By La Tonya Frelix | Hattiesburg American | hattiesburgamerican.com | June 21, 2011
The first couple days of June started out promising for Marine Cpl. Colte James. June 1 meant only two more months left of deployment for James, a Petal native, and the other members of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. James, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan, was promoted June 2 to corporal. And on June 3, he celebrated his 22nd birthday - complete with a package of goodies sent from his mom.
But everything changed on June 4.
James and four other Marines were in a military vehicle when it drove over an improvised explosive device. James suffered a fractured vertebrae, cranial bleed and several bruises, but he said he and the others are expected to make full recoveries. "I knew what happened subconsciously. You always expect it when you're driving," said James, the son of Darla and Mike Woodard of Petal. "The thing went off, and all I heard was a humongous explosion. I felt it hit and I felt like I was floating. I knew I was outside the vehicle, but I thought it was going to roll over on top of me."
'Makes you mad too because they got you'
The day before the explosion, James said the convoy traveled to the battalion station to pick up mail and other supplies. The group was making a second trip the day of the explosion to pick up combat replacements - men from other units sent in to replace soldiers who have been wounded our killed.
"We drove up the day before to pick some stuff up and they told us to come back the next day," he said. "We took the same road as the day before. I didn't even know these guys' names until after (the explosion)."
The vehicle James and the four Marines were in was the last in the convoy. The blast was so severe, it blew the 800-pound doors from the vehicle.
James, a 2007 Petal High graduate, said he was blown almost 40 yards. The vehicle landed 15 feet away from where it was originally.
James, a team leader, felt his hands and feet and knew he was fine. He said he jumped from the culvert and sprang into action to help rescue the other four men who were in the vehicle.
"I was happy everyone was OK, but I was mad at the same time," said James, who is stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"It freaks you out pretty bad. Unless you've been over there and blown up, there's no way to describe how much it freaks you out. It makes you mad too because they got you. I was mad because I had to leave those guys."
'Much rather be there with my guys'
Following the explosion, James was taken to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, put in intensive care and then transferred to a hospital in Germany, before being sent to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
James called his mother, Darla, while he was in Germany and spoke to his stepfather, Mike Woodard.
"The day before was his birthday and he called me, so I was wondering why he was calling," Darla Woodard said. "Mike handed me the phone and said, 'Colte's fine and there's something he needs to tell you.'
"I knew he was going to be OK when he replied, 'Yes, mother' when I asked him if he would be fine."
James was awarded the Purple Heart for his service by the Marine commandant Gen. James Amos while in the hospital in Maryland.
"I'm honored, but I'd definitely give it back in a heartbeat if I could go back to Afghanistan," he said. "I'd much rather be there with my guys and not worried about them instead of sitting here in the (air conditioning) while they're all over there. They live in hell right now."
James returned home to Petal on Thursday. On Saturday, a processional traveled along the Evelyn Gandy Parkway, where well-
wishers waved flags and showed their support for James, who smiled and waved from the passenger's seat of a truck.
Darla Woodard said she's received an outpouring of support from the Wounded Warrior Project and the Semper Fi Fund.
"I was so grateful to God he brought him back," she said. "Do you know how easily it could have been a different story?"
James is on medical leave and will be re-evaluated in about a month.
His enlistment ends in January, and he said he will plan his military exit once he returns to North Carolina.
"God's the only reason any of us survived coming out of that vehicle," he said.