In the three weeks since being badly burned in a training accident, Gillette Marine Tagen Schmidt has undergone painful skin grafts, has lost 30 pounds and was on a ventilator to treat his scorched lungs.
He’s up and walking around some, has been weaned off the ventilator and is determined to return to duty. He’s also been surprised with a promotion.
“He was promoted to lance corporal on Sunday,” his mother Tamby Clawson said from San Diego, where Schmidt remains in the burn center at the University of California San Diego Hillcrest Hospital.
“His entire platoon came up for his pinning ceremony, which was amazing,” she said. “He didn’t know it was going to happen, but he was really honored that his entire plantoon came to give his promotion.”
That was a good day, she said. While the accident left her son with burns to 100 percent of his face and 15 percent of the rest of his body, including both hands, she said he’s been recovering well so far.
“He’s improving every day,” she said. “He’s out of ICU finally. He’s still doing breathing treatments for his respiratory issues and still on antibiotics for all his infections. The burns are healing, but he’s just not able to use his hands.”
She said that although he can take a medical discharge from the Marine Corps, Schmidt is determined to get back to his unit, even if his recovery takes a year or longer.
“Basically, his new job right now is to heal and recover,” Clawson said. “Whether it’s six months or a year from now, he’ll join his group wherever they may be. He could’ve taken a medical option out, but he doesn’t plan to do that. He’s going to stay a Marine.”
Schmidt was one of 15 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment and 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion conducting a combat readiness evaluation as part of their battalion training at about 9:30 a.m. Sept. 13 on a beach at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, north of San Diego
The amphibious vehicle he was riding in broke a natural gas line. The gas seeped into the vehicle and ignited. Of the 15 hurt, three, including Schmidt, suffered critical injuries.
Clawson and other family members have been in San Diego with Schmidt since the accident, something she said wouldn’t have been possible without the generous Gillette community donating money to help cover the expenses of such a long recovery.
“We really appreciate all the thoughts and prayers, and we’re so thankful for everything the community has done on behalf of our son and family,” she said.
He said her son also has been touched by the support from his hometown.
“It kind of brought tears to his eyes, because he couldn’t believe there’s that many people supporting him and behind him,” she said about when he learned of the efforts. “It’s amazing and greatly appreciated.”
The first three weeks of recovery has seen Schmidt clear some hurdles, but the race has just begun, Clawson said. One of the most emotional times was the first time Schmidt saw his face after the accident.
“He felt like he had lost his face,” she said. “It’s been burnt badly, but he’s not disfigured. He’s been pretty emotional.”
But even in just 21 days, his face has “healed amazingly well” and promises to only show a few scars when fully healed.
“It’s not been easy. He’s in daily pain. His fingers really, really hurt,” Clawson said, adding that the skin grafts on his hands will take time and therapy to work out. “With therapy, he should be able to regain 100 percent use within a year’s time.”
For now, Schmidt’s recovery means more time in the San Diego hospital, followed by at least four weeks of outpatient treatment where he will have to live close to the hospital, Clawson said. After that, he’ll rehab at a facility close to a burn center where he also can get therapy for his hands.
In the long run, though, she said her son’s goal is the same as it’s been since he was a kid — to actively serve in the U.S. Marines.