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Local man earns big award for service in Navy
21-year-old shares stories from war in Afghanistan
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Timothy Jaron Helton, 21, returned from Afghanistan on Sept. 29. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for his efforts in combat where he rescued others and was injured. Helton completed one tour in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan while serving with the U.S. Navy. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

If war is hell, maybe Timothy Jaron Helton has seen a bit more than his share.

Resting now at his mother's North Hall home, the Gainesville native recalls with steely calm the firefights, explosions, the kicking down of doors and innocent children dying during his time in Afghanistan.

"It was tough," Helton said, staring straight ahead.
For his efforts in combat, the 21-year-old received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, just beneath the Bronze Star. He also received a pin shaped like a "V," representing valor.

"The hardest thing ... is you don't know who is the Taliban and who isn't," Helton said of his time in Afghanistan. "It's like fighting a ghost over there."

Before joining the Navy, the 2007 Chestatee High School graduate was considering a career working on boats. He then heard about a Navy program for special warfare combatant-craft crewmen, who support special operations forces, particularly Navy SEALs.

He pursued it but later changed course and entered
corpsman school, learning to become a medic. Helton graduated as a corpsman on Dec. 3, 2007.

His first overseas deployment was Iraq, where he served from July 2008 to February 2009.

"I saw some action in Iraq, but it was sporadic and not nearly as violent as (in Afghanistan)," Helton said. "We'd be on patrol - they'd shoot at us, we'd shoot back and they'd run."

He arrived on March 4 in Afghanistan, attached to the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"My first big conflict was on March 25," Helton said. "We were on just a normal security patrol. We took fire on and off through the day."

About noon that day, an Afghan soldier with the group was shot.

"I went back 100 yards while getting shot at to treat him," he said. "About 30 seconds after treating him, a Marine was shot in the leg. I moved under enemy gunfire and treated him."

Helicopters later arrived and picked up those two.

In the meantime, Helton rushed off to treat a second injured Marine.

On April 1, he went with some Marines to "clear out a compound" when the Marine in the lead stepped on a homemade bomb at the front door.

Such bombs, referred to as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are a popular weapon of the Taliban, the extremist Islamic movement that ruled Afghanistan until driven out by a U.S.-led coalition after 9/11.

"It blew me backward and I was unconscious for a little while," said Helton, who later learned that he had suffered a concussion.

When he came to, he noticed the Marine who had been directly in front of him at the door lying in a creek.

"I ran over to him, because he was the first one I saw," Helton said. "... He was missing some fingers and his arm was broken, and he had some pretty bad cuts on his leg. I told him he was going to be OK, dragged him out of the creek and told him to hang in there, that I would be back."

Then, he found the Marine who had stepped on the explosive.

"He was lying face-down in a crater and was missing his legs and his left arm," Helton said. "I put tourniquets on him and started treating him right away."

He waited about 15 minutes for help to arrive.

"It seemed like an eternity," Helton said. "I had those two casualties all to myself, and I had to stop massive hemorrhaging on two Marines at once."

The lead Marine died that night from internal bleeding. The other Marine "is OK now, missing only his middle finger," he said. "He's got some pretty bad scarring, but he's OK. He's alive and well."

Pausing a bit after telling the story, Helton said, "That was just two days. I had seven months like that."

His toughest day was Aug. 7, an incident not mentioned in the commendation.

"At the jail on one of our bases, somehow the prisoners got weapons and started shooting at us from their cells," Helton said.

He and some Marines went to the scene.

"As soon as we cleared the threshold of the door, I saw a Marine drop in front of me," Helton said. "I grabbed him and pulled him around the building so I could treat him.

"I looked down and saw he was my roommate. ... He had been shot in the head."

Helton tried to revive him, but the Marine died.

"I was close to him and everybody in his family," he said, stumbling a bit on his words. "I knew everything about him."

Then, one week before he left Afghanistan on Sept. 29, Helton watched as two young girls chased after a chicken that had gotten loose.

One of the girls "stepped on an IED and (died in the explosion)," he said. "The second girl lost her legs and an arm."

Reflecting on the Marines' mission, Helton said, "Our main goal was to win over the local population. I would treat sick or injured people; we'd hand out food. (The locals) were scared to be seen talking to us for fear of the Taliban."

The commendation describes Helton's heroics during two missions.

"He ran to the aid of fallen Marines at the risk of his own life," said Marine 1st Lt. Robert Paulus in an April 29 recommendation letter for Helton's potential future employers. "He did this without hesitation and in the most pressing of situations under fire."

Despite the high praises, the Afghanistan deployment has left its mark on Helton.

He said he still suffers from paranoia.

"I was driving down Interstate 85 the other day and a rock bounced off the road or something and popped on my windshield, and I almost wrecked," Helton said.

On another occasion, he was gathering firewood and "found I was nervous about where I was stepping."

And then there are the bad dreams - two in particular.

In one, he and his family are in a garden, "but everybody is afraid to walk anywhere because of IEDs," Helton said.

In the other, "I'm on patrol and kids come up to me and start spitting blood."

His mother, Kaye Taylor, said she forced herself to stay informed about her son's ordeals, "even though I was advised against it sometimes."

"I didn't want to be one of those mothers ... or Americans who didn't know what was (happening) on the other side of the world, where our sons and daughters are at," she said.

"Every chance that we could, we talked, and (Helton) was honest with me many times on the events that had taken place," she said. "Being a military mother is definitely one of the hardest jobs in the world. It's always not knowing and that's the hardest part.

"When three weeks go by and you haven't had a phone call, your brain goes in a lot of different directions."

Helton leaves Nov. 1 for Camp Lejeune, where he'll spend six months.

Then, he has choices - either going to school to study becoming a biomedical technician or work in a hospital or clinic somewhere.

Looking into the future, Helton knows what he wants to do.

"Mom's not going to like this, but my dream job would be a SWAT team paramedic" with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or a similar agency.

"It's basically the same thing I'm doing now," Helton said. "I like helping people ... and the adrenaline that comes along with it, so that's a perfect job for me."

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