Iraq Veteran’s Long Journey Back to Microsoft

John West doesn’t have a very clear memory of the day a roadside bomb ripped through the bottom of his Humvee near Baghdad, killing a colleague and nearly paralyzing him.

But the Microsoft employee and military veteran does have vivid memories of the mentally and physically grueling journey back from that day in 2004—back to Washington state, back to walking, and back to the job he loves.

John West in a bunker at Camp Anaconda 50 miles northwest of Baghdad.

His journey impressed many who know how hard it is to recover from an injury such as the one West sustained, including military colleagues and doctors who said they are amazed he was able to go back to work.

“But then again, they don’t realize what an awesome environment I work in, nor how much I love what I do, nor how much I enjoy working with the people I get to work with,” said West, a software developer at Microsoft.

West, who was serving in the Army National Guard when he was injured, was given an honorable medical discharge in 2005 and received a Purple Heart medal and other awards for his service.

As of today, Veterans Day in the United States, more than 4,200 American soldiers have been killed and more than 30,000 injured since the start of U.S. engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. West is a living, breathing tribute to the weight of those numbers.

The winding journey that brought him to Microsoft, then to Iraq, and then back to Microsoft started when he joined the Marines in high school in 1984. Soon after enlisting, West was stationed on aircraft carriers that ported in North Carolina, the Philippines and Japan. He was an electrician who worked on the EA-6B Prowler, an electronic-warfare aircraft.

West spent four years in the Marines, earning a two-year degree in science along the way. He then worked on a fishing boat in Alaska and at an aircraft company in California. In 1995, West got a temporary job at Microsoft repairing hardware.

Although he eventually was laid off, he knew what he wanted—a full-time job with the company. After a year and eight interviews, his persistence paid off and he found a good fit as a phone support engineer for Microsoft Money.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, West was overwhelmed by a sense of duty. He tried to re-enlist in the Marines, who told West, then 35, that he was too old. So he joined the Army National Guard. “I just really felt—especially when 9/11 hit—that war was brewing, and I felt like it was my duty to stand up and be counted for our team,” he said.

Though his Microsoft experience made him a candidate for technical jobs, West insisted that he wanted to be in “combat arms—part of the tip of the sword.” He trained hard and passed a number of physical and marksmanship tests to become an Army scout, part of an elite special operations force.

In 2003, West’s reserve battalion was called up to serve in Iraq, which meant temporarily leaving his job as a software developer to serve as a full-time soldier. After several months of training, he and his battalion were shipped to Iraq where he served for eight months.

West’s Humvee after it was hit by a bomb embedded in the road.

In Iraq, West worked on a team that provided security for the Anaconda supply base, located 50 miles northwest of Baghdad.

He was part of a four-man team that hunted insurgents who were firing mortars into the Anaconda camp. The team also swept nearby houses looking for weapons caches and kept watch at night trying to catch insurgents setting up improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

While he was there, West needed an intellectual challenge, so he coded during his free time. He also exchanged e-mails with his Microsoft supervisor, Greg Heino, writing from a bunker at the supply base to let Heino know what coding he was working on and how things were going in Iraq.

“I’d be in the middle of e-mailing him, and the sirens would sound if the radar caught mortar coming in,” West said. “They usually come in threes, so sometimes after the first one I’d be stuck in the bunker for a while, e-mailing and getting mortared. I’d tell Greg that, and he’d e-mail me back and be like, ‘Oh my God!'”

West also taught himself conversational Arabic and spent a lot of time talking to the locals trying to gain their trust.

On a particularly hot, relatively quiet day in August 2004, West was with a four-Humvee caravan patrolling the streets outside Anaconda.

“We should have known that there’s no such thing as a safe day or a day that something’s not going to happen. All of a sudden, all hell breaks loose,” West said.

His vehicle rolled over a bomb that had been buried in the road. The explosion was so powerful that it flipped the Humvee upside down in a deep crater.

For the first few moments after West woke up, he was disoriented and thought he was in his bunk. Then, he tasted cordite and realized he was hanging nearly upside down, suspended by his seat belt.

West in a special chair he uses at Microsoft. The chair helps ease the chronic pain from his back injuries.

Because of his injuries and the deep crater, West couldn’t move. One of the four soldiers in the Humvee later died from his injuries. West and another were severely injured. The fourth was unhurt and helped secure the area while frantically helping to dig West and the others out.

West had been blasted with shrapnel when the bomb exploded almost directly between his legs. Though he was wearing body armor, the force of the explosion injured him severely.

The explosion punctured his right lung and tore his scrotum. His pelvis was badly fractured in three places, and he broke his leg and heel bone. Several of his vertebrae burst, and he fractured multiple other spinal bones. In the hospital, doctors later found that his spleen and pancreas were bleeding and that his gallbladder was infected.

After an initial surgery at Anaconda to stabilize him, West was moved to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he had more surgery to stop his internal bleeding and to stabilize him for the flight back to the United States.

West spent one month in late summer 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where doctors “screwed everything back in.” They placed metal girders in his back and screws in his pelvis. Then his gallbladder became gangrenous and needed to be removed.

“I thought my body was just going to throw in the towel,” West said. “I asked them to take me to Washington state. I figured if I was going to die, I wanted to do it in my state.”

West was moved to Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma, where his gallbladder was safely removed.

It was then that doctors started trying to prepare West for a new reality.

“They initially started teaching me how to use a wheelchair,” West said. “I did the 2002 Seattle Marathon, and all of a sudden I couldn’t walk. It was bizarre to think that getting up and going to the restroom was beyond me.”

West demonstrated his characteristic persistence and insisted on more intense physical therapy. He wanted to walk again. And by early 2005, he did.

“I managed to teach myself not to walk with a cane. I can actually fool people more times than not,” West says of wandering the corridors and campus at Microsoft. “I do tend to stay really close to walls.”

Though he deals with constant pain, West is ecstatic about being able to work. He even has a special chair in his office to help reduce the pressure on his spine. But learning to walk again and enduring the lingering physical pain of his injuries was only part of West’s battle in returning to work. The calm and quiet of Microsoft’s Redmond campus was bewildering for him at first.

“It was very strange to be around everyone and that no one behaved as if we were at war,” he said. “I was very used to everything being about the war. It was difficult. I knew people were fighting and dying overseas. It was like going to a different planet.”

West also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something found in an estimated one in eight soldiers returning from war. PTSD usually develops after a person witnesses or experiences a traumatic event, and symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares and sleeplessness.

For the first few years after he returned, West found that a number of sights, sounds and smells would leave him sweaty and nervous, with his pulse pounding. All it would take was the smell of ammonia, a door slamming loudly, or a box sitting on the side of the road.

At home, his wife, Jiaofeng, and stepdaughter, Shirley, 9, would comfort him and help him feel safe. At work, West felt comfortable going to his colleagues or supervisor when something caused him to stress. He still relies on his family and coworkers to help him. “I have to say, my team is really supportive. They’ll talk to me. Distract me. If I need someone to sit with me for a while, they’re always right there for me,” West said.

West said he is grateful to work for a company that is wholly supportive of its military reservists and veterans. Apart from keeping his job for him, Microsoft insured his family while he was away and paid him the difference between his military salary and his Microsoft salary the entire time he was at war and recovering.

“It isn’t always pretty when someone comes back from war, but from what I’ve seen, this company has a very supportive policy of veterans getting the space and time they need to recover,” West said. “At a time when everyone’s talking about cutbacks, that’s a really powerful message. Microsoft’s saying, ‘You don’t cut back on this.'”

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