The overwhelming fear and the searing pain would come later. At the moment of impact, Jeremy Gilley experienced amazing clarity.

Gilley had been here before on the battlefields in Iraq, but those moments had always involved someone else’s arms or another person’s legs, left mangled in the aftermath of combat. Whether the streets of Baghdad or a dark road in Augusta, all Gilley needed was a glimpse to assess the situation.

“As I was thrown to the ground, I looked down,” Gilley said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I knew I wasn’t going to keep my legs.”

Gilley talks about that night — when his legs were crushed between two vehicles as he tried to help another accident victim — in the matter-of-fact manner of someone who is certain everything will work out despite staggering uncertainty.

Will he walk again? Yes. He’s just waiting for the legs to heal so he can be fitted with prosthetics and get to work learning how to use them.

Will he enjoy hunting, fishing and snowmobiling again? You bet. In fact, Gilley is irritated that he can’t get on the snowmobile right now because there’s so little snow outside.

What’s going to happen with that hospital bill that is bound to exceed the gross national products of some small countries? No idea, but it’ll work out somehow.

“There are a lot of people trying to help me figure that out,” Gilley said.

That night

Gilley was three days removed from his 27th birthday on Dec. 19 when, shortly after midnight, he came upon a crash on Route 3 just west of the Cushnoc Crossing bridge. Gilley was returning to his Palermo home with his cousin, Julia Morrison, who had arrived at the Portland Jetport from basic training for the Maine Army National Guard.

Gilley stopped to help the driver, who was still sitting dazed inside the smashed-up truck.

“He must have just been ahead of me,” Gilley said.

It wasn’t until he got to the truck that Gilley realized he knew the driver. Christopher Bizier, 31, was a couple years ahead of Gilley at Erskine Academy, in South China.

“He looked like he was OK,” Gilley recalled.

Bizier’s truck had stopped across Route 3. Gilley decided he needed to help Bizier from the truck rather than leave him in place and risk being hit by another vehicle. Gilley said Bizier repeatedly called out Gilley’s name and tried to hug him, which slowed Gilley’s attempts to get him to safety.

“I grabbed under his arms and I heard screeching tires,” Gilley said. “I looked over my shoulder and there were headlights. That’s when it happened.”

A minivan, being driven by a 16-year-old Augusta boy — his name was withheld by police because he is a juvenile — slammed into Bizier’s pickup, pinning Gilley’s legs in between.

“I stayed conscious the whole time,” Gilley said. “I thought, I’m not going out like this.”

Keeping calm

Gilley never looked at his legs after he was thrown to the ground. An Army specialist who returned in 2009 from an eight-month tour in Baghdad — Gilley was honorably discharged in February 2010 after four years in the service — Gilley’s first thought was to stop the blood from rushing out of his body. Morrison, who had been in Gilley’s truck and was on the phone with emergency dispatchers when the van hit her cousin, and the 16-year-old boy were the first ones to provide first aid. She and the van driver followed Gilley’s instructions to wrap a belt around each of his legs as a tourniquet. Gilley took his own belt off for the teen.

“I told them to tie it off above the knee and they did,” Gilley said. “I just kind of laid back. I just tried to stay calm. The last thing I remember is hearing the helicopter.”

Both LifeFlight of Maine helicopters landed at the crash scene that night. One took Bizier to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where he was treated and released.

Gilley was flown to CMMC as well, but not before spending what seemed like an eternity in an Augusta Rescue ambulance. Comments Gilley said he overheard made him believe rescuers gave him little hope of surviving. Gilley admits that he, too, began entertaining the thought that his life was over, but he never made peace with it.

“Toward the end, I was wondering, but then it was like, no,” he said. “You have to wonder, you know. It was a little scary at the end. The helicopter was a big relief. They probably saved my life.”

Breaking the news

Tammy Gilley remembers the joy she felt when her son returned safely from Iraq. That relief was shattered when her phone rang on Dec. 19. Morrison was on the other end, trying to soften the blow of what she had just witnessed.

“She said Jeremy was in the ambulance and his legs were banged up pretty bad,” Tammy Gilley said.

Rachael Turcotte and Jeremy Gilley have been friends for 11 years, but they had recently started dating. The night of the crash Turcotte was away at school, anxious to return home the next day to see Gilley. She knew something was wrong when Gilley failed to leave a message on Turcotte’s Facebook account. The fear was soon confirmed.

“His sister had posted something on Facebook saying Jeremy’s been in an accident,” Turcotte recalled. “Please pray for him.”

Both Turcotte and Tammy Gilley have been surprised and strengthened by Jeremy’s response to losing his legs.

“He’s taken it a lot better than we expected ,” Tammy Gilley said.

The recovery

Gilley received 15 pints of blood following the accident. Surgeons were able to save the knee on his left leg, but he lost his right leg just above the knee.

His pain at the time of the accident was “pretty bad,” he said, but it got much worse when muscle started to die as a result of an aneurysm.

Gilley spent a month recovering at CMMC before moving to Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System’s West Roxbury facility, which offers amputee rehabilitation. Gilley was in Massachusetts for about two weeks — he hopes to return when it comes time to be fitted with prosthetics — and has received his ongoing care at Togus VA Medical Center.

Gilley said his injuries are healing well, though, ironically, his missing legs still hurt him and his feet sometimes tingle.

“You still do things,” he said. “You forget you don’t have legs, like trying to cross them in bed.”

The aftermath

While Gilley’s care at the VA hospitals will be covered, he has no insurance to pay the tab he ran up at CMMC. The teen’s driver’s insurance is unlikely to cover all the costs.

People around the state, including Gilley’s aunt, Dottie Gilley, have responded by organizing fundraisers. Dottie Gilley has set up an account at the Bank of Maine. Donations to the Gilley Benefit Fund can be made at any branch.

“He’s such an amazing young man,” Dottie Gilley said. “I just can’t even believe how well he’s taking it.”

Dottie Gilley is determined not only to alleviate the financial stress the accident has caused her nephew, but to make sure he has the best prosthetics and care available so that he can continue to enjoy his life. She knows some things, like riding the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he recently purchased, have been taken away.

“I think Jeremy deserves whatever he wants,” she said. “I don’t think Jeremy should lose anything. If he just wants to look at his Harley and go out and polish it, I think he should be able to. I think he’s sacrificed enough.”

Dottie Gilley said she has raised about $3,000 so far.

“That’s not much when you start with medical bills that aren’t going to be covered,” she said.

Gilley’s story has spurred action outside his family as well. Bob Elston of the Maine Academy of Country Music is organizing a benefit country music show to begin at 1 p.m. on Sunday March 25 at Waterville Senior High School.

“Being a good Samaritan, just trying to help somebody out, this terrible thing happened to him,” Elston said. “It’s time we try to help him.”

Robin Fink, vice president of the auxiliary for the Winthrop American Legion, said two events are in the works for Gilley, including a bean supper dinner Feb. 18 and a benefit dinner on March 3. Fink, who once worked with Gilley’s sister, Jessica Gilley, learned of his story when she saw a donation can Jessica Gilley set out at the Full Court Deli. Fink said her son served in the military.

“I know how worried I was about him,” she said. “For (Gilley) to go and come back intact and then to have something like this happen while helping someone out is a shame.”

Moving on

Jeremy Gilley enjoyed being in the Army, but he left to take what he described as a good-paying job at his uncle’s insulating business. Gilley hopes to again be able to help his uncle when he’s in a bind, but he knows it’s unlikely he’ll ever work full time for him again. Gilley is thinking about using his GI Bill to return to school to earn a business management degree.

Gilley said prosthetics should work well for him. He believes life can return to a fairly normal state. He is driven to get there, to do the simple things, like taking a shower standing up, to rise out of the wheelchair he has used since the crash. Gilley has never been one to sit around and watch others.

“Things you can do are pretty limited,” he said, referring to the chair. “I’m pacing the floor in this thing.”

Gilley has heard from neither Bizier nor the teen driver since the night of the crash. Neither has been charged in connection with the crash, though Augusta Police Lt. Christopher Read said information gathered during the investigation has been forwarded to the district attorney’s office.

The Maine secretary of state confirmed that Bizier’s driver’s license was suspended the night of the crash.

Gilley still has not figured out why he emerged unscathed in combat only to be leveled by a freak crash on the streets of Augusta, “but there’s a reason for everything,” he said.

Remarkably, Gilley said of all the emotions he has experienced, anger has not been one of them, despite being injured in what he believes was a preventable accident.

“The kid should have been paying attention. It’s beyond me how you cannot see that, but accidents happen,” Gilley said. “I’m not going to hold it against him. If you did that to someone, you’d feel pretty bad.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]


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