In 2010 the U.S. troop surge to the war in Afghanistan was at its peak, and Jonathon Blank was serving as a Force Reconnaissance Marine. As part of a six- man team, he was a radio operator and a scout sniper, calling in air strikes, mapping targets and patrolling, always on the move. He was also a grenadier, firing grenades whenever the team engaged with the enemy — which was often.
“We got in a firefight just about every day, or every other day, our entire time in Afghanistan,” he says. Jonathon was in the sixth month of a seven-month deployment when his unit had taken over a compound and cleared it of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). All was quiet, when suddenly they came under enemy fire. Jonathon jumped to his station. Even though soldiers had walked over the area several times that day, there was another buried device, which exploded, tearing off both of Jonathon’s legs, inflicting internal injuries and wounding his left arm.
“We were just four days away from going back to base and sitting tight until we could go home.”
Today, after many surgeries and extensive rehab, Jonathon is able to walk with prosthetics, and has continuing care for pain and arthritis in his arm and nerve pain in his legs. He retired from the military in March and is contemplating a new direction for his life.
“Everything seems pretty boring after what I’ve done,” he says. “I have to find something that doesn’t involve sitting down at a desk for eight or nine hours a day.” Friends have encouraged him to look into a civilian contracting job with the military, such as working on a shooting range as an instructor.
In spite of everything, Jonathon still expresses gratitude that he had the opportunity to serve his country. “There’s a war going on. I watched it every day on television, on the news, and it felt wrong not to do my part. And I’ve also been attracted to the military since I could walk, basically.” He never thought about doing much of anything else. “With a war on it seems like destiny to me. I’ve always felt a calling towards the military.”
While he explores new career options, Jonathon’s “trying to have as much fun as possible,” hunting, sailing and fishing. And also counseling his youngest brother, Nathanial, who has a contract to try out for the Army Rangers in September. “I’m really excited for his future; I’m kind of living vicariously through him.”
More than one way to serve
In addition to Nathanial, Jonathon has a twin brother, Linden, who was also a Marine and is now an Augusta public safety officer. A younger sister, Abbie, is a first lieutenant with the Marines and an older half-sister, Ashley, is a Navy corpsman.
The patriarch of the family, Matthew Blank, confirms that four of his six offspring have been actively deployed — and Nathanial could soon make five. In addition, Matthew’s wife, Karen (mother to Jonathon, Linden, Abbie and Nathanial), is a Wichita police officer, and Matthew is a special investigator with the Board of Indigents’ Defense, working with defense attorneys. But perhaps the highest sign of the couple’s dedication to their country is being parents to so many active servicemen and women, which comes with responsibilities and situations no one can prepare you for.
Matthew remembers planning a family trip to Hawaii with Jonathon and Linden to celebrate the completion of their four-year Marine terms. While Linden had served two tours in Iraq and had “seen a lot,” Jonathon had never been deployed during his term of service. While the family was making plans for Hawaii, Jonathon learned that his platoon was being deployed to Afghanistan. He had a decision to make.
“My family really wanted me to come home, but I could not let my brothers go into combat without me,” Jonathon says. “I would never forgive myself if something happened to them and I wasn't there.”
He thought about it for several days, but really knew the answer all along. “I was also debating whether or not to reenlist. I joined the Marine Corps to serve my country and to test myself in combat. I gave it a couple of days but I always knew in my heart what I wanted.”
While the family snorkeled on the island, Matthew says, “We knew that he wouldn’t be coming home with us.” On the way home, Matthew and Karen stopped in California, where Jonathon was stationed at the time. “We packed up his stuff, put it in a trailer and drove his vehicle and belongings home, knowing that he was going to…[his voice catches]…I can’t even talk about it… Afghanistan. So it was hard.”
There was another tense moment when their son was being transported home after the explosion and had to make an emergency landing. “It’s a little sketchy what happened; we’re confident that he died in flight, and they landed in Cambridge, England, and he had to spend a week there.” Jonathon required 75 units of blood — eventually British soldiers were sitting right at his bedside giving him straight transfusions — but was eventually stabilized and continued his journey home.
Once he reached the U.S., Karen rarely left his side for six months. Before she became a police officer, her first career was as an occupational therapist — a certification she keeps active — and she soon became the point person for Jonathon’s care.
“I don’t have any doubt that Karen has saved Jonathon’s life on more than one occasion during his treatment,” Matthew asserts.
How did it happen that almost every family member is in some kind of public service? Matthew is modest: “Yeah, I wonder, too. You just live your life and teach your kids. … I’m not going to take credit for that.”
9/11 was “definitely a factor. … When that happened, they felt obligated. I think 9/11 has something to do with shaping all of us.”
Matthew Blank’s next words carry echoes of his son’s patriotism: “Anybody that truly studies this country from its beginning, and delves into the common people and the people who have made a difference — we are Americans. When it comes down to the story of us, there’s just nothing like it in the world.”