Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

December 17, 2013

Marine triumphs over war wounds

Debbie Blank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — Talk about overcoming adversity. U.S. Marine Cpl. Joshua Bleill could write a book about it.

In fact, he has, “One Step at a Time,” one of 25 nominated for a 2013-14 Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award. The 206-page nonfiction book, written with Mark Tabb, is available at The Bookshelf locally.

The Carmel resident was at Batesville High School Dec. 12 to give students a pep talk about rising above difficult situations.

After losing both legs above the knees in Iraq Oct. 15, 2006, he now is an Indianapolis Colts community spokesperson.

Walking to the middle of the gym using a cane, Bleill broke the ice by chatting about the cold weather. “I can’t even feel my feet!” he announced as the students laughed. He remembered listening to a speaker while in high school who had lost both legs. “I never thought I would connect that well with a speaker.”

After graduating from Greenfield Central High School, the spokesperson attended Purdue University and worked for an insurance company. As he watched events of Sept. 11 unfold on TV, “something inside of me clicked.” He thought, “‘I could serve this country. I could give back,’” like his father and grandfather, who were in the military during wars.

At 27, Bleill was sent to boot camp and was skeptical as 17- and 18-year-olds surrounded him.

“These were the guys I was going to trust my life to?” Thinking the 13 weeks was “so hard” at the time, the author realized later drill instructors “wanted me to be prepared. Sometimes the people who push us the hardest are the people who love us the most.”

After being a Marine Reservist for a year and a half, he received a January 2006 phone call “I was waiting for. I wanted to be sent” to a combat zone. “I was scared, I was nervous.”

More training took place, this time in the Mojave Desert and with 120 Iraqi citizens. Serving with the First Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, “there were gunfire and explosions every single day .... there were lives being lost.”

Bleill’s wounds occurred in Fallujah while on patrol and an improvised explosive device struck his Humvee. “My world went blank. That bomb went off directly under my side of the vehicle.” He was unconscious when fellow Marines “went into that fire and saved me.”

Five days later, he awoke to find internal injuries, a severe traumatic brain injury, his jaw wired shut, casts on both wrists and a tracheotomy needed so he could breathe. His legs were partially amputated.

The emotional wounds were even tougher. “My friends were in that vehicle with me. They had to explain the hardest part of this ordeal.” Two of his friends had died. A gunner thrown from the vehicle lost his right leg. The driver, on the side farthest from the bomb, was miraculously untouched.

“I was hurt. I was scared. I was angry … My faith was definitely tested.”

He was transferred from a German hospital to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md.

At 29, the former Purdue lacrosse player weighed 115 pounds and was in a wheelchair. He recalled, “I refused to go out in public. I couldn’t deal with the stares … I didn’t want to look weak.” Bleill was offered chances to go scuba diving and horseback riding. “I became very notorious for saying no to these trips. I had a good sergeant. He never gave up.”

The sergeant asked, “‘How would you like to go see the Indianapolis Colts play the Chicago Bears? In the Super Bowl?’” The born-and-raised Colts fan said yes. “This was a dream for me. It was the first time I left the hospital.” Bringing home the championship in 2007 “was awesome,” but the Marine learned the trip “was so much bigger than a football game for me. I didn’t care if people looked … I knew I was blessed just to be alive.”

It was time to get “these crazy, robotic legs.” What they didn’t tell the Hoosier was that while he learned to use them, the first set would be very short. “I was 4 feet tall!”

“As I stood there, I slowly started to realize I didn’t know how to walk in prosthetic legs … I couldn’t take a single step” because he was so weak. Back in his room, Bleill found letters and packages offering encouragement. “‘We’re praying for you. We know you can do this.’” He thought, “If other people believe in me … I can try again.”

The speaker continued, “It took me five days before I took one single step … It gave me the hope that I could do this.”

Bleill met President George W. Bush and, after the Super Bowl, Colts Peyton Manning and Joseph Addai, “as nice as can be,” there for a trip to the White House. As it turns out, Colts owner Jim Irsay and Bleill had gone to the same gym years before. A mutual friend kept Irsay up on the Marine’s progress. Irsay arrived bedside and offered to fly him home. Then he added, “‘When you get there, come see me about a job.’”

Bleill felt ready to walk off the plane and planned to return to Indiana, but soon he experienced pain after walking a few steps, caused by leg infections. He was told, “‘We’re going to have to amputate again.’” The war veteran was incredulous. “‘I’m going to start over from scratch?’” Ever positive and with “an amazing support system,” he had the surgery, spent three more months in a wheelchair “and learned to walk again for the third time in my life.”

After 22 months in hospitals, he arrived home and was interviewed by Colts officials. They announced, “‘We want to honor that promise Jim made you and give you a job at the Indianapolis Colts.’” Bleill was ecstatic until he learned it was to be a public speaker. “I blurted out, ‘I hate public speaking.’” He told himself, “‘You’ve got to step out of your comfort zone and try new things.’”

“My wife was a third-grade schoolteacher,” so he practiced in front of those students, then went to churches and different organizations. Now he travels the country, presenting 200 speeches annually.

Of high school, the author observed, “Life gets even bigger than this. The things you do here can set you up for a good future.” He admitted it can be “stressful learning how to fit in,” but advised, “Do now what you want them to remember 20 years down the line.” Smiling, holding doors and learning how to get along will pay off.

Drugs and alcohol “can easily take you down the road where you don’t want to go.” Bleill added that some choices are “not popular, not easy, but it will make you a better person.”

“Everybody has bombs going off in their lives, things they don’t see coming. Some of you in this room have gone through harder things than I have.” He stressed, “Do not add to somebody else’s bomb …. Don’t bully. Don’t be mean. We don’t have to be best friends with everybody.” After living with 100 Marines, “I ended up losing 22 of my friends. We didn’t all get along, but I loved those brothers.

“Don’t add to anybody else’s struggles. Add to their blessings.”

The survivor reflected that after he was injured, “I gave up for awhile. I lost my hope. I could have easily sat in that wheelchair for the rest of my life … I said, This is my life … I’ve got to quit saying, ‘Why me?’ and go forward.” The best decision is to believe “I’m going to get past this.”

The motivator concluded, “I am much more than robot legs. I am a father, a husband, a Colts spokesperson, a Marine. Don’t let anybody limit you or tell you who you are.”

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.