QUANTICO MARINE CORPS BASE, Va. -- “I was taking the squad into a hotel along the river bank on a foot patrol” in Iraq, said Sgt. James Gill, an armorer and head coach of the Marine Combat Shooting Team. “We started to go up the stairs and I saw some sort of ordinance sitting on the stairs. I stopped everyone, started to track back down the stairs, and that is when it went off it my face.”
The blast came from two devices that exploded in the stairwell, and left Gill face down. He tried to maneuver himself down three flights of stairs, and seconds later was on the ground floor on fire. There Lance Cpl. Ed Holloway saved him. He was able to put the fire out fast enough that Gill only sustained a few areas of 2nd to 3rd degree burns.
It’s been eight years since the incident and, instead of dwelling on what could have been, Gill continues to press forward.
After traveling back to the United States for treatment, Gill spent 40 days at Walter Reed Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.
“When they woke me up in Bethesda, they told me how bad my injuries were and what my options were for my right leg,” said Gill. “I told them cut it off, let’s go. I really don’t have time to sit around and wait.’”
He also lost his left eye and has a piece of shrapnel the size and shape of a Hershey‘s Kiss permanently lodged into the frontal lobe of his brain. When his right leg was amputated, he thought he’d be back training and deploying again within 12 months. But, the reality was Gill would not be able to return to Iraq and fight with his fellow Marines.
“I wanted to go back, but it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t want to be done and I still don’t think I am done,” said Gill. “Honestly, I feel like I haven’t contributed enough. I know so much more now than I knew back then and would be so much more effective, but I understand the risks if I deploy again. There’s a big trust factor in infantry.”
He completed his long-term physical therapy at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. During his 18 months of therapy, five days a week were spent strengthening his body and core. He also underwent a revision to his amputation in 2008 from a staph infection in the bone.
“Physical therapy was an all-day thing. When I got my prosthetic, about eight months after my injury, I was functioning again. I wasn’t ready to just be sitting still, so I went out and just started doing stuff,” said Gill, “anything you can think of. Going out to the lake and skiing, riding a bike or shooting, anything, I would do it. Shooting was a big thing, because during my time as a patient, the Marine Corps did not allow me to shoot. They believed I was a liability because I only had one eye. They didn’t understand my injuries or my determination.”
Gill found a hobby in shooting on his own time, particularly because he had always had a love for it, and it was his own kind of therapy.
“I had a lot of free time outside of therapy and, if it wasn’t for competitive shooting, I probably would have become lazy, depressed, and not ended up here at Quantico,” he said.
Two years after his injury, he was cleared to return to full duty under permanent limited duty restrictions.
Well into his hobby of competitive shooting, Gill was then invited to become part of the Marine Combat Shooting Team at Quantico. The combat shooting team was in its infancy, but coupled with his experience and knowledge in competitive shooting, the team has been able produce national-level shooters annually. Gill currently competes at national and international levels and is ranked as one of the top 50 shooters in the world.
Today, Gill is waiting for his final medical board results that will officially close his chapter in the Marine Corps.
“I look forward to continuing my 3Gun shooting career after my retirement with the help of Tarheel 3Gun, Barnes Precision Machine, Ops United and Leupold,” he said.
No matter what his future holds, his demeanor and presence exudes a confidence and swagger that is uncanny after his near-death experience.
“I owe a lot to my wife and kids,” said Gill. “They keep me positive and focused.”