CALEXICO — U.S. ArmySgt. Odin Ayala recalls hearing a single click before his life changed Sept 14.
He was walking in an open field during a mission in Afghanistan when suddenly his eyesight and hearing went out.
”I don’t know how long, I think it was just a matter of seconds. All I recall is I was face down on the ground, and I can just hear, kind of like in the movies when an explosion goes by somebody’s ear. That actually is how it sounds, everything’s muffled and then little by little your hearing starts coming back,” he said. He heard people start yelling for a medic.
“At first I think it’s a dream. I’m like, there’s no way this just happened,” he said.
Someone grabbed him, turned him face up and dragged him by the back of his vest away from the blast site. An improvised explosive device had gone off as he was ending a search and seizure operation in Afghanistan.
“I just recall them working on me. I was conscious the whole time I was getting worked on,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of the extent of the damage at the time, but I knew exactly what had happened, I knew that something was wrong with my legs. I kind of leaned up to look and saw my legs were gone.”
The other soldiers pushed him back down, worried he’d go into shock, and gave him morphine. At one point, his breathing began to lower, and Ayala said he “just kind of closed my eyes and started saying goodbye to everybody, because I thought I was just going to stay there.”
His breathing returned along with pain.
“At first I was numb, and a few minutes, after working on it, I start to feel it and it’s just horrible,” he said.
While he was conscious, his memory of that day is in flashes. He remembers the helicopter landing at the main hospital in Afghanistan before he allowed himself to pass out, knowing he’d be taken care of now. He slept for four days before waking up.
The Imperial Valley native was a star athlete at Calexico High School. After graduating in 2003, he studied criminal justice and then enlisted April 25, 2005, not telling his family until a week before he was scheduled to leave.
He reenlisted several years later but this time insisted to be put in infantry. Ayala did three tours, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
He had already been out there five days during the mission in September and was scheduled to be picked up at 10 p.m. the day of the explosion.
At first, he blamed himself, trying to figure out if something could have been done differently but found futility in that.
”I figured if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, that’s the way I saw it. I just figured if it ever happened, I just hope I don’t feel anything. Obviously I got neither,” he said while laughing. “because I stayed alive and felt the whole thing.”
Back home, his family received a phone call about 3 p.m. that day. His sister, Yvette Ayala, said she felt like she’d been punched in the stomach when she received the news.
His mother thought every phone call afterward would deliver the news that she lost her son. His older brother wondered what level of condition he would return in.
The family’s Calexico home soon flooded with family and friends.
“I’ve never felt so afraid. We all get scared at certain things in life, but I never really knew what being afraid felt like until that day,” his sister said.
She described her younger brother as “very happy, always smiling, always saying the dumbest things.”
The experience caused her to find patience and strength she didn’t know she had and brought the family closer.
”I have two brothers that are soldiers. I had never grasped the concept of a soldier until this. Now I see a soldier, and he’s a hero to me,” Yvette explained.
Marcos Miranda said he was very proud of his little brother and described with admiration Ayala’s upbeat attitude while recuperating in a San Antonio hospital September through November.
“I don’t know how I’d react myself even with all the pain, all the operations, he was a very happy person,” he said. Family stayed by his side around the clock.
Seven other soldiers were injured in the explosion, but no other injuries were serious.
Ayala had bilateral amputations above both knees and amputation of his left index finger as well as shrapnel burns, but no traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.
He goes to physical therapy daily and looks forward to learning to walk with his prosthetics.
”Once I learn how to use these, I’m good to go,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating, I mean, I’m a big sports fanatic.”
His former football coach has offered to help him, and Ayala takes the challenges in stride, looking toward the future.
“I’ve always been the type of person that there’s nothing I can do about it so why dwell over it?” he said. “It’s going to take some time so I’ve just been patient and I’ve been waiting to see what’s happened and eventually they were right. … I’ll be walking again and that’s all that matters. I’ll feel like I’m complete again.”
He said he’s told the story of what happened hundreds of times, and “for some reason it didn’t bother me.”
“I have no regrets,” he said. “I’m not mad because I lost my legs. I knew exactly what I was doing.”
Ayala said he loves the Army for the values and growth it instilled in him over the past seven years, teaching him to appreciate little things and his family more and also to mature.
”Through deployments and just being away from home, I grew very independent. Everybody knows the Mexican culture has a habit of staying nearby each other and staying close,” he said. “I loved the fact that I was gone and always coming home twice a year. It was fun and I loved that … I was happy that way, I loved the life I had, and it came to a screeching halt in the matter of a couple seconds. Everything was taken away from me, and I had to start all over again.”
As he recovered, Ayala became short-tempered with family at times but apologized and asked them to understand.
He’s regaining independence each day and is working on getting a new car outfitted with adaptive equipment next week.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I don’t, so why should anyone else?” Ayala said. “Eventually I’ll get everything going, get a life going, and everything will be back to normal. I’m not worried about it too much.”
He looks forward to joining an organization called Homes for Troops and will live in San Diego where the cooler weather will be better for his prosthetics, which have rubber lining and quickly heat up.
He’s beginning online classes for school soon and, while technically on active duty and living at San Diego’s medical Navy base, he will be medically retired in about a year and then start working.
A friend named a “Tough Mudder” team after him to help raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
While everyone is different, Ayala said he wanted to be positive through everything.
“I looked at it as what’s done is done. There’s nothing you can do about it. To me, I felt like there’s a lot more to do with my life and I felt this wasn’t it. I still have a lot to live for.”
There’re more resources available for wounded veterans than before too, he added.
“Nowadays, there’s too many people around you to let you just give up on yourself,” he said. “At the end, it all comes down to you, if you really want to push yourself forward. If you want to do something else, I don’t know, but I don’t see why you’d want to give up. There’s a reason we’re still here.”
Staff Writer Chelcey Adami can be reached at 760-337-3452 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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