Iraq War Veteran: Find Comfort in Happy Moments

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- One might feel sorry for former Marine Cpl. Joshua Bleill for the loss of both of his legs in a bombing in Fallujah, Iraq, but those who heard him speak at the Firehouse World opening ceremony got a very different perspective: that of an inspiration to all who have served their country as firefighters or in the military.

Coverage of Firehouse World  2011

Bleill was the keynote speaker for the conference and spoke of how the events of Sept. 11, 2001 motivated him to join the Marines at the age of 27 and nearly cost him his life. Now, walking on prosthetic legs, he serves as a community representative and motivational speaker for the Indianapolis Colts and leads a fulfilling life as a husband and father to a brand-new five-week-old daughter.

Monday's opening events were filled with emotion evoked by Bleill's speech as well as by a poem recited by Australian author and poet Rupert McCall, titled “A Fire Fighter's Dream,” inspired by the events of Sept. 11.

Darrin Hall, the recipient of the California Fire Training Officer of the Year added a bit of emotion to the event too as he accepted his award, thanking his family for their support and thanking his fellow firefighters for their acknowledgment of his dedication and achievements.

Also, during the opening ceremony, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Executive Director Ron Siarnicki unveiled a newly redesigned seat belt pledge and public service announcements. See separate coverage: National Seat Belt Pledge Gets New Home.

"A Fire Fighter's Dream"

There were not many dry eyes in the audience after McCall reprised his reading from last year’s Sept. 11 memorial at Ground Zero.

The poem focuses on a relationship between a father, one of the 343 lost in the attacks, and his surviving son, as well as on the sense of community and belonging felt by those in the fire service.

It recalls the attacks, the collapse and the recovery effort, and it zeros in on the recovery of a helmet, all that remains of the firefighter who perished in the attack, and how it was returned to his son who considers his father a hero.

The last lines of the poem read: "I can see it through the window where a boy waits in his room. He is waiting for his hero, still, to walk back through that door. The hat he holds is scuffed and scratched but this, he knows for sure. One day he will wear that hat and pride will reign supreme. Because his father's gift was freedom and for that… he has a dream."

After hearing the words, the audience stood for a sustained ovation and tears could be seen.

Keynote Presentation

Bleill also earned a standing ovation from the hundreds gathered at the opening ceremony, stealing the show with his humanity, enthusiasm for life and humor in the face of adversity.

Bleill, who grew up on the east side of Indianapolis as the son of a school teacher and Red Cross worker, shared that for his eighth birthday, he asked for a firefighter’s helmet. When he received it, he proceeded to rescue his dog, Binky, from countless pretend fires, and developed a lifelong affinity for firefighters.

Following in the footsteps of his father, a Vietnam War veteran, and his grandfather, a World War II veteran, Bleill joined the Marines at the age of 27.

"I was the oldest to graduate from my class and after dealing with 17 and 18-year-olds, I had all I could do to keep from strangling those knuckleheads," Bleill said.

But, soon he realized that they were his brothers and would do anything for him, as he would do for them.

Bleill made the parallel between firefighters and veterans and the bonds that keep them together in adversity and in joy.

In 2006, Bleill's unit was activated and he went in for five months of training and deployment which took him to Fallujah, Iraq, which at the time was a hot spot in the conflict. "We were sent in to get bad guys," he said.

While on duty on Oct. 15, 2006, Bleill and his comrades were hit by a bomb. Two in his company were killed, others were injured and Bleill was left with traumatic, life-threatening and life-changing injuries. He lost both legs above the knees, broke his pelvis in several places, broke his wrists, suffered a brain injury, and sustained other injuries almost too numerous to mention. He woke up days later in a hospital in Germany and was later transferred to Walter Reed Hospital Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. for recovery and rehabilitation.

"I was scared, I was hurt and I was angry," Bleill said, noting that he withdrew and became ashamed of who he had become. He was down to 120 pounds, used a wheelchair and was self-conscious of people staring.

An offer to go see the Indianapolis Colt play in the Super Bowl drew him out of his shell and helped him regain his confidence. He didn't care what the 100,000 or so people might think of him… he was transported elsewhere and it didn't matter that he had lost his legs. That moment was the first step in his new career with the Colts. Later, the team's management offered him a job when he was ready.

He took them up on the offer and now travels the country telling his story and inspiring people to overcome adversity and move on with life.

During his speech at Firehouse World, Bleill praised those in the profession for the passion they have for helping people and making the world a better place.

"Sometimes, it's a thankless job," Bleill said. "But you are changing lives, you are saving lives every day. ...You know your jobs and love what you do."

Bleill said he holds tight to a memory he has of Iraq, when he gave a scared child some candy, and provided a brief moment of happiness and comfort. He told the firefighters they should remember those moments too.

"You have to find those happy moments and the comfort that you can provide," he said. "I thank you for making the country comfortable. You are amazing people ... and it's an honor to for me to be here. I am truly blessed to be alive."