COPPERAS COVE — James Lewis says he does not remember much of anything about the massive explosion that rocked the Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle he was riding in that day during the war in Iraq.
“I can’t remember exactly which year it was, but I want to say it was in 2004,” said Lewis, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant and longtime resident of Copperas Cove. “My memory’s not as good as it used to be, with TBI (traumatic brain injury).
“An IED (improvised explosive device) hit our vehicle. I had a concussion and it also hit my lower back. I don’t have much recollection of it. We had two KIAs (killed in action), but I don’t remember anything. The first thing I remember is waking up at the cash (CSH — combat support hospital). I remember waking up and being in a lot of pain. I kinda figured out what had happened after I looked around and saw where I was.”
Lewis, a 47-year-old self-described Army brat, was born in Seoul, South Korea. His dad was a first sergeant who served 28 years in uniform.
When he was three years old, the family came to central Texas and has been here ever since, except for a few years when they all lived in Germany. Lewis attended Hettie Halstead Elementary School in Copperas Cove, went to middle school overseas, then came back for junior high and high school. He graduated from Cove High in 1994.
At that point, his life sort of lacked direction, and then one day he saw a television commercial that changed everything.
“I had no plan,” Lewis said. “I was kind of lost in the sauce, to be honest. I did a couple odd jobs, then … the funny story was, I saw a commercial about joining the military. Be all you could be, and all that. I said to myself, well, my dad was in the Army (so) maybe I can do that.
“I went to a recruiter’s office (in Killeen) and they were out to lunch. One of them saw me sitting out there waiting, and he said, ‘Hey, son, what you doing?’
“I said, ‘I’m waiting on the Marines recruiter.’
“He said, ‘You know, you’re too ugly to be a Marine. I tell you what, though … you come on in and I’ll sign you up.’ I actually believed him, and that’s how I got into the Army.”
Before long, the teenager was off to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. It was a fairly easy transition into military life, Lewis said.
“I grew up with a dad who was in the Army, and he was pretty darn strict on me, so it didn’t really bother me too much,” he said. “Plus, it was a funny time frame back then. It was hard, but at the same time, there was a transition going on where the drill sergeants kind of took it easy on you a bit.
“We didn’t have the stress cards when I came in, but that had started to come — you could tell. I’ve seen the cards before, but I don’t know if they’ve actually been used or not.”
After basic, Lewis stayed at Fort Jackson for AIT (advanced individual training) to learn to be a light-wheel vehicle mechanic.
His first duty station was at Fort Hood, where he served for a year before heading overseas to Germany and the former Yugoslavia. He spent five years overall at Fort Hood and served three Middle East deployments during his career that officially ended when he was medically retired in 2016.
The first trip to Iraq — when he was injured by the bomb blast — was a tough one, Lewis says, but his third deployment was even more difficult.
“I came back here after the first deployment, went over there again from 2003-04, did one more deployment with the 1st I.D. in Germany from ’06 to ’08, then came back to Hood. From there, they sent me to a WTU (wounded transition unit),” he said. “I had PTSD, breathing problems, back problems. Apparently, I had fractured my back and didn’t know it.
“That first deployment was bad, but my last deployment was pretty rough. It was the 1st Infantry Division, and we had a lot of KIAs. Heartaches. Regret. Survivor’s guilt. You kind of question yourself … Why am I still here?
“I got out in 2010 but I didn’t officially retire until 2016. I’m considered fully (medically) retired.
“I didn’t want to get out, so I had a huge chip on my shoulder. They gave me no choice. They told me I had too many injuries. It was depressing (and) hard to deal with, and in the beginning, I drank … I guess it was about a year.
“It wasn’t easy. I went through a divorce, and then my wife, Windie, helped me a lot. She put her foot down and kind of gave me that backbone I needed again.”
After he got himself straightened out, Lewis took a job as a corrections officer with a prison in Gatesville, but his health problems would not let him continue for very long. The father of six who has been married to Windie for seven years now is “retired-retired,” but stays busy working around the house and serving as assistant cubmaster for Cub Scouts Pack 251 in Copperas Cove, the same Cub Scouts pack he was a member of as a kid. Windie serves as assistant Arrows leader.
Lewis also is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and enjoys woodworking and drawing. Looking back on his decision to join the military and the way his career ended, he says he is proud of his service and does not have any regrets.
“Now, after everything is said and done, I think it was a blessing,” he said. “The military helped me out a lot. It gave me self-discipline, respect ... and, of course, maturity came with it.
“It’s not an easy life. It’s not made for everybody. Anybody can do what we do, but doing it day in and day out is difficult. Having somebody tell you what to do, when to do it, what to wear. There’s no such thing as a day off.
“I did all types of jobs in the military. I did a lot of grunt work. I still miss the military. I just don’t miss the politics that goes with it.
“The best part of my military career was my last deployment. I met some of the greatest guys there. It was the best part but also the worst part, because I lost so many good friends.”
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