The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

December 8, 2012

Local camp helps outgoing Marines hone life skills

BOSWELL — California native Jacob Shoemate joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in 2010.

Now at age 20, he is leaving the military.

Admittedly, he has little choice.

An improvised explosive device (IED) took the lower half of his left leg on Nov. 25, 2011, while Shoemate was on a five-hour patrol in Afghanistan.

“Two hours in, we came upon a hill,” Shoemate said. “We walked to the top of the hill and stopped to look around. Then we walked about 20 feet and, lo and behold, there was an IED.

“I got the brunt force of it,” he said. “Now I have a prosthetic below the left knee.”

Shoemate was one of 25 Marines from across the country who spent this week at Outdoor Odyssey, a 500-acre camp near Boswell.

They participated in Semper Fi Odyssey.

The six-day program prepares combat-wounded service members and others to transition to civilian life. The program stresses mental, physical, spiritual, emotional and social well-being.  

Thomas Jones is a retired major general and executive director of the Outdoor Odyssey camp.

“It’s the whole person concept,” he said.

Most of the Marines who attended this week’s camp walked upright. Some leaned on canes. At least one was in a wheelchair.

“A lot of them have physical injuries,” program manager Justin Callahan said. “Along with that comes the whole mental aspect of coming to terms with what they’ve seen and what they’ve done.”

The camp has hosted wounded veterans 36 times since 2006.  

Callahan understands the challenges that wounded veterans face.

The Pittsburgh native grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and  joined the Army in 2000. He served in Afghanistan in 2003 as a combat engineer and squad leader in charge of eight soldiers.

He was wounded while on combat patrol.

“In January 2004 I lost my leg,” Callahan, 31, said from behind his desk. “As soon as I learned to walk on my prosthetic leg I was sent home. Back then there were no transition units.”

Now he helps wounded soldiers plan their futures.

As part of Semper Fi Odyssey, Marines spend classroom time learning how to create resumes, enroll in college and interview for jobs.

Marines are taught by successful business leaders and other volunteers, many of whom have military backgrounds.

The Marines also test their physical skills with exercises such as outdoor climbing, zip lines and yoga.

The obstacles for wounded veterans are many.

“They’re angry they’re getting out of the Marine Corps,” Callahan said. “The Marine Corps is all they’ve ever known. They need to come to terms with it and move on.”

For many, that is not easy.

“I was wounded in Afghanistan,” said Joshua Jenkins, 23, of Colorado. “My left leg was shattered by an IED. I’m dealing with a lot of emotional and mental stuff. Am I even able to take care of myself?”

Jenkins has a dream.

“My biggest dream is to open a boarding school and summer camp in Colorado for foster kids and at-risk kids,” he said.

“Myself being through the foster care system, I know how it is.”

Shoemate has wrestled with his own demons.

“For me it was turning to alcohol,” he said while removing his helmet after scaling the climbing wall. “The first step is admitting the problem.”

Shoemate, of Blythe, Calif., has dealt with bouts of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But last month he put on his running shoes and participated in a 5k run to raise money for the Palo Verde High School wrestling team in California.

“I grew up a wrestler,” he said. “I ran three miles in 36 minutes.”

Shoemate said he plans to attend college. He believes the tools he has learned at the Boswell camp will help him plan for a bright future.

“It’s helped me to figure out where I am in the transition,” he said. “It’s been a really big pleasure being here.”

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