Jayson Zimmerman, an Army veteran who medically retired from the military after suffering devastating injuries that cost him both of his legs below the knee, is pursuing his dream of becoming a nurse at Penn State Scranton, while getting involved in campus life and activities, and completing a 10K marathon.
DUNMORE, Pa. – The thought that comes to most people’s minds when it comes to Veterans Day is the phrase, ‘thank you for your service,’ but for Jayson Zimmerman, a retired Army veteran and adult student at Penn State Scranton, this day means much more.
“I served for myself, my family and friends, and I served our country to protect our ideals, freedoms and beliefs,” Zimmerman said. “So, for me, I think Veterans Day is for those of us as veterans to honor and recognize those that have passed on before us and to honor fellow veterans for their service.”
An EMT and nurse’s aide in high school, Zimmerman enlisted as a medic in the United States Army in 1998, as it was “something I always wanted to do,” he said.
Part of the reason he joined the Army immediately after high school was because of his desire to go to college and attend Penn State. But after his parents’ divorce, he did not think he would be able to go or that they would be able to help pay for him to attend.
Because he joined the Army as a medic, Zimmerman was equipped for the job at hand, since it was similar to his previous role as an EMT, along with the addition of providing certain medication and administrating IVs.
“It was a more advanced EMT position, but by no means a doctor either,” he said.
Zimmerman spent 14 years on active duty and served at a clinic in Korea and medical support for infantry divisions in Colorado and Georgia, as well deployments to many other parts of the world, including Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. He first deployed to Iraq from January 2005 to January 2006, providing medical support for various missions in the Tikrit and Samarra areas of northern Iraq.
In February 2009, Zimmerman deployed again to Iraq; however, in May of that year, his unit received orders to move to Afghanistan – a place that would change his life forever.
While being on a mission there, the truck Zimmerman was riding in was blown up by a roadside bomb on October 15, 2009– causing him to lose sensation in his lower extremities and shattering bones in his back, as well as both of his heels, which later became infected.
“It’s not exactly the way you would want to go home, but at least I knew I was leaving the combat zone,” he said.
Zimmerman was immediately flown by helicopter to a hospital in Afghanistan to help stabilize his injuries before being sent on a flight to Germany’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and was treated there for 36 hours.
From the time he was hurt, to protect his spine, Zimmerman had been secured to a backboard to prevent movement, so the travel from Afghanistan back to the United States was certainly not comfortable -- being strapped to a litter and needing to be carried from place to place.
“I’d be able to sleep for a few minutes and wake up immediately because of the intense pain, knowing I wasn’t able to get another shot of pain medicine for a while,” he said. “It was a very arduous experience.”
When the incredibly long flight from Germany to Maryland landed at Andrews Air Force Base, they put Zimmerman in an ambulance with a technician who had been told that the hospital staff had been alerted that a medic injured in combat was coming in that afternoon. The technician told Zimmerman that the medics who work at the hospital had volunteered to stay after their shifts so they could be there for his arrival.
“When I got taken out of the ambulance and wheeled into the hospital, there was a line of soldiers on both sides of the entrance and hallway leading to the elevators, and they were saluting me. They were all medics who heard another medic had gotten hurt,” Zimmerman said. “That was very emotional for me, especially after already having experienced that the ambulance I was in had a police escort to get me to the hospital while fighting through traffic at 4 o’clock in the afternoon through Washington, D.C.”
Zimmerman endured over 80 surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, trying to treat the infections in the shattered bones of his heels that would eventually require him to be medically retired from the Army in 2012.
“It was a long process on active duty, but now it's been an even longer process of recovery to get where I am, especially with needing to have both legs amputated below the knee after getting retired,” Zimmerman said.
"It is a struggle," he added. "Every day, I think of the ones that did not survive and did not come back, and I often question 'Am I going to check out,' but that is why I keep trying to find more things to do to stay occupied because I feel like I am too young to be retired."
Zimmerman’s strength, drive and eagerness to be involved not only speaks volumes for his service as a veteran, but also as a student both in-and-outside of the classroom.
In fact, he recently participated in the 10K portion of the Marine Corps Marathon that took place Oct. 30, in Washington, D.C.
Zimmerman signed up for the marathon through a non-profit, Team Semper Fi, the athletic arm of Semper Fi and America’s Fund, an organization that helps wounded and ill service members. Zimmerman found out about the organization in 2016 when he was getting revisions done to one of his left residual limbs at Walter Reed.
“My now case worker approached me at the hospital and told me about the Semper Fi Fund, and even though I was not a Marine, she explained that their organization was empowered to help all combat injured and ill service members, regardless of their branch of service, and she encouraged me to become a part of their family,” he said.
While having to move to Wyoming and dealing with Veterans Affairs to get prosthetic legs was a “tough time,” Zimmerman said that his case worker took care of the financial burden and sent him to Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland to get prosthetics made by the Army, “so all I had to worry about was just getting legs,” he said.
He prepared for the race through a Zoom Couch to 10K program, another athletic event that Team Semper Fi hosted prior to the Marine Corps Marathon.
“Even though I have prosthetic legs, I have no desire to use, or think about the fact that I still have, a wheelchair,” Zimmerman said. “I put on my prosthetics like others would put on their socks and shoes and I go all day with them. It is nice to continue to be able to do things to prove that I am not disabled.”
One of the most special moments for Zimmerman during the 10K was after he crossed the finish line and heard the announcers read, ‘Jayson L. Zimmerman, United States Army.’
“Even though it was a Marine race, I was honored to be recognized for the branch that I had served in,” he said.
Another special moment for Zimmerman was having his father’s support throughout the whole run.
“My father came down from Doylestown, PA on Saturday evening and walked with me to the start line before the sun even came up on Sunday, and then walked down the National Mall and across the river to the Marine Corps Memorial to watch me cross the finish line.”
Aside from the 10K, Zimmerman has also recently achieved other accomplishments, including an associate degree from Casper College in May of 2022.
Now, his passion for always wanting to attend Penn State is being fulfilled, as he applied last December of 2021 and is currently enrolled at Penn State Scranton.
Zimmerman chose the Scranton campus because his maternal grandparents lived in the area and he enjoys being closer to his family that live in Pennsylvania.
“I am still learning all the time,” he said. “Being a veteran helps me to interact with other age groups, which is encouraging because I feel like I can lend my real-world expertise to a lot of things that are discussed in the classroom.”
Zimmerman is an engaged student and is involved in many clubs and activities that take place on campus.
“My experience so far at Penn State Scranton has been pretty phenomenal,” Zimmerman said. “I enjoy working with all of my professors and classmates, but I love how many activities happen here, which I look forward to, aside from going to class.”
Zimmerman currently serves as the treasurer for DREAMers (Disability, Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring), a collaborative ally club consisting of students with and without disabilities whose purpose is to raise awareness and lower stigma around disabilities, while empowering all Nittany Lions at the same time. He is also an active member of the Campus Chorale and The Roc[k]tet choral ensemble.
Outside of the campus, Zimmerman belongs to the Honor Guard of the Dickson City American Legion Post 665, helping to provide graveyard services periodically to honor the military service of veterans who have passed away.
“I am grateful to be in a position to help others, so it is much more important for me to try to have that support to help others,” Zimmerman said. “Veterans Day is a way to show my appreciation towards other veterans who have served and honor those who have passed on before us.”