Sgt. Rob Jones looked down his body, past the hospital gown, his eyes resting on the stumps where his legs should have been. The marine engineer lay in a hospital bed at Walter Reed, a few days after he stepped on an IED in Helmand, Afghanistan, and doctors had just performed a double amputation.
Jones' first response was not self-pity or doubt. His mind rested on the one thing he had found most difficult before his injury. Rowing. He would become a competitive rower.
"I'm the type of person that likes to challenge myself and I like to do the hardest thing possible," Jones told ABC News. "Facing challenges and overcoming challenges is what makes you grow as a person."
This morning, two years later, Jones' oar cut through the cold waters at Eton Dorney in southern England. The 26-year-old is now a paralympian. He and his partner, Oksana Masters, call themselves "Bad Company." They finished second in their heat with a personal best and what would have been a world record – had the Chinese team not bettered them. Not good enough, he said. But good enough to keep their gold medal hopes alive this weekend.
"I'm just treating it like any other race," he says, matter-of-factly.
But it's not just another race. Not only because he and Masters have trained six days per week, as many as four hours per day, for most of the last year. Not only because he had never rowed in a proper scull before his injury. For Jones, this is about proving he can do anything without legs. Proving he can overcome the most formidable challenge he can think of.
"I wanted to get back up and moving around as fast as I could," he said by phone today after the race. "I hated being in a wheelchair, I hated being looked after. I hated being… as helpless as I've ever been. I wanted to remedy that as fast as I could."
The Paralympics is filled with amazing stories of athletes who have overcome so much. And more than ever before, it's filled with the stories of veterans. On the United States team, nearly 1 out of 10 athletes are current of former service members – far more than any previous Paralympics.
Three of those are still active duty, including Navy Lt. Brad Snyder. A year ago, the EOD tech was on his hands and knees in Afghanistan, diffusing bombs. One of got to him first. It blew off his protective glasses and the heat burned through his eyes. He is now permanently blind.
Unlike Jones, Snyder has chosen to embrace what he once knew. Swimming. He is competing in seven events, from the 50-meter freestyle to the 200-meter individual medley. He will race on the one year anniversary of his accident.
"I'm a huge advocate for the idea of wounded warriors getting back into sport," Snyder told the American Forces Press Service. "It gives you that feeling of relevance and that feeling of success again. And again, it's not relegated to just sports. It trickled down to other avenues of life."
Veterans have played a public role in these games from the Opening Ceremony. Joe Townsend, a British marine commando who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan, carried the Paralympic torch into the stadium down a zip wire. That echoes the origins of the Paralympics, which started in Britain in 1948. Then, a Jewish doctor named Ludwig Guttmann, who fled Nazi Germany, tried to inspire patients with spinal injuries by giving them a chance to compete in sports. The "Stoke Mandeville Games," named for the hospital where he worked, mostly featured veterans injured during World War Two.
Five decades later, more than 4,200 Paralympians have descended on London to compete in the largest-ever games.
Jones was knocked unconscious for about 15-20 seconds after the blast. Otherwise, he remembers every moment of that day two years ago.
He had deployed to Iraq in 2008, but didn't see much combat. When his Afghanistan deployment started, it was mostly quiet until he and his unit moved into Delaram and Sangin, two districts in Helmand that have been among the deadliest areas of the country since the war began.
As part of President Obama's surge into southern Afghanistan, he and his unit began pushing farther than any other American unit had. Most days would start with bullets and mortars targeting their base. They would push forward. The Taliban would push back.
One day, he walked alongside a row of armored vehicles as they cleared the road of IEDs. A colleague set off a small explosion. Nobody was hurt, but it fell on Jones to lead the team through what they feared was a minefield.
He was the most vulnerable marine, at the front of the line, only a metal detector and his eyes to protect him from buried bombs.
"And then something found me."
He remembers "tunnel vision" and a disconnect between his brain and body. "My body was reacting to my legs being severed, but my mind wasn't able to tell it to scream or get it under control," he says. "I knew my legs were messed up, so I didn't even look down there."
Tourniquets, morphine, a cloud of dust. A medivac helicopter evacuated him. His route to recovery took him through Kandahar, then Germany, then Walter Reed. Then, a river outside of Washington, D.C. Then the Eton Dorney lake in England, surrounded by people representing their countries – without military uniforms. His story was documented in a film by a friend, Ivan Kander. It's called Survive. Recover. Live. The Rob Jones Story.
What's next? He says he hopes he can plan a bike trip around the world. He says he's "too busy" to feel sorry for himself, or to stop moving.
"I don't see the point. Wallowing in self-pity isn't going to get you anywhere. What's the point in treading water, so to speak," he said today. "I like to make progress."
- Sports & Recreation