Marine is recovering at home from injuries he sustained while in Iraq

WILLMAR -- Less than one month after being seriously injured in Iraq, Marine Lance Cpl. Jesse Ortega is recovering with the help of his family in Willmar.

WILLMAR -- Less than one month after being seriously injured in Iraq, Marine Lance Cpl. Jesse Ortega is recovering with the help of his family in Willmar.

One thought preoccupies his recovery: "I wish I were back with my unit,'' said Ortega, a member of Kilo Company, 3rd Platoon, of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

Although the 20-year-old Marine still faces months of therapy and recovery, Ortega said the hardest part of his experience has been the separation from his fellow Marines. He said he thinks often about how things are going for them in Iraq.

They have been doing their share of thinking about him as well, and so have many others, according to his brother-in-law, Jason Schwab of Willmar.

Messages and well wishes from Ortega's fellow Marines, along with cards, letters and prayers from hundreds if not thousands of other people, have all helped Ortega as he recovered, Schwab said.


The support from the Willmar community has been a big part of his recovery, according to family members. Ortega returned to Willmar on Wednesday after a nearly three-week stay at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The facility is more commonly known as the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

He is staying at the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Lourdez and Jason Schwab. He is joined here by his mother Clementia as well.

Ortega and his unit were on duty in Haditha, Iraq, a city near the western border with Syria when he was injured on Nov. 15. Ortega said he was on foot patrol and only about 50 feet from the safety of base when an improvised explosive device was remotely detonated by an insurgent.

Ortega and an assistant gunner were injured by the blast, with Ortega suffering the worst of it.

"I was walking and all of a sudden I heard the blast, and flew from the blast,'' he said.

The explosion sent fiery metal shrapnel ripping through the flesh on the left side of his body. It destroyed the inner workings of his left ear, tore a piece of flesh from his head, and peppered his left arm and leg.

Ortega said he remembers trying to crawl to safety. His vision and everything around him seemed "shaky,'' he said. He said he remembers seeing or feeling a glow around his body and the protection of angels.

He was hoisted into a medical helicopter, and that is where his memory halts. He spent two days at a medical facility in Baghdad and two subsequent days at a hospital in Germany.


His memory begins again after his arrival at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where much of his experience still seems like being in a dream, he said.

Family members arrived at the medical center only one hour after he did to be at his side.

Surgeons devoted more than 12 hours to removing the damaged tissue of his inner ear and repairing the shrapnel-shredded flesh on the left side of his body. Doctors removed one piece of shrapnel that had lodged in his head against a major artery, but had not pierced it.

He has lost the hearing in his left ear, but his prospects for recovery are good. His shrapnel-torn, left leg initially felt as if its muscles had been turned inside out by the blast, but is now feeling much better, said Ortega.

He and his platoon had arrived in September for duty in Iraq. They took part in Operation River Gate to regain control of Haditha from insurgents. Ortega said they had expected a fire fight, but the insurgents had already fled the city.

Prior to their arrival, the U.S. Army had alerted the city's residents that the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was on its way. The unit was well-known to insurgents for its front-line role one year earlier in Fallujah, according to Ortega.

Duty in Haditha for the Marines mainly involved foot patrols and night security on the rooftops of buildings. Ortega said citizens in the town were welcoming to the Marines, and he enjoyed tossing candy to children.

He said the Marines were also well aware of the danger that lurked. They received tips from citizens and sometimes could spot the insurgents who often hid in the palm groves outside the city.


One week after his own arrival at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Ortega said a fellow member of his unit arrived. He had suffered injuries when an improvised explosive device was detonated under his Humvee.

The insurgent who detonated the explosive that injured Ortega was captured and arrested only moments after the blast, he said.

Ortega is expected to receive a Purple Heart for his service. He said he would love nothing more than to return to the Marines and his unit, but said he is expecting a medical discharge due to the extent of his injuries.

His plans are to focus on his recovery and go to college. Most of all, he wants to make a trip to Camp Pendleton in California when his unit returns from Iraq.

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