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MAGNA — John Angell still remembers the moment that changed his life forever.
During one of his tours overseas with the United States Marine Corps, Angell was in a cemetery on security detail for his commanding officer. Angell’s unit received indirect fire, a skirmish broke out and he suffered head trauma that led to a traumatic brain injury.
The particulars are fuzzy. But Angell described the scene as best he could to KSL-TV just days before Cyprus High School was set to honor him with the receipt of the Purple Heart award Friday night during its game against region rival Kearns.
“What I remember from the incident was that my (commanding officer) was the one that saved me,” said Angell, who served in the military until 2008. “I didn’t complain, but I had headaches and I was having nose bleeds. My equilibrium was off. But I just sucked it up and kept going.
“This wasn’t a time where you could go up to somebody and complain. You just dealt with it.”
During Angell’s third deployment in Iraq in 2008, his injury flared up worse than before.
“I remember coming back from something in all of my gear, and next thing I know is that I was in the medevac,” Angell said. “I couldn’t stop my nose from bleeding, and they were pumping me full of IVs.
“I was really out of it.”
When Angell woke up, they told him he had suffered a seizure. After an MRI in Germany, doctors found a large flare-up in the left hemisphere of his occipital lobe — activity about the size of a quarter. They performed surgery to repair his occipital nerve.
“They ran two electrodes through the brain and sent a current similar to a nine-volt battery on the nerve,” he said. “I feel that in my head constantly.”
Angell returned home in 2008, but things were never the same after that tour of duty. He suffered from serious post-traumatic stress disorder and began doing “things I shouldn’t have” — drinking and a life devoid of higher goals, he recalled.
“Six months ago, I was a Marine,” he said, “and now I felt like a drain on society.”
On Nov. 15, 2008, that all began to change. Angell met April, who would go on to be his wife, and the two began the difficult road to recovery and finding a new purpose in life.
“She changed everything,” Angell said of April. “She got me help, and made me realize I was still effective as a human being. I might not be a Marine, but I still had a place in the world.”
Angell went back to school and got a degree in education. He wanted to teach, and he wanted a degree that made him “use my brain” more than others.
His focus? Math, which led to a career at Cyprus High. He now uses his Marine experiences, attitude and determination to help his students find their own place in the world.
“A lot of them have families that care for them,” Angell said. “But a lot of them don’t. A lot of them rely on their friends who are in gangs.
“I refused to accept defeat from terrorism, and I’m not going to accept defeat from a 19-year-old who thinks he is all that because he is in a gang.”
At halftime of the Pirates’ game Friday night against region rival Kearns, Angell will receive a Purple Heart — among the military's oldest honors, given to members of the armed forces who are wounded in battle — with pride.
The award is symbolic of the work Angell has taken to come back from a devastating injury and become a contributing member of society.
And it will be a humbling experience for a soldier who traded in his rifle for a ruler and protractor.
“The amount of work that everybody went through behind the scenes, when I didn’t think I rated it, was more humbling than I could ever imagine,” Angell said. “I had guilt with it; a lot of people from that day didn’t come back.
“But I want my family to be able to look back and see me as someone who got injured and decided not to be a drain on society.”
The Purple Heart is also a reminder to his students that there is more to life than gangs and drugs.
“The biggest gang that I have ever been in is the United States Marine Corps,” said Angell, paraphrasing the words to the Marine Corps hymn. “We are a fraternity of brothers that is everlasting.
“We’ll guard the streets for all time. When I die, I’m going to be ‘guarding the streets of gold for God.’”