Former Air Force K9 handler Jamie Mangan adopted Rex, her bomb-sniffing dog, after they returned home from Iraq.
Former Air Force K9 handler Jamie Mangan adopted Rex, her bomb-sniffing dog, after they returned home from Iraq. Peter Breslow/NPR
Courtesy of Jamie Mangan
Jamie reunited with Rex at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She thought the German shepherd had died in the explosion.
Jamie reunited with Rex at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She thought the German shepherd had died in the explosion. Courtesy of Jamie Mangan
The U.S. has been at war for more than seven years, yet the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan directly touch very few Americans. Most of those who have paid the price are members of the all-volunteer military and their families.
Weekend Edition's four-part "Impact of War" series is a collaboration with member stations and NPR's Impact Of War project. These stories explore how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected service members and their loved ones.
The Impact Of War project is an outreach effort to NPR member station reporters around the country to help increase local coverage of the experiences and sacrifices of U.S. troops and their communities.
More In This Series
Vegas, an Arabian horse, was a gift from entertainer Wayne Newton, who visited Jamie at Walter Reed.
Vegas, an Arabian horse, was a gift from entertainer Wayne Newton, who visited Jamie at Walter Reed. Peter Breslow/NPR
Courtesy of Jamie Mangan
After Jamie's Humvee was hit by an IED blast, the vehicle flipped several times. Rex was thrown from one of the windows.
After Jamie's Humvee was hit by an IED blast, the vehicle flipped several times. Rex was thrown from one of the windows. Courtesy of Jamie Mangan
On a raw December day in northwestern Pennsylvania, Jamie Mangan walks through her farm near the town of Smethport. Her pride and joy is an exceptionally affectionate Arabian horse.
"This is Vegas," Jamie says. "He likes to talk to me. He's from Las Vegas — he was a Wayne Newton horse. Wayne Newton came to the hospital to visit the wounded soldiers when I was there, and he was one of Wayne Newton's horses. ... He's my buddy."
Jamie used to be an avid rider, but these days she mostly keeps her boots on the ground. Riding can be painful and exhausting for the former Air Force K-9 handler because of the catastrophic injuries she sustained while serving in Iraq.
Healing On The Farm
Late afternoon is feeding time at Wounded Acres, Jamie's 80-acre spread. Vegas is chowing down with a couple of the other dozen horses that live here. Scattered around the corrals and barns are nine cats, three dogs and one goat. Assorted tropical fish reside inside. These creatures help bring solace and order to a life thrown into chaos on June 25, 2005 — the day Jamie's Humvee hit an IED and was blown up outside Kirkuk, Iraq.
Her 100-year-old farmhouse is filled with things equine. The walls of the kitchen are lined with plates bearing head shots of different breeds. The blue ribbons her show horses won, small horse figures and glittery carousels fill the shelves and cabinets.
Jamie plops down on the couch with the two most significant members of her menagerie: Rex and Mike. Rex is an 8-year-old bomb-sniffing German shepherd. He was blown out of Jamie's Humvee after they searched a village outside Kirkuk. Rex suffered a singed nose, but Jamie thought he was dead.
Mike is the Army medic who helped save her life that day in Iraq. And he later became her husband.
The Rescue Day
"We were in the convoy," Jamie says. "The device had actually been buried in the middle of the road and had been paved over at some point. And later on, what they decided was that whoever it was was actually aiming to get the dog team, and they waited until my vehicle went over the device and ...detonated it. From what I was told, it flipped my vehicle a couple of times and rolled my vehicle several more times. And I don't know what happened from there."
Her husband was one of the medics on the first helicopter that landed by the attack site.
"We had to take a rapid assessment of who we could help and who we couldn't," Mike says. "If we had been five minutes later on the scene, and she had been decaying at the rate she was decaying, when we got there, we would have looked at her and said, 'She's unsaveable,' and may have left her there."
Jamie was rushed by helicopter to a small field hospital in Kirkuk with tremendous internal bleeding.
"They opened me up at Kirkuk," she says. "That's where I got my big scar. It basically runs from my neck all the way down to my pelvic area, because they weren't sure if I had blood in my chest. My diaphragm had been ruptured, so my internal organs were up in my chest cavity, some of them. Both my lungs were collapsed. My spleen was ruptured, which was where I was bleeding out from. They got me stable there for the most part, and that's when I went to Germany."
From Germany, Jamie was transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"I had an open abdomen for about six weeks because it was so distended, they couldn't close it. And in the end, when they did close it about six weeks later, they actually used a titanium mesh that holds my muscles and abdominal wall together," she says. "And then, of course, they wired my sternum back together. So they weren't actually able to repair my pelvis and my spine until the end of August. And when they did that, they put six screws in my pelvis and two pins in my spine."
Retiring Rex From The Military
Jamie spent four months at Walter Reed. She met Wayne Newton, was awarded the Purple Heart and discovered that her beloved Rex was alive.
"They told me he was coming to visit," she says. "And they told me he was coming down the hall. Rex knows me by whistle, so I whistle, and he came in and jumped up on my bed with his front feet, and then he jumped up the whole way. And I had IV lines everywhere and all kinds of tubes and stuff connected to me, and he was getting all tangled up in them and people were spazzing out. I didn't care. He was there. I was happy."
During her recovery, she began the difficult process of trying to adopt Rex. He was a healthy trained dog, and the regulations stated that he couldn't be spared from duty. But Jamie's plight generated heavy publicity. Eventually, Congress passed a bill to allow for exceptions to the adoption rules. President Bush signed the bill into law, and the White House sent Jamie and Rex an invitation to a State of the Union address.
"Rex was the first dog ever to actually get an invitation to the State of the Union," she says.
Meeting The Man Who Saved Her Life
Jamie returned to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, and her first marriage to another serviceman fell apart. But around this time, Mike Mangan, who was home from Iraq, realized that the K9 handler he had heard stories about was the same woman whom he had helped save near Kirkuk. A friend persuaded him to get in touch.
"On the way home, I picked up my phone and I called her," he says, "and basically apologized for any new wounds that she may have had, and we spoke for about 45 minutes on the phone before I was standing in my driveway, realizing it's getting even later."
Jamie says that talking to Mike gave her closure. "I think, in a sense, it was also helping him out — to see all the negative stuff he saw over there and the terrible things and the terrible memories — to have a positive story to put to it. It was kind of healing for both of us. So that was what initially got us started."
Their relationship developed, and they've been married for two years. Both have retired from military service and now live on land adjacent to the farm where Jamie grew up.
Life After Combat
Jamie is 29 years old, blonde and rarely smiles. She walks a bit stiffly sometimes, but there is little evidence of her injuries. Mike is 48, and short, wiry and intense. Both volunteer for the local fire and rescue companies.
Their marriage may read like a storybook, but real life is tough. Although she still suffers from the effects of the explosion, Jamie works as an abuse investigator for the county's child protection services and is studying for her masters degree in social work.
"I'm probably not going to get any better from where I am, from what I'm told," she says. "My head injury — I'm obviously functional. I have memory problems, I have problems with mood swings. I have problems being in social situations. I don't like, really, to talk to people. I have problems with school when I have to memorize stuff. ... I can write papers because that's hands-on; I'm right there. But when it comes to actually memorizing things and taking a test, I have a very, very hard time with it."
But with the help of her colleagues and a lot of Post-it notes, Jamie does her job well. Mike works as an emergency room nurse, and Jamie says he's always there to support her.
"Mike wants to help," she says. "Mike wants to fix it, and there are a lot of things with me that you can't fix. You need to leave me alone. And he doesn't like to do that. He wants to be there. He wants to fix it, and it just makes it worse. So I think it works so well that he works the shift he does because I can come home and be alone while he's at work."
Mike considers it a kind of miracle that today, he's sitting next to the badly injured woman he rescued and transported to the field hospital in Iraq. That scene is still fresh in his mind.
"There was just heat," he says. "There was the smell of overheated blood in the room that you couldn't get away from. It was on our uniforms, all over our boots. And then, about a year later, she's sitting right there. We're driving into the mountains of Colorado. And she's talking. She's got thoughts. She's a person. She's not just like a slab of combat wounded meat we had to tie together."
Jamie can't recall many of the details of the bomb blast, but she says the amnesia can be a blessing.
"It's kind of warped sometimes," she says, "but I don't get stressed about it because I just don't remember. Even the parts I do remember don't bother me. I mean, I remember being in the pain, and I remember going through the recovery, and I remember a lot of the hallucinations I used to have when I was in ICU. But the way I look at it, I'm in one piece. I recovered. I have absolutely no room to complain when so many of them didn't."
'She's Just A Little Girl'
Besides Mike and Rex, there is another constant in Jamie's life: her father, Randy Himes, who lives on the farm next-door. He says his very first airplane flight was to Germany to see his injured daughter. He still hasn't shaken the initial image of Jamie in the hospital.
"Well, when I came in through the door into the room," Himes says, "she was laying there with all the tubes and wires, and her face was black and blue, and her head was swollen up. The first thing that come to my mind was, she's just a little girl, you know? And what those people did over there, she's just a little girl, you know?"
Looking at his daughter curled up with Mike and Rex, Himes worries about her future.
"She's handling it pretty good now," Himes says. "But I'm sure that life is probably going to be pretty tough. I would have to say that all those injuries are going to come to the surface. And there for a long time, she was pretty intent on having a baby. And that just scares the hell out of me. Her pelvis is held together with screws.
"What are you laughing about?" he says to Jamie. "I suppose you're pregnant."
"Not," she replies. "He's the one that wants a kid. Not me."
"And that mesh in her stomach is still there," her father says. "It scares me."
"There's no plan for kids," Jamie interrupts. "All my kids have four legs."
Finding Peace With Animals
The hardness in Jamie's face melts away when she's doting on her pets at Wounded Acres.
"Being with the animals, it's peaceful," she says. "They don't expect anything from you. You don't have to talk to them. You don't have to explain anything. They just want you to love them and take care of them. ... Gives you a chance to — I don't want to say heal — but it just gives you a time to go blank and just do what you're doing. And then they love you just the same. If you're brushing them, they're just standing there. They'll nuzzle you or kiss you or whatever the case may be. They just let you relax and be you."
Producer Ailsa Chang contributed to this report.