Scott Swan/Eyewitness News
April 4, 2009 was a day for romance in Indianapolis. More than two hundred people filed into the Garrison Golf Resort and Conference Center to not only watch a wedding. They also wanted to witness a comeback. In the bridal room, Nikki Tooley glanced in the mirror and thought about her special day.
"You are supposed to look at the bride, but there is such a special man standing up there to look at and admire. And, you don't want to miss that either," said Tooley.
That man is former a Greenfield Marine. Josh Bleill, 32, cannot help but think about the road he has taken since October 15, 2006, when he was seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Doctors amputated both legs above the knees.
"It has been a crazy two and a half years," said Bleill. "At one point, I really never thought I would walk again."
Bleill's brown tuxedo pants covered his prosthetic legs. The former Marine used a cane to stand at the wedding alter and exchanged marriage vows with Tooley.
"To be up there standing is priceless to me," said Bleill. "People say 'don't lock your knees,'" joked Bleill. "I won't pass out. I won't fall down either."
Josh's best friend from the Marines was a member of the wedding party. Tim Lang was also injured by the same 2006 roadside blast in Iraq and had his right leg amputated below the knee.
"When we got injured together, we recovered today," said Bleill. "We strengthened each other. We challenged each other. And we've continued that friendship and that brotherhood."
Bleill is walking a new path in Indiana. After returning from his honeymoon, Bleill began a new job with the Indianapolis Colts, participating in the team's new program called "Hoosiers Helping Hoosiers." Bleill says he will give speeches at Colts events and share how he has overcome his injuries.
"It's a dream job," Bleill said. "I want to go out and help the community," said Bleill. "They have done so much for me. I want to give that back."
Bleill joined the Marine Corps in 2004 at the age of 26. Bleill was in Iraq only 10 days when a roadside bomb blew up his humvee.
"When the blast went off, I was knocked out," Bleill said at the 2008 "Set a Good Example" dinner at his alma mater, Greenfield-Central High School. "It went off directly underneath me, taking both legs at the time," added Bleill. "It killed two of my good friends."
When he woke up, Bleill was in a Germany hospital unaware his Marines were killed.
We first met Bleill on October 31, 2006. It was sixteen days after the explosion that put Bleill in a hospital bed at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
"It is still a hard concept to grasp that they are not there," said Bleill at the time. Bleill touched the wounds where his lower legs were amputated. "I still feel like they are there most nights. I touch them more now. Kind of feel them."
Doctors at Bethesda performed several complicated surgeries on Bleill and placed 34 pins and one screw in his hip. The roadside bomb also broke his jaw, two fingers and dislocated both thumbs.
Bleill's parents were at their son's hospital side in October 2006.
"You're a great Marine," Myra Bleill told her wounded son. "Although he doesn't have his legs, he's got his mind and he's going to have his voice. And, he has his sight," said Bleill's mother.
"We are the lucky ones," said Virg Bleill. Josh's father also served in the Marines. "He's alive. We'll get to touch him."
Their son survived the blast. Two others Marines did not.
Bleill's best friend from the Marines recovered in the hospital room down the hall at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In October of 2006, Tim Lang described the blast.
"It was Sunday afternoon. We were the fifth vehicle in the convoy," said Lang. "We followed in the same tire tracks to avoid IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," added Lang. "I remember this incredible explosion." The Humvee flipped over. "I thought I was dying," said Lang.
Bleill's mother stood in the hospital room listening to Lang describe his relationship with Bleill on the battlefield.
"Me and Josh shared bunks," said Lang. "He was my fire team leader."
Long road to recovery
It would not take Bleill very long to begin a new mission. Within weeks of the blast, Bleill attacked rehabilitation.
"They build your cardio back up. And then, they're going to hit your core," said Bleill in December of 2006. "Your abs and everything because that's where all of your strength is going to come from," added Bleill.
Bleill lifted weights and worked on balance to strengthen his upper body for the challenges to come.
"Missing my legs, it's a different world. It's learning how to crawl," said Bleill.
Bleill's girlfriend Nikki Tooley helped with rehabilitation which took place between October-November 2006 at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and continued until August 2008 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC.
"His healing is actually the most amazing thing I think I've ever seen," said Tooley during a break in Bleill's rehabilitation. "It is his spirit and his faith in God that are pulling him through. He just shines. It's extremely obvious to other people."
His attitude in rehab inspired his physical therapist at Walter Reed Medical Center.
"He is upbeat, positive. He always has a smile on his face," said Annette Burgeron. "He works himself to fatigue. For me, I have to hold him back."
The long rehabilitation was inspired by one goal. Bleill promised he would not return to Indiana unless he could do it on his terms.
"When I do have my legs, when I walk home, I'll walk off that airplane," said Bleill.
Learning to walk again
The steps began one new leg at a time. Bleill tried standing on a prosthetic leg for the first time since the explosion.
"It felt good. It felt like freedom was coming back," said Bleill. "It was the first time I stood since October 15th. The day we were hit in Iraq, so it was a great feeling," added Bleill. "I have my left leg now, which is exciting. And, I'm working on that until I get my other leg in another month," said Bleill.
In between workouts, there were visitors. Bleill met Senator Bob Dole at a Thanksgiving dinner. Bleill met Senator John Glenn, wrestler Hulk Hogan, singer Stevie Nicks and actor Gary Sinese. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stopped by to shake hands with the Greenfield Marine. President Bush gave Bleill the purple heart.
"I think President Bush giving it to me meant a ton. It was an honor to receive it from him," said Bleill. "I went to a baseball game with him," added Bleill. "I got to sit in the suite with him and he cracked jokes and hung out."
In February of 2007, four months after the blast, Bleill traveled to Miami to watch the Indianapolis Colts win the Super Bowl. The players and owner brought the Vince Lombardi trophy to Bleill during a hospital visit.
Six months into the recovery, Josh reached another milestone. His moved his wheelchair over to see his new prosthetic legs.
"Look at those fancy things," Bleill said before trying them for the first time. "Feels good. There are a couple of adjustments to make, but for the most part, it feels really good."
A moment to savor
Ten months after the blast, the Bleill family experienced a huge moment at Indianapolis International Airport. Myra and Virg Bleill gathered with other family members to watch their son make good on a promise. Bleill walked off the airplane using two canes to balance on prosthetic legs.
"This is my goal to walk home," said Bleill. "It was awesome. It really was," added Bleill. "To see my family waiting on me and be back in Indiana, it was nice to get back to familiar territory."
Since returning home, Bleill visited a school in southern Indiana to show children how his prothestic legs work and to thank the children for writing him get well cards.
"Did it hurt?" wondered one child. "It did hurt," Bleill responded. "But I got better because all you guys wrote me letters and sent me candy."
"Children are curious," said Bleill. "I like to explain to them how they work."
His comeback story inspired the people who know him the best.
"He has such a great story to tell," says Tooley. "He doesn't even need to say anything. People admire him."
Starting a new life
On August 11, 2008, ground was broken on Bleill's new home in Carmel. The Marine organization Semper Fi, Pulte Homes and their contractors gave their time, talents and treasurers to build a ranch-style house. In January of 2009, Bleill moved into the new home.
"It is absolutely gorgeous. Everything about it," Bleill said. "it is an open floor plan. That way, if I am in my wheel chair, I have a lot of room to move," Bleill added. "The kitchen has lower cabinets and everything. So, again if I'm in my wheelchair, I can cook."
The home has an elevator that takes Bleill to a theatre room, a shuffle board table and weight room.
I asked Bleill if his life has gotten better or worse since the explosion.
"Better. Definitely better," replies Bleill. "You start looking at what's important in life," Bleill explains. "You see how important your family is and you want that time. You realize how precious things are."
Bleill says his faith in God carried him through the last two and a half years.
"He carried me through and really said, 'there's a new mission at hand.' And, so I just have to trust in Him," said Bleill. "It strengthened my relationship with Jesus."
"It (the blast) eliminated my physical ability but it's opened a lot of doors," said Bleill. "That day (October 15, 2006) will always mean something to me," said Bleill. "A lot of people celebrate that day. It's called their alive day. I lost two friends on that day, so it's really what I remember," added Bleill.
Bleill says he sometimes experiences phantom pain.
"The nerves still think they're connected to my toes, so my brain still thinks they're there sometimes," explains Bleill. "I will get cramps in my toes and in my calves, which are not there. You really can't do anything to get them out," added Bleill. "At first, they feel like walking on stilts. But, the more I walk, they feel like part of my legs, so I can feel the vibration of the floor when I walk. They feel more like me now."
As Bleill begins his new life with his wife, he realized how many possibilities exist.
"A lot has happened in the last two years," said Bleill. "It (the road) is open before me and I can go anywhere and do anything."
Bleill smiles when he thinks about his wife. "Our love's grown and she's a Christian woman. And she's been there," said Bleill. "She's everything to me."
His new bride beams with pride when talking about Bleill's recovery.
"I'm so proud of him. Just watching him and knowing his walk and knowing what he's been through," said Tooley. "We have taken what we've been dealt and made the best of it. We're looking forward to the rest of our lives together."