Whether it’s the big black truck he drives, a restaurant he visits or each precise step the sophomore biology major takes daily on the University of San Diego campus, Jesse Cottle knows what you’re thinking.
“Everyone looks at me with interest,” he said. “Some people talk to me and say ‘thank you for your service.’ Kids are really interesting. I think it really blows their mind.”
His truck’s license plate prominently states that a combat-wounded U.S. Marine owns it. The Purple Heart decal can’t be missed, either. But those quickly fade once the 27-year-old exits his truck and carefully walks with his two prosthetic legs that run up just above where his knees were until July 19, 2009.
That’s the day when the Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, on foot patrol with his unit in Afghanistan, was moving along the same path as others had done 100 or so meters in front of him. Cottle, however, stepped on a pressure plate, an improvised explosive device (IED), causing an explosion that instantly severed his legs.
“At first when they heard it people thought it was Pat (Hilty),” Cottle said. “But then everyone realized it was me. Pat was about five meters from me when it happened and it rang his bell pretty good, too.”
Hilty, whom Cottle met and became good friends with during EOD training in Florida, recovered and was among those on the response team that helped save Cottle’s life.
“The response time was about 10 minutes and that, to me, is an incredible statement about our U.S. military,” said Aaron Pendergast, a friend of Cottle’s since they were third-graders. “Their reaction to the situation, how they kept their cool and got him out of there is very impressive.”
Pendergast, a Colorado Film School student, wasn’t physically there, but he knows the details. He spent time during Cottle’s recovery time putting together a documentary film called, “Coming Home: The True Story of an EOD Technician.” Pendergast’s 21-minute film will be shown at 7 p.m., Friday, March 23 in USD’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre. This event is co-sponsored by the USD Student Veteran Organization and Pendergast and Cottle will attend the film screening and conduct a post-film discussion.
The film has a mix of interviews with Cottle, his parents and friends as well as on-the-ground footage that brings viewers right into the reality of war.
“It was done through a helmet cam and it’s in a combat situation so it’s not like anyone’s acting,” Cottle said.
Something else the film doesn’t have is a political message, Pendergast said. “I wanted to keep the bias of politics out of the film. The story is about being an EOD technician. It’s been done in its simplest form; it’s as close to an uncensored take without the politics.”
Cottle, whose father, Dave, was a Marine in Vietnam and whose grandfather on his mother Peg’s side served in the Army in World War II, did three back-to-back deployments to Iraq from 2004-07 as a field operator prior to his stint in Afghanistan. He said his desire to join the military was partially influenced by a close friend’s own interest in becoming a Marine as well as conversations with his father. The 9/11 terrorist attacks provided additional motivation. Cottle officially signed up in February 2003 when he turned 18.
“It really hit home after 9/11; I felt this calling,” Cottle recalled. It’s little surprise that he termed his four deployments as the highlight of his six-year commitment.
The best time in Cottle’s life, however, appears to be what’s ahead.
“I knew I wanted to get my (college) degree eventually,” he said. A seven-year absence from the academic world didn’t faze him. Ambition, positive attitude, unconditional support from family and friends and his spiritual faith, have been constant companions.
Cottle went from multiple surgeries and a hospital bed to earning A’s in college general education courses offered through the military’s hospital. The veteran applied and got into USD. Funding from the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill’s Yellow Ribbon Program and a Sentinels of Freedom Scholarship have him on track to graduate in 2014. Concurrently, he’s completing a medical assistant’s certification and is considering physician’s assistant school after USD.
The life steps Cottle takes now are more confident each day.
“The main thing I hope people take away from seeing the film is the strength of the individual and that it would make them take an introspective look at themselves,” Pendergast said. “I’d hope they forget about the small irritations of the day, remain positive and take a minute to realize that things could be worse. We should appreciate what we have and what we can do in our day-to-day lives.”
Cottle has another notable day coming that will continue to define his life. He and his fiancée, Kelly (pictured together, above), are scheduled to wed Aug. 18 in Point Loma. It will be a great day — he’s helped plan everything — it will be a reminder of where he’s been and just how far he’s come. He’ll be with the woman he loves, family and friends will be present and Sean (who influenced Cottle to join the Marines), best man Pat (who helped save his life), and Aaron (longtime friend, filmmaker) will be groomsmen.
It has all the makings of a movie sequel worth watching.
— Ryan T. Blystone
Friday’s event is sponsored by the USD School of Business Administration’s Master of Science in Global Leadership Program, USD’s Office of Admissions, the Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Program, USD Center for Health and Wellness Promotion, Bartell Hotels and the USD NROTC unit.
Photos courtesy of Aaron Pendergast