When Army Spc. John Thorne arrived at the hospital in Germany, he was taken into a room with a Navy Major chaplain and two military liaisons.
“We want to prepare you for what you’re about to see,” the chaplain told him.
John replied, “Sir, I’ve seen this shit before.” He’d been in the Army for three years at this point, and had seen combat. In fact, he’d been serving in Iraq when he received the news two days earlier that his younger brother, Army Spc. James Thorne, had stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan. He thought he knew what to expect, but didn’t know how bad it would be.
When John got to his brother’s hospital room, it was pitch black. He put on a gown and gloves and a hat – obligatory when visiting burn victims – and walked in.
James was lying in the bed with a neck brace, hooked to a breathing tube and an array of monitors. His right leg all the way up to his pelvis was in an external fixator, which is like a metal cage with pins through it to hold the bones in place. He was suffering from tissue, ligament and muscle damage, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.
“I walk up in there and the only thing that’s covered is his groin area. And he’s just laying there, lifeless,” said John. “I walk up to the bed and I just broke down in tears. I tried to hold myself together.” He grabbed his unconscious brother’s hand, and says he felt him clench back.
James had a 35 percent chance of living, and John was terrified of losing him.
“I felt responsible for raising him, in a way,” John told me. “Because my parents were always working, they weren’t around.”
But James did end up making it. I met both him and John at an event for wounded warriors in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Palazzo Hotel and organized by the Armed Forces Foundation. At first it was hard to believe they were brothers. John, 25, is broad-shouldered and expressive, barreling from one emotion to the other and dominating the conversation. James, 24, spends a lot of time sitting back and listening to his older brother talk. He’s wiry and has a neck tattoo (music notes) and wears a t-shirt advertising some hardcore metal band. His left leg was amputated, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. The first time I saw the resemblance was when they laughed – both tilt their heads back slightly and open their mouths into half-moon smiles. That, and when they finished each other’s sentences.
James was leading a foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED. He doesn’t remember much after the blast, except for his platoon sergeant yelling “lay on your stomach” and one of his friends calling out for him.
“All I hear is my buddy,” said James. “He’s just screaming out, ‘where are you buddy?’ and I’m screaming out ‘I’m here!’ That’s it.”
There is a lot James doesn’t remember because he was barely conscious for the first two months after his injury. Even when he began talking and asking for his family, his recollection of their visits is hazy.
“I was hallucinating so much,” he said. “I was thinking people were in the ceiling.” He said sometimes he saw Taliban up there.
Though John had joined the Army first, he was still anxious when his younger brother decided to follow him into it two years later.
“He’s always been the crazy one,” explained John. When they were kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it would snow five or six feet, John said his younger brother was always the one who wanted to jump off the cliff in the backyard. “I said ‘if you jump, I’m not going after you.’ He took a running start and off he went.”
James always landed fine. But Afghanistan was different.
“A lot of people look at me and think ‘oh, you just lost a leg, it’s not that big of a deal,’” James told me. “I have worse injuries than it looks like.”
Because of his injuries, James has to wear colostomy and urostomy bags. “I can’t use the bathroom. That sucks,” he said bluntly. “A lot of guys I see…they lose two legs, but they don’t have as bad an injury as I do. I’d rather have that any day.”
When James left the hospital, he was given a Purple Heart for his valor and extraordinary sacrifice. But his brother, John, was appalled by the medal. “For me, he deserves so much more than a Purple Heart,” he said. “I started looking at it, and I thought, man, this isn’t worth it.”
James has a more subdued take on the honor.
“Medals don’t mean much to me, I was just doing my job,” he told me. “What means more to me is that I’m still alive. I have a second chance to do what I want.”
What he wants to do is music – anything involving it. James plays guitar and piano, and his favorite genre is underground metal. He plans to go to college for it, and wants to end up working somewhere in the industry.
“It’s just something I’ve always had a passion for,” he said. “It’s like a drug. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with my life. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be here right now, honestly.”