By Ben Sherman, Fort Sill CannoneerSeptember 28, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. (Sept. 28, 2012) -- For Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Ferguson, the Army's been his life since he went through basic and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sill when he was 19 years old.
He went on to airborne school at Fort Bragg, and eventually became part of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry. That unit was reformed in 2005 as the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division at Fort Richardson, Alaska. From there Ferguson was deployed to Afghanistan, and then Iraq, where he was wounded in 2007.
After having his left leg amputated, struggling through multiple surgeries and rehabilitation, he eventually found himself facing depression and considering suicide.
"We were hit by an explosively formed projectile while on patrol near Hillah, Iraq," Ferguson said. "I felt that we were lucky because normally when one of those hits a vehicle, four out of five people in the vehicle get killed. Everybody in our vehicle was injured, and my injuries were the worst. The fragments went through my left leg and got a good deal of my right leg as well. They eventually amputated my left leg, and there was extensive nerve damage in the right leg."
Ferguson's best friend was Sgt. 1st Class James Joslin, B Company, 4th BCT. They had been friends since they served in the 82nd Airborne in the '90s. He remembers when he heard Ferguson had been wounded.
"When we were deployed to Iraq, I was up in Fallujah and he went down to Hillah. After a while I got a two-line text message from him that said, 'Hey dude, they done blowed me up!'" Joslin said.
"By the time I got that message, he was at Walter Reed because he got hit while on patrol. I was in-country for another eight months, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it."
At first Ferguson didn't let his injuries slow him down as he was recovering at Walter Reed hospital. He was fitted with a special experimental prosthetic leg designed for high-activity patients.
"There are less than 50 of the X3s in the world. Our wounded population is younger, higher activity and they are looking for guys like me who will put it to the test. I've broken it three times already, just pushing my activities to the limit," Ferguson said. "I wanted to go back on active-duty with the prosthetic leg."
"There was a lot of care and support at Walter Reed. I was surrounded by people with similar injuries and backgrounds, so there was a community of support there," he said. "They told me I was the fastest above-knee amputee to get out of Reed and transfer back to my home station. I don't know if they were just telling me that to boost my ego or not, but I was in heaven when I got back to Alaska."
After Ferguson was back home things started getting harder as he became a lot more aware of his injuries.
"I wasn't surrounded by people with similar injuries, in similar situations. People were treating me differently without meaning to. I wore shorts all the time so people could see why I was limping," he said. He took wearing shorts to the extreme, even in January while running around in sub-zero temperatures in the snow, in his wheelchair.
"I came inside after being out most of the day, and people looked at me and said, 'What's wrong with your leg?' I looked down and my right leg was purple. It was in the first stages of frostbite and I couldn't even feel the cold in my right leg because of the nerve damage. So I started wearing pants after that," he said.
His battle buddy Joslin put it in more direct terms.
"When he first got back to Alaska there was a smokescreen that he was putting up. It wasn't the meds, it was his overarching desire to make everything normal again. He was trying to tough it out, be the alpha dog he had always been. He wanted to do it all by himself, to do everything," Joslin said. "He started going too hard, too fast, and doing too much. He hurt himself again, which caused him to have to go back to Walter Reed."
This time when Ferguson went back to Walter Reed things were very different. He had gone through rehab at a blistering pace the first time, just to get back to Alaska. But pushing himself made him realize that things would never be the same as he thought they would.
"I was going through a lot of stuff at that time. Getting back up to Alaska was such a high, but then I had to deal with being stuck in a wheelchair. Everything kept breaking on my artificial leg. I felt like I was letting my wife and family down because we had to move back to D.C. for me to have more surgeries. I got to a pretty dark place emotionally," Ferguson said.
Joslin became very concerned about Ferguson's situation after he went back for more surgeries.
"I thought to myself, what is this going to do to him, to who he is? He's a hunter, a fisherman. He could out-do me in PT and I have two healthy legs. He was in excellent physical shape. How was he going to be from here on out, now that he had to become a whole different person?" Joslin wondered.
Ferguson was lucky though, because he had his wife, Danielle. She was as strong as he was and as determined to not abandon him, but be there every moment.
"My wife just knows when I get those dark thoughts or urges. I've never been to the point of setting there with a gun in my hand waiting to do it. I've never been like that. But the dark thoughts are definitely there, and she knows that. She'll look at me sometimes and say 'You're thinking about it, aren't you?' And that sort of slaps you back to reality," said Ferguson.
He explained often people would know there was something wrong with him but they didn't know what to do.
"Some other people guessed there was something going on with me, but they never said anything. But my wife and Joslin knew there was something going on. I don't know if there was a rumor I was extremely suicidal or what, but there were times when my moods would change and the way people dealt with me would change.
"And, Joslin was just there, when I needed him. It wasn't like some line from a corny video 'Hey buddy, you look like you're getting ready to kill yourself. Let's go hang out.' He was just there when I was scared to be alone. Because, often the hardest part is being alone with yourself."
"I didn't think about suicide, but I did think that it would be better if I wasn't there, you know, just disappear off the face of the earth," he said.
He went on to say that, in the winter of 2007-08, there were a lot of wolf attacks outside of Fort Richardson. Runners, joggers and even dogs were being attacked by wolves and the people were warned to not go out there. But Ferguson would go in his motorized wheelchair and plow through the heavy snow, just to have fun.
"I always had a revolver in my lap when I was out there," he said. "I guess I was kind of tempting fate. I figured that if the wolves attacked, I would only have six shots and whatever happened, would happen."
Joslin understood what Ferguson was doing and was very concerned about how to help him.
"We don't rely on others; they rely on us. We accept that, because we're alpha males, alpha dogs. That's why we jump out of airplanes like we do," Joslin said. "You have to observe your fellow Soldiers and see what is going on with them. Ferguson was pushing himself so hard, breaking prosthetic legs left and right. I had to ask him whether he was trying to keep himself busy so that he wouldn't have to think about where the future was headed."
Ferguson realized what he was doing and sought help.
"I was fortunate and blessed to have my wife Danielle, and my buddy Joslin. They encouraged me to contact Army One Source, and they hooked me up with a [psychiatrist] and that helped. Not everybody has got somebody to talk to, but there are groups that can help," he said.
Joslin put it in more straight forward terms.
"If you make yourself available to those who are hurting, you will see the signs. But friendship is work. Family is work. If you make yourself available to your buddy, eventually you will talk about what's going on," he said. "But if you make yourself unavailable, you will find that your buddy hasn't shown up at work for a couple of days, and somebody will find him in his garage."
"Everybody will say 'Well, didn't you know? No, I was too busy.' What were you doing that was so time-consuming, and kept you so busy that you couldn't talk to you friend? Be there for your buddies, for your friends. Get them help before it is too late," Joslin said.
Ferguson still struggles with adjusting to life with the prosthetic leg, and he's on more medication than he wants to be. But, he feels like he is making progress towards the future. A future that is different than what he envisioned, but a future he wants to be part of. He has a wife and three small children, and he wants to be there for them. That's what kept him from slipping into that dark place and not coming back out.
"Soldiers who find themselves in that dark place, having those feelings, should get help," he said. "Don't leave that legacy to your kids, if you know what I mean. Because sometimes in life you have the feeling it doesn't really matter whether you are there or not, but it matters to your kids, your family and your friends."