Archive for April, 2009

Our Soldier’s Story

April 6, 2009

Walter Reed Army Medical Center was a long way from the weight room of Carmel Gym.

From his hospital bed in Washington, we held hands and prayed together.  I asked God to give him the strength to endure the long road ahead, a climb that was just beginning. 

On a Sunday in mid-October 2006, my friend Joshua Bleill had lost both legs in a horrific bomb explosion in Iraq.  After 11 hours of surgery, his hip was held together with 34 screws.  He could barely talk.  But Josh was a Marine, and stronger than ever.

Lance Corporal Bleill had been in Iraq for just a couple of weeks when his Humvee hit an improvised explosive device in Fallujah.  Two marines in his vehicle died.  Josh’s good friend Tim eventually lost a leg.  Josh lost both legs, amputated above the knees.

Suddenly, my friend from the gym was helpless on a foreign battlefield.  Taken first to Germany and then to Washington, Josh spent two years recuperating and learning to walk again.  Now 31 years old, he is an inspiration to soldiers who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan missing limbs and missing parts of their lives. 

Many of us in Indianapolis saw reports of his progress and his story, with local TV stations and newspapers following his recovery.josh-and-dave-march-2008

But I was blessed to see his transformation happen before my eyes, with each successive visit to the building on the Walter Reed Hospital campus where dozens of wounded warriors live and recuperate.  It’s close to their rehabilitation center.  My work brought me to our nation’s capital every six weeks or so, and I tried to visit Josh and his friends whenever I could.

With the support of his family and the incredible staff at Walter Reed, Josh made steady progress.  There were setbacks and disappointments, but also moments of great joy as he learned to walk again – first with a set of “short” legs, and then adding height and motion.  An experimental set of legs uses Bluetooth wireless signals that allow the legs to “talk” to each other.   By last May he was making the rounds at rehab, encouraging other soldiers on their progress.  Here’s a short video from rehab:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMHOlfHqD0Q

A soldier’s life at Walter Reed can be lonely.  But Josh was the bright light to so many injured men.  His sense of humor and humility prevail, even with this incredible challenge.  He’s sat with the President for Nationals baseball games and traveled to see the COLTS win the Super Bowl.  His fiancé Nikki has been at his side, patiently helping, learning, leading, and loving.  They make a warm and wonderful couple.

josh-and-nikki1

Eventually, Josh moved home and made plans for his future.

On a sunny Saturday April afternoon, Josh married Nikki in a packed ballroom of the former officer’s club at the former Fort Harrison in Indianapolis – now part of a state park.  The room was filled with family, friends, soldiers, media, and so much love for “our Marine” and his bride.

There are no words to express what we all felt during the official “first dance,” as Josh used his cane to steady himself on prosthetic legs.  His arms embraced his beautiful bride.

This is the moment so many had hoped for.  And it was truly amazing to see it all unfold.

dscn37072

We don’t yet know how Josh’s story will end, or why his tour in Iraq was cut short by the explosion.  But so many hearts have been touched by his story, and so many people have been moved to help – first to care for Josh, then to care for the injured Marines who have no family to love them. 

Josh is not shy about what’s next.

“There are reasons that things happen. There are reasons that this happened. And I have a new mission at hand,” he told one of the Indianapolis TV stations shortly after the accident.

“My faith in God stays faithful to accomplish that mission as well.  It’s something that I have to pray about and see what it is. Maybe it’s helping other Marines that get in this same situation.”

Josh and Nikki have started a new chapter, loved and supported by so many who have been inspired by this soldier’s story.

dscn37021