Jake's Stryker was bouncing along a goat trail when it rolled over a pressure plate buried in the sand, triggering an IED. The explosion tore a three-foot hole in the metal floor of the vehicle. Jake was standing directly above the blast. His back was broken in five places, his pelvis shattered, his liver lacerated and his legs were, in his words, "pulverized." All he remembers is a flash of blinding light. When Jake came to, he knew he was badly hurt and feared the worst.
"Check my nuts," he told the medic.
When he got a thumbs-up, Jake closed his eyes and let the morphine wash over him. Four days later he awakened at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He had two stumps where his legs had been.
Vanessa is a steel magnolia who had worked as a 911 dispatcher. She was trained to be resolute in the face of crisis, but she admits to feeling overwhelmed at the sight of her maimed husband. "When Jake got hurt, it was as if our future was taken away," she says. "There was so much fear and uncertainty. What would his quality of life be like? If I have to take care of him, how will we pay the bills? Where will we live? For a long time we were living day to day, just trying to survive."
Jake refused to wallow in self-pity. Five weeks after he woke up in the hospital he completed a five-mile race on a hand-crank bicycle. Three months after that he cranked through the New York City Marathon. "I saw a lot of guys kind of wasting away in Walter Reed," he says. "That determination to go on—you can't find that after you've been blown up. It has to already be inside of you."
Golf became a vital part of Jake's recovery. He had played casually with his father, Art, who learned the game during a stint in the Navy and counted himself as a member of Arnie's Army. Over the last two decades Art has switched his rooting allegiance to Phil Mickelson. "He has the same gung-ho, go-for-broke style as Arnie," says Art. "That's the way I've tried to live my life. Jake, too."
Within months of getting his new steel legs, Jake was on a golf course violently lashing at the ball. "It taught me how to move, how to keep my balance, how to navigate different terrain," Jake says. "It helped me reintegrate into society. Golf got me out of a dark place. It was a saving grace."
After 15 months at Walter Reed, Jake was determined to put in his 20 years, and he says he was only the second double-amputee to remain on active duty. He and Vanessa settled in Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, in housing that was heavily populated by young women whose husbands were overseas. Jake was the embodiment of their worst fears. "It was an awkward time," he says. "The wives were always nice to me, but I could see the pain in their eyes."
Seeking a refuge, he and Vanessa had put in an application with Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit that was founded in 2004 to provide specially adapted houses for injured veterans. From the beginning Mickelson has been a financial supporter and a spokesman. He is also a benefactor to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college scholarships to the children of fallen special ops personnel. Mickelson coined the name Birdies for the Brave for his efforts to support the military. In '06 it became one of the PGA Tour's official charities, and to date more than $7 million has been raised for the eight military charities that benefit from the endeavor. In November, Mickelson will host a two-day fund-raiser at TPC Sawgrass. His ambitious target is to raise $10 million for Birdies for the Brave. "It's pretty cool that, one way or another, my dad's favorite golfer helped build my house," Jake says.
The Keeslars chose a 1½-acre plot outside Fallbrook, Calif., about 45 minutes northeast of Camp Pendleton. Last November—nine months after Jake fulfilled his 20 years and walked away from the Army—they moved into a beautiful home with dark hardwood floors and a state-of-the-art chef's kitchen. Among the house's many adaptations are wider doorways, lower countertops and cutouts beneath the sink and stove to allow him to roll right up. The master bathroom has a huge wheelchair-accessible shower and the world's coolest toilet. The big common rooms and expansive backyard have made the Keeslars' house the default spot for all family gatherings, saving Jake the difficulties of navigating other homes that are ill-equipped for his needs. (There is also an extra bedroom for visits from Joy, 15, who lives with her mom in Ohio.)