My name is James Sides and I served 12 years in the United States Marine Corps. I enlisted just after high school and went to boot camp in March of 2002. A year later I was in the back of a troop transport truck crossing the border of Kuwait into Iraq for the start of the Iraqi War. I was barely 20 years old. In 2008 I changed jobs and was accepted to attend Explosive Ordnance Disposal School to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician. Otherwise known as an EOD Tech. If you are not familiar with this term, simply put I joined the bomb squad. We were the ones that got rid of old or faulty ammunition or ordnance. But my primary job was getting rid of Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, overseas in Afghanistan. If you have ever heard of the movie “The Hurtlocker” this is what I did. It was while performing this job, my life was changed forever.
It was July of 2012 and I was half way through a deployment in Afghanistan. We were working closely with the Afghan National Army and their commander had just called in what appeared to be an IED in the road just outside their camp. After receiving the mission brief from our security patrol, we rolled out of our Combat Outpost and arrived on scene. After many failed attempts to dig into the ground with the robot to find the main charge, I decided to go down and uncover it by hand. This was standard procedure as many times the ground was too hard for the robots to dig. I walked down the road to where the IED was, knelt to my knees and then began digging into the ground with my right hand.
The next thing I remember I was waking up on my left side in the fetal position. I was very confused and my ears were ringing. Then reality set in and I soon realized what had happened. The IED I had been working on had detonated, with me on top of it. I tried to get up but couldn't get my right arm to work. I looked down at my arm and saw why. My hand had been shredded to my wrist and my forearm hung limply from being broken. I received aid quickly from my fellow Marines and was on a medivac helicopter within 20 minutes. When I woke up in the hospital 5 days later the doctor told me they couldn't save my right hand. I had also received irreversible damage to my left eye, leaving it permanently blind.
I spent the next 2 years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center recovering before being medically discharged. I received multiple prosthetic devices and learned to adapt to my new way of life. I started mountain biking, surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding again, with some adaptations of course. Fishing was the one the thing I never thought to get back into. The dexterity needed to tie on lures, the anxiety of trying to un hook a fish, and just the overall ability to cast a line with my non-dominant hand without putting a hook in my face added up to me just not wanting to fish. But I eventually got into fly-fishing with a nudge from my father-in-law. And the fact that I live in Silverthorne, Colorado, essentially in the mecca of Gold Medal streams, it wasn’t hard to find a fly shop and figure it out. With the aid of a Rex Fly chest pack, which is basically a rod holder designed by Rex Huang to enable people with hand/arm disabilities to enjoy fishing without the hassle of fumbling with a rod and reel after you have a fish on, I bought a rod and reel and l set out to tackle what I thought to be the most technical fishing ever invented. After some trial and error and help from my local fly shop (which I also work at part time now) I have fallen absolutely in love with fly fishing! It didn’t really hit me at how much it benefited me until the birth of my daughter back in 2017. It was a great stress relief for me with my anxiety and PTSD issues from my injuries. When our daughter would go down for her naps, I would head out to the river and “escape” for an hour or so, returning home refreshed and ready to tackle parenthood again. And as of lately, the overall sense of pride and accomplishment that I have in myself for not letting something scare me out of trying it just because I don’t have my hand anymore and being able to still do something as well as any other able-bodied person.
Huge thanks and props to everyone at Moonshine Rod Co. for starting this blog and allowing us veterans to share our stories! It’s the little things like this that help veterans to continue the healing process we constantly go through.
James “Jimmy” Sides
SSgt USMC EOD (ret)