AURORA, Colo. - If you tell Army Staff Sgt. Paul Brondhaver he's a hero, he'll just laugh and shake his head. He's heard it before, but he doesn't think he's any more of a hero than the millions of men and women who served before him or alongside him.
Brondhaver, an Ohio National Guardsman, was severely wounded in a rocket-propelled-grenade and small-arms ambush in July 2004 in Samarra, Iraq, where his Guard unit was serving with the 1st Infantry Division. More than 300 pieces of shrapnel tore through his body, and a rocket-propelled-grenade that killed Pfc. Sam Bowen continued its mindless path and struck Brondhaver, causing his own weapon to explode and further ravage his body.
On hand for yesterday's Freedom Walk here commemorating the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and honoring the nation's past and present servicemembers, Brondhaver made no effort to hide his tears as he showed the bracelet he wears in Bowen's honor.
"If we can stay together as a bunch of good guys in America, it's going to be easier for us to keep our resolve and remind each other of the importance of honoring those (fallen troops) so that their lives weren't given in vain," he said.
With a new lease on life as he steadily recovers from injuries that brought him to the precipice of death, the 20-year Guardsman said he has a responsibility to speak for those who now can't speak for themselves. During his recovery, he has spoken in several states to spread his message.
Walking with a cane, Brondhaver helped lead several hundred Freedom Walk participants on the mile-and-a-half trek from the future site of the Colorado Freedom Memorial to the Aurora Municipal Center. At his side was Fairfax County (Va.) Fire Department Battalion Chief John Everett, who was one of the first responders to the attack on the Pentagon.
"All of our hearts were touched and damaged" by 9/11 and with the losses incurred in its aftermath, Brondhaver said. "We need to build our hearts back up to be full and strong," he said. "And events like this can do that. Events like this hopefully can inspire and motivate others to tell their neighbors how important it is to stay strong. It will be a stronger America in the end."
Brondhaver said he intends to spend the rest of his life spreading his message of "faith, family and friends," his belief in America and his appreciation for freedom one event at a time.
Though he has suffered a personal tragedy with his injuries, Brondhaver said, he hopes to show people that the effect any tragedy has depends on how they react to it.
"In the end, my cup is half full," he said. "I have nothing negative to say. Life is positive."
Twice after he suffered his injuries, Brondhaver's heart stopped beating.
"I flatlined in Balad, Iraq, in surgery, and they revived me," he said. "I had lost a lot of blood. Then I'm 30,000 feet in the air on the way to Landstuhl, Germany, to a medical facility there, and I flatlined again and they revived me. Having near-death experiences has really brought home the important things in life. If you have faith, family and friends, you have a strong America. That's my message."
Needing and receiving his parents' permission, Brondhaver joined the Ohio Guard at 17 because, he said, he wanted to help people. Serving in the National Guard has taught him how to live his life to help others, Brondhaver said. He's been activated for prison riots, floods, tornadoes, snow emergencies and other missions that have allowed him to help his fellow citizens. He wears 21 medals, including the Bronze Star for valor, the Purple Heart, and Army Commendation medals. But he prizes his Humanitarian Service Medal the most, he said.
"They're all important; they're all accepted with honor," he said. "But a soldier doesn't go to war saying, 'Man, I hope I get the Purple Heart.' But it's OK to say, 'It would be nice if I can get the Humanitarian Medal, because that means I can help others."
Helping others is a habit for Brondhaver. When he deployed to Iraq, he noticed that many children had nothing on their feet. This led to "Socks for Paul," a joint effort with his wife, Lisa -- they were high school sweethearts -- that collected more than 6,000 pairs of shoes and socks for Iraqi children.
"We put them in a Humvee and went from school to school," he said, his eyes dancing as if he were Santa Claus describing his favorite Christmas. "We delivered shoes and socks to those children, along with school supplies and Spaghetti-O's and Girl Scout cookies."
Even as he faces various surgeries for the rest of his life, Brondhaver said that if he were 17 again and knew what lay ahead for him, he still would have signed on the dotted line. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat," he said. "I wouldn't even have to think about it. I never look back."
He pointed to the American flag on the right shoulder of his uniform and said people wonder why the field of stars is on the right side of the emblem. "The blue part always goes forward. America always goes forward. We don't retreat. We don't look back. We stay steady. We stay strong."