“He’s got tremendous strength, tremendous drive,” said Farley, who has spent the past year at Walter Reed, visiting Generation X combat amputees. Farley said Bartlett always seemed to be upside-down in the physical therapy lab: hanging from a pull-up bar, or doing push-ups, in a handstand position, on the parallel bars.
The retired judge said he knows Bartlett will survive, even thrive, in whatever he does. But Farley is concerned about Bartlett’s transition to civilian life, away from the cocoon of soldiers and caregivers at Walter Reed. Bartlett will officially leave the Army next month.
“Patients here, they’re in a womb,” Farley said.
If so, Bartlett is ready to be reborn and move away from the confines of Walter Reed. Since last November, he has lived in Mologne House , a government-run hotel on the campus of the Washington hospital.
He has the highest praise for the specialists who treated him and the typical criticisms about institutional food. But he’s tired of calling a standard hotel room home and looks forward to buying a car with hand controls. He hopes to work part-time at a Norfolk radio station, and in January wants to start classes at Old Dominion University .
His education will be paid for by the Veterans Administration and his GI benefits.
Two and a half years after leaving home with a five-year commitment to the Army, Bartlett is apprehensive about returning to the family nest.
The family’s house experienced surgery of its own after Bartlett was injured in September 2004 on a dirt road south of Fallujah . Last November, local businesses donated labor and supplies to add a first-floor bedroom and bathroom to the house off Little Creek Road. They also redid the kitchen and added a porch and wheelchair ramp.
The former track athlete said he wouldn’t be shy about closing his door when his family gets to him. “I’m going to pimp that thing out. It’s going to be nice,” Bartlett said about his bedroom, sounding like a typical 20-year-old.
Other times, Bartlett seems far wiser than his years.
“The thought of failure never crossed my mind,” Barlett said his last night in the capital. “The thought that I wouldn’t be able to walk again never crossed my mind.”
He was not one to question why it happened to him or to try to make bargains with God. “I always saw that as weakness,” Bartlett said.
He attributes his survival from the homemade bomb blast – so strong it threw a steel plate attached to his Humvee’s door more than 500 yards – to three things: 21st century medicine, his comrades’ quick thinking and a strong heart.
He will miss being an able-bodied infantry grunt – “Oh, I love playing soldier,” he said – but plans to soldier on in different terms.
“Soldiers conquer, right?” he asked rhetorically. “But as a soldier, you do someone else’s bidding. Businessmen do their own. I’ll still conquer.”
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