Daniel Rubin: "Doc Raffetto" rallies from his own trauma

Jay Raffetto of Chesco, wounded in Afghan war.
Jay Raffetto of Chesco, wounded in Afghan war.
Posted: February 24, 2011

A year before The Incident, as the military calls what happened to Jay Raffetto, the Navy corpsman from Chester County helped train the Marines he'd be working with in Afghanistan. The lesson:

What to do in a bombing.

Someone from the First Marine Division's newsletter interviewed Raffetto after that exercise in November 2009 at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

"It's important for them to know what procedure to follow," he said, "because if something were to happen to me . . . they will be able to treat me or anyone else who needs it."

That foresight probably saved his life.

On Aug. 5, Raffetto was sent on a recon mission with three Marines in Helmand province, a remote region of rugged terrain and brutal heat.

The Marines called the Conestoga High grad "Doc Raffetto." He'd completed two years of rigorous training in advanced trauma management and belonged to the elite Special Amphibious Marine Reconnaissance Corpsmen team.

They were checking out an abandoned compound. Bearing 75 pounds of medical equipment and body armor, Raffetto was first to step out of an empty building - and onto a metal plate.

The explosion took off both of his legs bove the knees, and his tore his left arm from above the elbow. He lost three fingers on his right hand. Both eardrums were shattered. His torso and spine were unharmed.

Several days later, after his evacuation to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., he told his brother, Peter: "When I first got hit, I just freaked out. Then it was, 'This is what you got to do.' "

According to his directions, the Marines tied tourniquets around his ragged limbs. "He said he felt like his limbs were on fire," his brother recalls.

That first day at Bethesda, he said three things that Peter recalls most clearly:

"He asked after his wife. He said, 'It looks like my plans have changed.' And he asked if anyone else got hurt."

His brother doesn't think Doc Raffetto would be handling the long rehab as well if someone else had been injured whom he couldn't help.

His father, John, hears this and nods. We're sitting at the kitchen table in the Raffettos' brick Cape Codder in Devon. Jay was a kitchen-table kind of guy, his father says - laid-back, unpretentious. "I think he could be happy just living on the top of a mountain with Emily."

Jay and Emily married just before deployment, a half-year before the blast. Peter, who is 31, introduced them. He was tending bar in King of Prussia when she took a job as a waitress.

"You've got to meet my brother," Peter told her.

Jay was training in Panama City, Fla. A month later, he came home and met this new waitress. "It didn't take long," Peter said.

Soon, she was packing her things, buying a new car with a stick shift, and learning to drive it as she made her way across the country to Camp Pendleton. She was living there when the call came in about the explosion. That afternoon, John and Jennifer Raffetto flew to her side.

John, a lumber salesman, served in the Air Force during Vietnam. Jennifer's family was Mennonite and antiwar. "Maybe if I'd let the boys play with guns as kids . . .," she says. But this is the only regret mentioned over two hours as they talk about the towheaded boy who loved Batman and hanging from trees in the backyard, and about how he turned into a man who volunteered for some of the military's most rigorous training.

The regimen packed 190 pounds onto his 5-foot-11 frame - as if he'd gone "to a gym every day for nine hours," his father puts it.

Now, that toughness is being put to another test. He undergoes hours of rehab each day, his wife by his side. He is learning to walk on new legs, struggling to regain his balance.

"There's no playbook," says Jennifer Raffetto, a bank manager. "It's a slow process." Their hope is that their son will be released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center a year from now, which will make it 18 months after the accident.

His father says Jay talks about returning to school - he left Millersville University after a year.

Among those who have come to Jay Raffetto's aid is Jon Kane, a Berwyn lawyer who served as an infantry officer in Vietnam. "We've got to do something as a community," he said. "You've got this group coming home with severe wounds. We've got to be ready. In Vietnam, we would have had to leave them on the battlefield."

Kane helped organize a committee to raise money for the corpsman. Dick Vermeil, the former Eagles coach, is to host a wine-tasting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Aneu Bistro in Devon. So far, well-wishers have raised $180,000.

Jay and Emily Raffetto are traveling up from Walter Reed for the fund-raiser. They'll be meeting Vermeil for the first time. Vermeil said he felt he had to help.

"I've been in a profession where we honor people and hold them in high esteem, the all-pros and the all-Americans. I care for them dearly," the coach said. "When you compare what all those great kids have done in contrast to what this kid has done - the real definition of a hero, the real definition of somebody worthy of emulation - it just jumps out."

Contact columnist Daniel Rubin

at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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