Cassie Jacobson remembers how hard it was for her husband, Jon Jacobson, to find his way in life after his return from service in Iraq following an injury that would forever change the way he did even the most basic things.

She recalled a barbecue they threw shortly after his return to the U.S. Cassie was rushing around, manning the grill and hosting guests, when Jon asked her to open a can of beans. When she told him she couldn’t do it, he decided to try himself. After darting outside to check the grill, Cassie returned to find her husband holding the can between his legs and trying to cut it open with a knife. In 2009 while in the service, Jon’s hand had been crushed on an otherwise normal day by a 3,800-pound shipping container that rested on his hand for almost a minute, starting him on a course no one could have expected.

Jon, who now lives with Cassie and their three children in Scott City, spent a total of 10 years in the Army during two tours in Iraq. After he was injured, he temporarily lost the use of his hand. That loss was only temporary because he was determined to overcome his new obstacle, and he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

He said that during his tour in Iraq, he often dealt with some of the “biggest, heaviest equipment in the world,” and his injury, which completely crushed his hand, shows that dangers facing servicemen aren’t confined to battle.

Upon returning home, Jon had a total of 10 surgeries. He said the last surgery performed on him in Wichita gave him enough rotational movement in his arm to do what he is able to do today, which is, surprisingly, a lot.

“I never broke a bone, believe it or not,” Jon said. “But everything that was in my hand, the whole skeletal structure of my hand got pushed up the bottom of my hand. When they pulled my hand out, the fingertips were skinned and the bones were pushed at the bottom.”

 

The long road back

After being sent home, Jon went through occupational therapy for a year. Not only did he have to contend with the difficulties presented by his new injury, but the return to civilian life itself was also stressful. He still doesn’t like to be in crowded places, and because he was a truck driver in Iraq, where roadside explosives often claimed lives, he said even typical days were colored by paranoia that even roads in Kansas could be riddled with explosives.

“That was one part of the transition that was hard,” he said. “It took me awhile. I can drive fine now, but when you’re driving in a personal vehicle and you see a package off in a ditch, I used to catch myself swerving off in the other lane just to avoid my vehicle from getting blown up. That’s just how you naturally drive when you’re over there.”

Cassie said Jon was a military experiment. While injuries like Jon’s usually lead to amputation, she said, the military decided to see what occupational therapy and general surgery could do for him. As he adjusted to civilian life, they would do exercises together, like putting on his uniform to acclimate him to doing as much as he could for himself.

“Just day-to-day simple tasks,” Cassie said. “Even opening a can of beans was impossible.”

She said after they moved to Kansas City upon his return to the U.S., Jon stayed home with their children for about four years. She said one of the hardest things for her as his wife was that Jon became a “shut-in,” and as friends who also served overseas succumbed to suicide one by one, Cassie worried that Jon would never find himself again, that “he was lost.”

Getting Jon to go out was “impossible,” she said, which was hard for her because she considered herself a “socialite.”

“I got to a point where I worried if I was going to come home to a husband,” Cassie said.

 

A new hope

But that’s when something amazing happened. After years of struggling, the love for hunting that had been planted in Jon when he was a child sprouted once again during a turkey hunt hosted by the Wounded Warriors Project at Fort Riley. Cassie said when Jon came home, he was “talking and energetic" not long after the family went to Scott County to attend a Pheasants Forever banquet. In Scott County, Jon was allowed to do more of what he loved — hunting — and a friend he met in Scott City, Blake Duff, hosted pheasant and turkey hunts.

“To me, I saw a different man,” Cassie said of her husband after his time spent in western Kansas hunting. “I saw a husband that he once was and enjoying life when he was doing these things, so I thought, 'We’ve got to make these changes because we can both enjoy life and not just one of us.'”

The pair decided to pack up their stuff and their three kids — Matthew, Joshua and James — and leave the Kansas City area for a simpler life in Scott City, where the Jacobsons have resided for two years now.

Jon began to train himself to hunt again, but he didn’t want to be restricted to a gun, because his rifle, he said, reminded him a little too much of his service in Iraq. While he says he still uses a rifle for bird hunting, for big game he prefers his Mathews bow because it evokes the primitive naturalism of a simpler time. To use the bow, he had to train his hand to pull back the drawstring. His bow, he said, has an adjustable draw weight. The heavier the weight was, the stronger the release of the arrow. Starting with 20 pounds, he worked his way up. He went from 30 pounds to 40 pounds to 50 pounds. He said there were days he would practice for 14 hours, leaving his hand swollen at day’s end.

“I pushed it to the limit, but I was going to keep just going and going and going until I hit it,” he said. And eventually, he hit the sweet spot.

He could pull his drawstring back against 70 pounds of pressure using his injured hand. That hand, he says, is tough now. So tough, that he can use it to bench press the max weight he benched in high school — 315 pounds.

“I just put the bar on my one hand, I put it between my two fingers like I do when I shoot my bow, and I was able to put up 315 pounds three times,” he said. “That just shows you how strong those two fingers are now, just because of the training I did with the bow.”

 

The thrill of the hunt

After he was back up to speed on his hunting abilities, Jon hunted on a TV show called Lost Velvet Outdoors, but that didn’t quite satisfy him. What he really wanted, he said, was to use his hunting abilities to bring other people an unforgettable experience. So he teamed up with Duff, his friend in Scott City, and expanded the hunting business Duff already had going. The business, Prairie Storm Outfitters, is based in Phillips County and encompasses every kind of hunt Kansas has to offer.

Ranging from mule deer, whitetail deer and antelope, to turkey, waterfowl and pheasant, PSO does everything, and even has a new lodge constructed for weekend stays in Phillips County. To date, Jon has been involved with the program for four years, and he said it’s finally starting to turn a profit. He said the program offers discounts to military men and veterans, and he recommended that anyone with a lot of wide open land that might make for a good hunt open up that opportunity to vets looking for a temporary escape.

But as Jon settles into the identity he has carved out for himself even in the face of adversity, he knows he’s lucky. Though he doesn’t consider himself a hero for his service in Iraq, the tenacity with which he reclaimed his life is truly heroic to those close to him, especially his wife.

“I didn’t see that injury the way everybody else saw it,” Cassie said. “He wore long sleeves for a long time. He didn’t want people to see the scarring. Now it’s kind of like a badge of honor for him because of everything he’s overcome. He didn’t stop giving up on trying to continue to do day-to-day tasks, but you could tell he struggled. There were days he would be in absolute pain, but he didn’t say anything… That was hard to watch. The physical injury was difficult, but the mental injury of being told that you can no longer function as a soldier in the U.S. Army was I think the most disheartening thing for him.”

Cassie said their youngest son, James, never knew Jon without his injury, and hardly even sees it. She said James wants to be just like his dad when he grows up: serve in the armed forces and then work with clients to deliver unforgettable experiences.

Cassie still remembers the day, years after that barbecue with the can of beans, when Jon told her he had something to show her.

Using a manual can opener, Jon gripped both handles with his injured hand, “which he had never been able to do,” and demonstrated that he had trained himself to use the tool all on his own.

“It was probably the most exciting moment realizing how far we’ve come over these several years,” Cassie said in tears. “It was big. It was big for us, and I couldn’t believe it, honestly."

Jon said he hopes people see the men who died doing their job as heroes and recognize the soldiers who are injured outside of combat.

“Hunting probably saved my life because the transition was hard,” Jon said. “I’m no hero for what I did, and I never want to be considered a hero. I just did my job. Now there’s guys out there and friends of mine that I don’t have anymore… Those are the guys that are heroes, the guys that didn’t make it home but still went out and did their job.”

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.