RIVERTON — For most children, Veterans Day and the consequences of military service are what they read about in books. But students at a Riverton grade school got a firsthand account Monday of the pain and passion that comes with wearing a U.S. military uniform.
Bryant Jacobs, 38, considers himself fortunate in a lot of ways. Blessed to have a loving wife and family, proud to have served his country in the U.S. armed forces and grateful to be alive to tell his story of nearly dying at the hands of enemy combatants in a surprise attack during his first tour of duty in the Middle East.
Speaking Monday to a gymnasium full of students during a morning assembly at Midas Creek Elementary School, he recounted the day he was serving as an Army specialist combat engineer in Iraq and the vehicle he was traveling in was blown up by an improvised explosive device in the road while out on "a routine route-clearing mission" on the cold winter morning of Dec. 3, 2004.
"We were driving 50 miles an hour and I remember being ejected from the truck," he explained. "It was almost surreal because everything felt like it was in slow motion."
The explosion killed one soldier and critically wounded Jacobs, who was eventually taken to Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland for treatment on his badly injured legs and numerous other bodily injuries that required multiple surgeries over the next decade.
He told the students how his military service led to a journey that changed his life forever. While Jacobs sustained serious injuries to both legs from the explosion that forced him to use a wheelchair for about a year, his right leg actually suffered the most damage, he said. For years, he coped with the daily chronic pain.
"I had buddies who were double and triple amputees that were doing tons more than I could," Jacobs said. "I felt like I was constantly sitting on the sidelines."
Then, in 2015, he made the decision to have his right leg amputated, and through groundbreaking technology available at the University of Utah and the Veterans Administration Hospital, he is now walking virtually pain-free.
Today, Jacobs is one of just 10 people in the country fitted with a new prosthetic leg through a procedure called osseointegration, which permanently anchors an artificial limb to the human skeleton.
He showed students the rod that was attached to the femur in the stump of his right leg. He now can move much more freely and enjoy many of the activities that he missed for so many years, like golf, hunting and snowboarding.
"I got on a snowboard and it felt amazing," he said.
Before the procedure, he could only hunt for one day at a time, then take days off to recover because it was so painful. Now, he can go for days and days at a time, he said.
"This (procedure) is going to change the amputee world," he said. "Upper extremity, lower extremity, it doesn't matter. It's going to be a life-changer."
He told the students that they could strive to be the leaders of tomorrow that could one day engineer even better technologies to help soldiers like him and other veterans regain their mobility and improve their lives.
He also acknowledged that being recognized along with other long-tenured military members made him grateful to have served in the Armed Forces.
"It's humbling," Jacobs said. "To know that we're appreciated as much as we are, makes you want to do more and be better."
During the assembly, Principal Carolyn Bona said one of the lessons students at the school learn is how to treat others with kindness and respect, even when they may be different — such as being an amputee.
Jacobs said teaching kids to approach people like him to ask questions about their artificial limb is something he relishes and encourages parents to do.
"You don't see amputees running around every day," he explained. "I encourage it for that reason. It sparks their interest to go into (prosthetics) or mechanical engineering to design the future legs and (other body parts)."
Sixth-grader Bryson Bawden said hearing from veterans like Jacobs was particularly meaningful because it gave him a better understanding of what real military service was like.Comment on this story
"It's really cool when we get to come and meet the veterans and they share stories with us," he said. Being able to hear from a veteran who was different than most others was also an important experience, he added.
"At our school, we're really big on being kind to everybody and we get to see what happens when people aren't kind," he said. "We also get to learn how to deal with people's differences. We need to learn to accept others for how they are."
He aspires to become an Air Force pilot, he said, because "it would be cool to serve others and I also really like airplanes so I think it would be really cool to put those two together."