Pa. Marine’s national award helps with growing family
SWARTHMORE — Last fall, Marine Sgt. Jason Simms was chosen from among 800 nominees as the 2013 Dickies American Hero of the Year Award.
Simms and his wife Alana are expecting a baby in May.
They’ll name him Ryder, in memory of one of Simms’ friends who died in the 2004 attack in which Simms was seriously wounded. The couple is using the prize money from the Dickies award to set up the nursery and other expenses that new babies bring.
Dickies, a maker of work clothes, takes nominations of military members, active or retired, and their families who are “making an impact,” according to its “American Hero of the Year” website. It’s clear that Simms’ friend, Lance Cpl. Timothy Creager, made an impact on him.
Creager, Simms said, was killed in an IED explosion July 1, 2004 in outside Fallujah. Creager was from Tennessee and had won bull-riding awards before joining the Marines. That day in Iraq, they were driving in their light armored vehicle and talking.
“He was talking about bull riding, and I was telling him that since I am from Philly, I know nothing about it,” Simms wrote in an email. “So he said to me, ‘Hey Simms, when we get back to the states, I’m going to take your city butt out for some bull riding.’ As soon as he finished saying that, the IED went off and he was killed instantly, so that was the last thing he said.”
Simms said he and Alana talked about how to honor Creager.
“…instead of naming our son Tim, we decided to name him Ryder, as in a bull rider,” Simms wrote. “I have to admit that Alana came up with the idea, but when she told me, I thought it was a perfect way to honor my friend, so that’s how we came up with the name Ryder.”
Simms’ memories of his friend’s death are intertwined with his own injuries sustained during the attack. He was on routine patrol as part of Delta Company’s 3rd Platoon, 2nd division (LAR) Light Armored Reconnaissance when the IED went off.
His hands caught fire, and when he tried to take off his helmet, his face and head caught fire. He tried to climb out of the vehicle and three bullets hit his right leg. Other Marines tried to put out the flames, and loaded him into the platoon leader’s vehicle.
Simms was taken to Germany and then to Brook Army Medical Center, a military burn center, in San Antonio, Texas. He had suffered second- and third-degree burns.
He has not completely recovered.
“I have hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in my legs and feet. I had third-degree burns on (my) hands and face and have had over 20 operations and skin grafts. I lost my pinky finger. They had to remove my sweat glands. I have nerve damage in my legs and feet. If I am on my feet all day, the bottoms of my feet feel like I am walking on jagged metal pieces,” Simms said.
“The IED shrapnel and bullets ripped the tendons and arteries in my right leg, and they had to be reattached and my Achilles tendon extended,” Simms said.
Simms, who is medically retired as a Marine, still must see dermatologists at the VA hospital. He also has post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
But to his wife, he bears those difficulties in an inspiring way.
“Everyone else would never know that he is in pain. What he sees as flaws I see as strengths,” she said.
Simms was surprised when he got the call that he was nominated for the 2013 Dickies American Hero of the Year Award. He didn’t that Alana had nominated him. Alana wrote about his daily struggles, his strength and his determination to help other wounded veterans.
Simms is still humbled by the amount of people who voted for him.
“It is still very overwhelming. Every once in a while I will either run into someone I never met before that says they voted for me, or I will hear from a friend of mine that they ran into someone saying they voted for me,” Simms said. “So it still amazes me that all these people from my hometown and across the country feel I deserved this honor. I am so honored, I don’t think I can find the correct words to express my gratitude to everyone.”
But to Alana, the honor came as no surprise.
“I wanted people to know how truly amazing Jason is,” she said. “To live his life can’t be easy. No one understands what he goes through, the pain he lives with every day. He goes to work, he comes home, and he plays with the kids.”
Simms retired from the Marine Corps in April 2008. It was devastating for him. His dream had been to make the Marine Corps his career.
But he fought back to put himself in a position to share in the camaraderie of fellow soldiers and help other wounded veterans find jobs.
Simms joined the Marine Corps in January 1997 and actually left in 2001 before re-enlisting in April 2003. Then came his deployment to Iraq and his injuries in 2004.
After he was released from the hospital, he was put into the Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. The program intends to provide wounded, ill or injured Marines and their families the help they need to transition to civilian life.
“When I was there I had so many doctors’ appointments, I couldn’t be sent back to my unit,” Simms said. “My main job was to get healthy. Everyone there has been wounded and knows what everyone is going through and can relate to the PTSD and the dreams.”
While he was there, he found out about the job he has now as a human resource specialist helping wounded soldiers find jobs. He works for the Department of the Navy Civilian Human Resources’ Philadelphia office.
Winning the American Hero award, he said, has changed his life in more ways than just helping he and Alana prepare for the baby.
He said he’s been asked to speak at events, was the co-grand marshal of a local Veterans Day parade, and was interviewed on Fox & Friends, a Fox Network program, in addition to other publicity and honors that have come his way.
He is spreading a message that veterans’ skills can transfer to the workplace. Sometimes, he says, veterans believe that’s not the case.
“I was in LAR tanks and I didn’t think I had many skills,” he said. “I never went to college. The people who came to Wounded Warrior Barracks helped me find the skills I had to put together a resume and get a job.”
Simms goes to that same Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp Lejeune and to Semper Fi Odyssey, a holistic retreat in Boswell, Pa., where veterans can learn to make a transition from military service to civilian life. Semper Fi Odyssey was created by retired Marine Maj. Gen. T. S. Jones, who served in the Marines for three decades. Simms travels to different parts of the country talking to wounded veterans about his experience and offering help and hope to them.
“In my job, I get tons of emails from people who want to hire wounded veterans,” Simms said.
“There are all kinds of jobs out there: police officers, security jobs, IT specialists, plumbers and electricians. You can work all over the country, on the East Coast, the West Coast and even out of the country.
“Some of the guys with PTSD think that everyone owes them something. You have to move on, to get what you want.”