Newberg veteran returning to strength
after tour in the ‘sandbox’
Jon Abels keeps his mementos of war close at hand.
During an interview with the Pamplin Media Group, his one-eyed dog at his feet, Abels handed across a plastic container containing several nondescript chunks of metal.
“That’s a (bullet) fragment,” he said.
It’s one of many fragments that medical personnel removed from Abel’s right arm and shoulder following a fateful day in 2007 that ended his military career.
It could have been much worse. Several of Abels’ comrades were killed that day when insurgents ambushed his squad during a routine patrol.
Abels, now 38, joined the Army in 2004 and was stationed in Kentucky. He served one tour in “the sandbox,” as many military personnel called Iraq, as an infantryman.
After the injury to his shoulder, he could no longer carry a rucksack, so the Army gave him the choice of a desk job or retiring with a pension a few months before his tour was over. An infantryman through and through, he chose retirement.
The details of the day Abels was injured remain fresh in his mind. He recalls his squad being sent on foot on a mission nearly 10 miles away. Once they arrived at a village, he sensed they’d been set up.
“I’m not sure, but on the way back, everyone we had seen outside was no longer outside,” he remembered. “It was very odd, and that’s how I knew something bad was going to happen. … It was completely silent — dogs weren’t even outside.”
Five minutes later, the squad was ambushed. Abels was hit as they scrambled to retreat.
Fortunately, Abels received medical care quickly thanks to a system of roving medevac helicopters the Army had deployed in the area.
“Within seven minutes of being shot, I was on a Blackhawk. … Less than 20 minutes, and I was on a gurney in the (operating room),” he said.
Despite serious injuries, Abels escaped extensive surgery. Instead, doctors cleaned the wounds and applied a wet gauze-like substance that promoted healing and prevented infection. They filled the hole in his shoulder, which he described as large enough to accept five or six golf balls, with a foam substance that stops infection.
The injury was worse to his right hand and forearm, where one machine gun round had entered between two fingers and torn a roughly 12-inch trough in the soft tissue.
“At first, they wanted to remove the arm,” Abels recounted. “I told my mom no matter what (happens, tell the doctors to let me) keep the arm until it starts to smell bad. That’s what happened with my finger — it started to smell bad. And it was getting gangrene. And that’s why (doctors) had to cut it off because it was too mangled. But they tried to even save my finger, which was really nice of them.”
Along with the finger, Abels has lost strength, mobility and sensitivity in his right arm. The damage persists to this day.
“For the longest time, I couldn’t feel my arm, and so I can be cooking in the kitchen, and (I’d think) I didn’t put any meat on yet,” he recalls, making a sniffing sound. “I’m touching the cast iron, burning my arm, and I just don’t even feel it because there’s no nerves.”
Eight months of occupational therapy and regular trips to a yoga class are helping Abels regain full use of his arm.
The Texas native moved to Newberg following his Army service to attend George Fox University. He graduated in 2019 with a degree in biblical studies, a major he gravitated toward after five mission trips with his church to Zimbabwe and Thailand.
Abels said his experience in the Army equipped him to lead several of the trips.
“(I understand) more how to run small groups, engage with people, hear their stories, let them share their stories, and encourage the good,” he said.
Abels is now busy volunteering at a local wood ministry and Meals on Wheels. He’s also been helping out at the Portland Rescue Mission for the past 11 years.
“(We) go down with a group and we serve dinner. And then we also do a chapel service afterward. And sometimes I share the message … and we talk about a personal story, or how God’s shown up in a really cool way,” he said.