The overwhelming fear and the searing pain would come later. At the moment of impact, Jeremy Gilley experienced amazing clarity.

Gilley had been here before on the battlefields in Iraq, but those moments had always involved someone else’s arms or another person’s legs, left mangled in the aftermath of combat. Whether the streets of Baghdad or a dark road in Augusta, all Gilley needed was a glimpse to assess the situation.

“As I was thrown to the ground, I looked down,” Gilley said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I knew I wasn’t going to keep my legs.”

Gilley talks about that night — when his legs were crushed between two vehicles as he tried to help another accident victim — in the matter-of-fact manner of someone who is certain everything will work out despite staggering uncertainty.

Will he walk again? Yes. He’s just waiting for the legs to heal so he can be fitted with prosthetics and get to work learning how to use them.

Will he enjoy hunting, fishing and snowmobiling again? You bet. In fact, Gilley is irritated that he can’t get on the snowmobile right now because there’s so little snow outside.

What’s going to happen with that hospital bill that is bound to exceed the gross national products of some small countries? No idea, but it’ll work out somehow.

“There are a lot of people trying to help me figure that out,” Gilley said.

THAT NIGHT

Gilley was three days removed from his 27th birthday on Dec. 19 when, shortly after midnight, he came upon a crash on Route 3 just west of the Cushnoc Crossing bridge. Gilley was returning to his Palermo home with his cousin, Julia Morrison, who had arrived at the Portland jetport from basic training for the Maine Army National Guard.

Gilley stopped to help the driver, who was still sitting dazed inside the smashed-up truck.

“He must have been just ahead of me,” Gilley said.

It wasn’t until he got to the truck that Gilley realized he knew the driver. Christopher Bizier, 31, was a couple of years ahead of Gilley at Erskine Academy, in South China.

“He looked like he was OK,” Gilley recalled.

Bizier’s truck had stopped across Route 3. Gilley decided he needed to help Bizier from the truck rather than leave him in place and risk being hit by another vehicle. Gilley said Bizier repeatedly called out Gilley’s name and tried to hug him, which slowed Gilley’s attempts to get him to safety.

“I grabbed under his arms and I heard screeching tires,” Gilley said. “I looked over my shoulder and there were headlights. That’s when it happened.”

A minivan being driven by a 16-year-old Augusta boy — his name was withheld by police because he is a juvenile — slammed into Bizier’s pickup, pinning Gilley’s legs in between.

“I stayed conscious the whole time,” Gilley said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going out like this.’“

KEEPING CALM

Gilley never looked at his legs after he was thrown to the ground. An Army specialist who returned in 2009 from an eight-month tour in Baghdad — Gilley was honorably discharged in February 2010 after four years in the service — Gilley’s first thought was to stop the blood from rushing out of his body.

Morrison, who had been in Gilley’s truck and was on the phone with emergency dispatchers when the van hit her cousin, and the 16-year-old boy were the first ones to provide first aid. She and the van driver followed Gilley’s instructions to wrap a belt around each of his legs as a tourniquet. Gilley took his own belt off for the teen.

“I told them to tie it off above the knee and they did,” Gilley said. “I just kind of laid back. I just tried to stay calm. The last thing I remember is hearing the helicopter.”

Both LifeFlight of Maine helicopters landed at the crash scene that night. One took Bizier to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where he was treated and released.

Gilley was flown to CMMC as well, but not before spending what seemed like an eternity in an Augusta Rescue ambulance. Comments Gilley said he overheard made him believe rescuers gave him little hope of surviving. Gilley admits that he, too, began entertaining the thought that his life was over, but he never made peace with it.

“Toward the end, I was wondering, but then it was like, no,” he said. “You have to wonder, you know. It was a little scary at the end. The helicopter was a big relief. They probably saved my life.”

BREAKING THE NEWS

Tammy Gilley remembers the joy she felt when her son returned safely from Iraq. That relief was shattered when her phone rang on Dec. 19. Morrison was on the other end, trying to soften the blow of what she had just witnessed.

“She said Jeremy was in the ambulance and his legs were banged up pretty bad,” Tammy Gilley said.

Rachael Turcotte and Jeremy Gilley have been friends for 11 years, but they had recently started dating. The night of the crash Turcotte was away at school, anxious to return home the next day to see Gilley. She knew something was wrong when Gilley failed to leave a message on Turcotte’s Facebook account. The fear was soon confirmed.

“His sister had posted something on Facebook saying Jeremy’s been in an accident,” Turcotte recalled. “Please pray for him.”

Both Turcotte and Tammy Gilley have been surprised and strengthened by Jeremy’s response to losing his legs.

“He’s taken it a lot better than we expected,” Tammy Gilley said. 

THE RECOVERY

Gilley received 15 pints of blood after the accident. Surgeons were able to save the knee on his left leg, but he lost his right leg just above the knee.

His pain at the time of the accident was “pretty bad,” he said, but it got much worse when muscle started to die as a result of an aneurysm.

Gilley spent a month recovering at CMMC before moving to Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System’s West Roxbury facility, which offers amputee rehabilitation. Gilley was in Massachusetts for about two weeks — he hopes to return when it comes time to be fitted with prosthetics — and has received his ongoing care at Togus VA Medical Center.

Gilley said his injuries are healing well, though, ironically, his missing legs still hurt him and his feet sometimes tingle.

“You still do things,” he said. “You forget you don’t have legs, like trying to cross them in bed.”

Gilley still has not figured out why he emerged unscathed in combat only to be leveled by a freak crash on the streets of Augusta, “but there’s a reason for everything,” he said.

Remarkably, Gilley said of all the emotions he has experienced, anger has not been one of them, despite being injured in what he believes was a preventable accident.

“The kid should have been paying attention. It’s beyond me how you cannot see that, but accidents happen,” Gilley said. “I’m not going to hold it against him. If you did that to someone, you’d feel pretty bad.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Craig Crosby can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

[email protected]

 


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