October 2015

No Excuses: Marine Amputee Completes Marine Combat Instructor School

Volume 98, Issue 10
Sgt Jason Pacheco uses his prosthetic leg as support for an M40 sniper rifle while on the firing range at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 30, 2011.
LCpl Timothy Lenzo, USMC

Sergeant Jason Pacheco gritted his teeth as he pushed up the Goliath hill. His 80-pound pack weighed him down. It was the last push of the 20-kilometers to complete the course, and the instructors were counting down the seconds remaining. “Put your face in the dirt!” another Marine yelled. Pacheco leaned further forward until he was near parallel with the dusty trail and crested the peak with just four seconds to spare. He was in the clear.

He crossed the finish line, completing one of the final tests of the Marine Combat Instructor Course at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. The physical challenges in the rigorous program are daunting for any Marine—there’s a 20 percent attrition rate—but it was an elevated hurdle for Pacheco. He is the first amputee in Marine Corps history to complete the course.

“A couple of times I doubted myself when going up the hill,” Pacheco said. “I was just dying and thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing? Why am I here? You could be at an office right now.’ But that was my fuel to keep going. I didn’t want anyone to see me as handicapped. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but if I didn’t try, then I would never know.”

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Sgt Pacheco always has embraced challenge. In high school, he competed in every sport he could join. He enlisted in the Marine Corps right after high school in 2006 to push himself and to continue his grandfather’s legacy of service as a Marine. He chose the Marine Corps because it’s the “toughest branch.” During boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif., he even broke the depot’s crunches record by completing 260 crunches in two minutes. He was selected as an 0311 infantryman and was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

He first deployed in January 2008 with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit as a pointman with a sniper platoon. It was the extra push of motivation he needed to pursue his lifelong dream of being a Marine sniper. The following January he graduated from the 12-week Marine Corps Scout Sniper School and became a HOG (Hunter of Gunmen). It’s his greatest accomplishment, he said, and he still wears the 7.62-caliber bullet that he received at graduation, around his neck every day.

“I enjoy the responsibility and the trust from leadership to accomplish the mission,” Pacheco said. “As the forward unit, all the responsibility is on you. You’re alone and unafraid.”

Pacheco deployed as an assistant team leader sniper with the 11th MEU in September 2009 until April 2010. He was home just a few weeks until he deployed again, that time to Afghanistan. On Aug. 3, 2010, he was in Marjah conducting a battle damage assessment after an intense firefight when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. Pacheco was airlifted to Germany and later underwent surgery at the National Naval Medical Center (now known as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) in Bethesda, Md.

“Your world just stops,” said Pacheco’s wife, AnnaLeigh. “Your first thought is: ‘How do I get to him right now?’ I stopped going to school to focus on him, and I learned from the nurses how to become a caregiver.”

“Blood, Sweat and Tears”

The doctors amputated Pacheco’s right leg below the knee but were able to salvage his left leg. He has since undergone 36 surgeries. Most of those operations were actually on his left leg, which the Pachecos jokingly call the Frankenstein leg because it was reconstructed with so many different tissues.

Learning to use the prosthetic leg was “hell,” Pacheco said. “It took blood, sweat and tears to learn how to walk again.”

But he never wavered from his commitment to return to his Marines. That goal helped motivate him to stay positive during recovery. He was walking within three months and jogging within six.

“I didn’t want to go down the dark road that I’ve seen so many other guys go down. I was able to make jokes and laugh at myself. I kept the mindset that even though my leg was gone, I was still alive, and I could still do everything I wanted to do. It’s just going to be a little harder.”

Pacheco returned to his unit in April 2011, just eight months after his injury. But he had to continue to push himself physically to maintain his standing as a sniper and to get back to full duty. He said the camaraderie from his fellow Marines was incredibly motivating throughout his recovery.

“It’s a small, tight community, and the brotherhood bond is really strong,” Pacheco said of his fellow snipers. “So with them it wasn’t a pity party. It was tough love and exactly what I needed.”

Pacheco’s unit was set to deploy back to Afghanistan in August 2011, and Pacheco was allowed to join them as long as he completed the Combat Fitness Test (CFT). He could execute the sprint and the ammo-can lift, but struggled with the fireman carry in the maneuver-during-fire exercise.

Finally, Pacheco’s months of hard work paid off. He completed the CFT, finished months of predeployment workups in a few weeks and joined his Marines in Afghanistan in November 2011. He even deployed to Afghanistan a second time in 2012 and was the first amputee to return to a combat zone while holding a combat arms military occupational specialty.

“I had worked so hard to get to where I was as a sniper team leader,” Pacheco said. “I couldn’t just throw all that away.”

What’s Your Excuse?

Pacheco started the Marine Combat Instructor School-West on Jan. 5, 2015, with Class 2-15. The Special Duty Assignment (SDA) school is nearly 10 weeks long and one of the most physically demanding SDA schools in the Marine Corps. The students carry a 55- to 80-pound pack plus water and a rifle on 5K, 10K, 15K and 20K hikes, averaging three miles an hour over steep hills and tough terrain. The students also train in live-fire exercises and basic combat knowledge. The graduates become instructors in multiple courses at School of Infantry-West.

“[The instructors] need to have a better physical and mental competence, so when they’re in front of the entry-level Marines, they don’t show any weakness,” said Captain Thomas Schueman, the director of Combat Instructor School.

Schueman said Pacheco performed well academically and physically during the demanding course. It was incredibly motivating for the other Marines to watch Pacheco push through the hikes despite the pain and exhaustion. At each hike break the Marines would hydrate and rest, Schueman said, but Pacheco also had to readjust his prosthetic and wipe sweat from it. Seeing that truly was an inspiration, the captain said, and the students voted Pacheco as the recipient of the “Gung-ho Award,” for being the most motivating member of the course.

“He’s humble and holds himself to the same standard as everybody else,” Schueman said. “He kept things lighthearted and always maintained a positive attitude. Graduating was a testament to his character and his commitment.”

As is customary, at the end of the course, the students presented a gift to the staff and instructors. But this time the gift was unique: one of Pacheco’s prosthetics engraved with the words “What’s your excuse?”

Pacheco now has been an instructor at “Alpha” Company, Infantry Training Battalion for five months and trains 300 new privates each 10-week cycle. Schueman said Pacheco stands as a role model for young Marines, especially those who doubt their abilities.

“All those privates can see him working his ass off and overcoming adversity. He can inspire a generation of Marines,” Schueman said.

Pacheco has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. His next goal is to instruct at the Scout Sniper School. He’ll have his hands full; he still has frequent medical appointments, and his wife gave birth to the couple’s second child in July. But it’s the support from his family and Marines that motivate him on the tough days, he said. Pacheco encourages other wounded warriors and struggling Marines to push past any barrier, no matter how daunting.

“Some will doubt you,” he said, “but believe in yourself. Don’t take the easy way, because it will never test and push you to your breaking point or help you find your true potential. Keep pushing forward no matter the obstacles. Never quit.”

Roxanne Estrada-Baker is a staff writer and media coordinator for the Marine Corps Association & Foundation and is a monthly contributor to Leatherneck magazine and the Marine Corps Gazette.