Staff Sgt. James West deployed to the Middle East a second time in September 2005, this time as a master driver with the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
On June 2, 2006, he returned from a combat patrol placing protective concrete walls around the mayor’s office in Baji, Iraq, and was reloading and refueling vehicles after sending the Soldiers to eat and rest.
“I had all the trucks done but one – mine,” he said. “I pulled around to the fuel point and I’m standing there with my right hand refueling with the nozzle. All of a sudden, I look back and a ball of fire comes at me. The next thing I know, I’m on the ground. I’m on fire, I’m looking at myself, I see the flames.”
Covered with low-grade jet fuel, he started rolling to put out the fire and was able to reach a fire extinguisher to douse the flames. Medics arrived and transported him to an aid station in a makeshift ambulance.
“I heard somebody say, ‘the catheter’s in,’” West said. “I woke up in San Antonio. I don’t remember anything else.”
West, whose burns covered 40.5% of his body, was in the intensive care unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, with his wife, Megan, at his side. He had been in a medically induced coma for roughly two and half months and wouldn’t be released from Brooke until September. He would undergo dozens of surgeries or procedures, rehab and group therapy while he was in San Antonio and another seven surgeries after the couple moved to Huntsville, their home for more than a decade.
West, 42, who was medically retired in November 2008, was the grand marshal of the 2023 Veterans Day Parade on Saturday.
West and his wife, Megan, have three children: Jayden, 18, Treysen, 15, and Allie, 11. He is now a government civilian employee under the Program Executive Office for Aviation and Megan is a therapist with Veterans Affairs.
West credits his wife for being “my strength” throughout his recovery, supporting and motivating him. He’s also grateful for inspiration from another patient, Sgt. Merlin German, a Marine who sustained burns across 97% of his body from a roadside bomb blast in Iraq.
West was depressed because of the pain he experienced and not being able to go outside because of the intense San Antonio heat. One day at the hospital, West noticed German with his mother at the hospital.
“The dude was just happy as always, telling jokes, smiling, listening to music,” West said. “I said, if he can be this happy, why am I so down on myself? I changed my mood. I owe all that to Merlin,” who died in 2008.
West noted two programs that are “dear to my heart.” One, the Vail Veterans Program, which provides rehabilitative sports and recreation activities free-of-charge to wounded warriors and their families. And, after his family relocated to Huntsville, he found assistance and resources from the Semper Fi Community Task Force, and now serves on its board of directors.
West is a member o
f the programmatic panel of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs’ Military Burn Research Program, serving as a consumer advocate.
West still experiences chronic hand pain with nerve damage and nerve damage in his right foot.
“Sometimes I feel like I have concrete in my joints,” he said.
Yet, he said that joining the military at age 20 when he was living in Great Falls, Montana, was “like a godsend for me.”
He and a good friend joined together, “right after 9/11 because of 9/11 when America was attacked.”
Their motivation: “protecting the people that we love back home. You’ve got to protect your people, the people you love.”