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Veteran’s outlook helps him ‘smile through adversity’


Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

A positive outlook on life, an ability to contribute laughter to any situation and a determination to confront any obstacle are all attributes of Jason Lilley, a retired Marine from Roswell.

“It’s been me my whole life. I like being happy and I want others to see, and it’s going to sound like a facade, but I want others to see that you can smile through adversity,” Lilley said.

That optimism is something not lost on some of Lilley’s longtime friends, who describe it as one of his most endearing qualities.

“He has this type of trademark smile that if you see it once, you remember it forever. You know, he is just always happy,” said Eli Soto, a friend of Lilley’s since their days as teenagers in Roswell.

Lilley’s tendency to not dwell on the negative has been put to the test this year, when at the age of 42, he had his right leg amputated above the knee.

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It was a decision the retired Marine, a husband and father of three who now resides in Lubbock, Texas, made in June, following years of excruciating physical pain, medical procedures and countless visits to doctors and emergency rooms.

The deterioration of his knee occurred in part after years of playing sports.

“Growing up I played baseball, soccer, basketball, football, pretty much everything I could,” he said.

In high school, he was on the soccer and baseball teams and ran hurdles. His senior year, he was a kicker for the Goddard Rockets.

During his senior year in 1995, Lilley had torn some cartilage in his knee and underwent the first in a series of surgeries. His knee healed and he resumed athletics.

After graduating from Goddard High, he attended the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces, where he played soccer, before spending two years in Italy.

In 2001, he joined the Marines, becoming a door gunner on a Huey helicopter and reaching the rank of Sergeant E5.

“And then once I joined the Marines, that kind of takes a little more toll on your body, of course,” Lilley said.

Much of his time was spent in helicopters where Lilley said he regularly crouched, knelt and hunched over. That combined with the physical training further strained his body.

In all, Lilley underwent 27 surgeries, 14 of which were on his knee, with the others performed on his right ankle, left and right shoulders, and one of his elbows.

The pain became a daily part of Lilley’s life and at one point in 2003, his right knee grew to the size of a grapefruit.

“Like my knee always hurt. It always swelled up. I always had to get it drained,” he said.

After his fifth knee surgery in 2007, he had seen multiple physicians, with each telling him that he would have to have a total knee replacement in the near future.

The pain continued to be unbearable despite the surgeries. Eventually he had to get a total knee replacement surgery, but the aches, inflammation and the restrictions it had placed on him did not abate.

“And two and a half years later, that is when the five total knees and like nine surgeries later, it came to the point where it is like, I am done with this knee, I am done having operations,” he said.

He began speaking with people he knew who had prosthetic limbs about the good and bad of having his leg amputated. Most of them, Lilley said, told him it was the best thing they had ever done.

“They got rid of that, just that thing that was bothering you all the time because you think about it all the time, because it hurts and aches. They were able to get rid of it and start a new life,” he said.

Short-term hinderances that accompanied an amputation, he said, such as healing, pain and possible infections were all things he had endured before.

His wife Michelle was at first skeptical, but after further discussion and research, she become more supportive, as did the children.

He said his friends wanted him to make sure that he was certain about the decision. However, most of them also eventually came around.

“At first, you are just, you feel just devastated,” Soto said.

However, Lilley’s trademark positivity gave way to a new outlook. He told them having the operation would free him from the pain he had to endure for years and allow him to be a better person and father.

Soto said that attitude made him feel better and inspired himself, as well as other friends from Lilley’s days growing up in Roswell and the military, to set up a GoFundMe account to ensure Lilley and his family have the money they need to make a successful transition to life with a prosthetic limb.

Complete with a video featuring photos of Lilley and testimonials from friends, the account as of Nov. 10 has received a total of $46,035 in contributions from 305 donors, out of a stated goal of $90,000.

Lilley said he was touched by the generosity of his friends.

“And it just blew me away. Hearing the words, and seeing them talk on the video and seeing the GoFundMe,” he said.

But the displays of kindness did not just come from family and friends, but even from strangers. There were the people who pointed him to nonprofits that could help cover the cost of prosthetic limbs. And individuals who heard about the story and offered their services to build ramps on the back and front porches of his house or widen doorways, so Lilley can move around his house in a wheelchair or with a walker.

Lilley is expected to be fitted for his prosthetic limb in December.

And there are the people who have cooked meals for Lilley and his family. And the company where he works as a plant operator said once he has recovered, he can come back to work.

In short, he has been fortunate enough to have a good support network in place to help him through this difficult time.

Lilley said once he is recovered, he would like to help others either emotionally or financially through similar circumstances. He floats the idea of perhaps starting his own nonprofit to do that.

“It’s in my heart to volunteer, it is in my heart to help others,” he said.

As for him, he believes any challenges he faces now are short-term and in the end will lead to a positive outcome and that people should never give up.

“I’ve seen stuff that is way worse than what I am going through and a testament to my faith and just believing that even though something bad is happening, that is OK, that is the path that God has put us on,” he said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301 or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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