Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week’s Tillman Tuesday features 2015 scholar and U.S. Army veteran Joshua Sparling who served as an 11Bravo, Infantry Paratrooper during a combat tour in Iraq in 2005. While traveling back from a convoy mission, Joshua risked his safety to protect his fellow soldiers when he went ahead to check on a hole that turned out to be an I.E.D.. Joshua’s wherewithal and selflessness saved the lives of others, but the I.E.D. left him clinging to his own life. Though he lost his leg and half his stomach in the blast, Joshua miraculously survived and is here today to share his story. As a Tillman Scholar, he is now pursuing his law degree from the University of Arizona and plans to continue impacting the military community by representing veterans in Veterans Courts and lobbying for their just treatment.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
“My family had a long tradition of service with my grandfather, father, uncle, my older brother and my sister all serving. We were raised in a small country town of Yale in Michigan and raised to respect those who serve in the military. I viewed them as larger than life. I always wanted to follow in the footsteps of those serving in the military and when September 11th happened, it just strengthened my resolve. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, I felt it was time to back up my passion with action. At the time, I had been attending a Community College in Michigan for two years. I put school on hold and signed papers to join the 82nd Airborne.”
YOU JOINED THE U.S. ARMY IN 2004, WENT THROUGH BASIC TRAINING IN JANUARY 2005, AND DEPLOYED SOON THEREAFTER. WHAT WAS THAT WHIRLWIND EXPERIENCE LIKE FOR YOU HAVING BEEN IN THE SERVICE LESS THAN A FEW MONTHS?
“We were supposed to get leave to go home after training cadets at West Point, and instead it was cancelled and we were deployed right away. We had no break and had to just focus on getting ready for the deployment. I arrived in Iraq in September 2005 and stayed during Ramadan in October. It was the highest insurgent level during the entire war, so there was a lot of action during our time there. Rather than being afraid, I was pretty excited to be able to help, do some good and make an impact.”
WHILE IN IRAQ FOR SUCH A SHORT TIME, YOU UNFORTUNATELY WERE A VICTIM OF AN I.E.D. BLAST. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER FROM THAT DAY AND THAT LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE?
“I remember it as clear as day. Professionally, it was an unfortunate situation because I was good at my job, rising quickly and planning to have a career in the Army like my uncle who served 26 years. I loved my unit and the opportunities the Army presented, so I was disappointed the blast injuries ended my military career.
The day before the attack, the insurgency level had gone up quite a bit. We were coming back from patrol through Ramadi and the frustrating part was that we had never traveled on the roads we were traveling on or in vehicles. Typically, we were dropped off by helicopters in the town and then hand it over to the Marines, depending on what our mission was for that day. For some reason, the day of the attack, we took a different road. While we were walking, I noticed there was a big hole up ahead, so I went to go check it out. That’s when I saw all of the explosive ordinances inside and I started to wave and warn people. There was a trigger man out in the field, he pushed the detonator and I went flying 30 feet in the air. I came down on my rifle. Not realizing yet that I was hurt, I tried returning fire but my weapon wouldn’t fire. My buddy ran over to me and at that point we saw my right leg was just hanging off in a big pool of blood. He immediately wrapped a tourniquet on me. The medic with us had a satellite phone and was trying to find out if there were any birds in the air. When things calmed down a bit, they gave me the phone so I could call home to Michigan to say goodbye to my family. I called home and I was at peace that I was going to die out there. I was just silent after that.
It turned out though that there was a helicopter a few minutes away with Delta Force on it. They loaded me in the chopper and the medic in there started working on me right away. After that, I remember being transported from field hospital to field hospital before ending up in Germany.”
IN THE CHAOS OF THE EXPLOSION, YOU MENTIONED YOU WERE AT PEACE WITH DYING. WHAT WAS THAT PHONE CALL HOME TO YOUR FAMILY LIKE?
“I felt I was at peace because of my faith and that God was going to take me at that point. Being a strong Catholic, before every mission I would always say the St. Michael prayer, ‘Defend us in battle. You are the defense against the wickedness…’ It could’ve been shock from the blast, but I felt overcome by this peace. I honestly felt my mission was done. The hardest part for me was knowing how hard it was going to be on my family. When you have your family crying on the other end of the line, all I could tell them was, ‘I love you, I don’t have time to talk to anybody else, so please tell them I love them. I don’t have a very good chance and please don’t grieve for me. I’ll be okay, just pray for me.’ I was at peace for myself because of my faith, but it was still incredibly hard to say that to my family.”
AFTER MAKING THAT CALL HOME TO SAY ‘GOODBYE,’ THE HELICOPTER APPEARED TO TRANSPORT YOU OUT FOR IMMEDIATE CARE. IS IT A MIRACLE YOU SURVIVED?
“It was my buddy and my teammate who saved my life. I probably only had seconds to live if he hadn’t put that tourniquet on that saved me. As soon as care was administered, I had up to eight blood transfusions within a couple of hours. But my buddy’s tourniquet stabilized me until the medic showed up. By miracle or luck, it just wasn’t my time to go.”
HOW LONG WAS YOUR REHAB AND RECOVERY PROCESS AFTER YOUR INJURY? HOW DID YOUR LIFE CHANGE AFTER THAT?
“I went through limb salvage for a year trying to save my knee and my leg but that didn’t work out. I ended up getting out of the service in 2008 and was stationed at Walter Reed. I was bed-bound for a while because I couldn’t even put my leg down and put pressure on it because of the extreme pain. It took months until I could even get in a wheelchair.”
DO YOU FEEL GROWING UP ON A FARM AND HAVING YOUR HARD WORK ETHICS INSTILLED, THAT HELPED YOU REHAB AND OVERCOME YOUR INJURY?
“I was a good athlete in high school, involved in all kinds of sports, and growing up on a farm made me a hard worker. We would get up at 4 a.m. to do chores before heading off to school and when we got home our work was not done – we had to chop the wood for fire to heat the house, get the horses and sheep in… we did everything. That upbringing definitely helped my rehab process because I was used to doing things myself and overcoming any physical setbacks.
After a couple of months, there was a time when I was feeling sorry for myself and thinking, ‘People are always going to look at me different and think I look weird…I’m not going to be able to do much anymore like I was used to.’ I was feeling sorry for myself. I remember my first trip out of the ward hallway in a wheelchair. I saw a man that was a triple amputee and right then my farm senses kicked in and I told myself, ‘Stop crying for yourself, look how bad he has it. Get to work on doing what you can do.’ At that point, I had my rosary hanging from my bed and I was still keeping up faith but it was real hard. After seeing other guys that were worse off than me, I tried to focus on finding a way to help them get better, instead of dwelling in self-pity because you can only do that for so long.”
HOW DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO PICK UP THE PIECES, REHAB AND ALSO GO BACK TO SCHOOL??
“I was given a second chance. While I was scheduled for my amputation, I was traveling back and forth from Walter Reed to Michigan every week to attend classes. I took a total of three weeks off when I had my amputation procedure. After the amputation, I worked with my professors to continue my degree in D.C. because I was in the rehabilitation phase at that point. At the same time, I got my prosthetic and started to work on my balance, but I wanted to do more so I started doing mixed Martial Arts too. I continued that for a couple of years in order to help me with my balance and fitness. I then started running a mile at a time until I had calluses built up on my stump and could run more. It became a challenge as to how good I could get at running. I have tried to find ways to challenge myself physically over the past couple years, from running in short marathons, to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and everything in between.”
WHEN YOU WERE MEDICALLY DISCHARGED FROM THE SERVICE, YOU DECIDED TO COMPLETE A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE AT FERRIS STATE UNIVERSITY. NOW, IN YOUR SECOND YEAR AT UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA, WHAT IS YOUR LONG-TERM GOAL UPON GRADUATION?
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all of this is to come in with both eyes open because plans can change. My previous degrees were in Criminal Justice and I certainly still enjoy serving the community, so I will likely focus on criminal prosecution. Right now in Tucson, I’m working with the Attorney General’s office at one of their clinics. It’s good to help keep people off the streets who should not be on the streets. I still have a passion for working with disabled veterans and helping them transition back into the community so they can realize their own physical and mental potential. I would also like to continue to helping veterans work with veterans and helping them with their discharge process and paperwork. In addition to my legal work, I also volunteer giving legal aid to indigents in the community.”
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO APPLY FOR THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR PROGRAM?
“After learning about the scholarship through some research, I started reading the bios of some of the current scholars to get an idea of what the foundation looks for, what the scholars represent and their accomplishments. It was at that point I stopped looking and thought, ‘wow – I’m way out of my league here!’ It reminded me of being a kid and looking up to my super heroes – those Tillman Scholars were my super heroes – I felt I had no shot but I decided to apply anyway. I was completely blown away when I received the call that I was accepted.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO CARRY PAT’S LEGACY IN THE CLASSROOM AND THE COMMUNITY?
“It’s a lot of pressure but I love that kind of pressure. I love seeing how my fellow Tillman Scholars are making a difference in their communities and that motivates me. To be part of the Tillman Scholar community is very humbling. This group of individuals are all similar, whether it be their stories or experiences, so it feels like the same brotherhood or sisterhood when we were all serving together. We’re all part of a great team. To represent someone like Pat who loved his country so much is an honor because I love my country just like Pat did. To be spoken of in that same context is humbling.”
ASIDE FROM THE FINANCIAL SUPPORT, HOW IS THE SCHOLARSHIP AND COMMUNITY HELPING ADVANCE YOUR GOALS AND IMPACT??
“Learning about what my fellow scholars are doing and seeing how motivated they are, motivates me just as much to make a difference in my community. The networking opportunities that have been provided have been amazing. Attending the Pat Tillman Leadership Summit was amazing for me – I came out of there supercharged and ready to take on the world.”
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED MOST ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGH YOUR SERVICE??
“I learned about the grit and determination I actually have. I knew I had a lot of that in me growing up, but once you’re through a tough experience you can only be as strong as the circumstance that you’re placed in. For me, the most important thing I learned in the service wasn’t necessarily about myself; I learned more about what it was like to be part of a true team. The military forever changed my ways of thinking and how a team works together.”
YOU’RE NOW A PROUD DAD TO THREE KIDS. HOW HAS THAT ROLE CHANGED YOUR LIFE AND PERSPECTIVE? WHAT LESSONS DO YOU HOPE TO IMPART TO THEM ABOUT YOUR WAR EXPERIENCE AND SERVICE?
“Having kids completely changed my perspective on everything, changing how I think, my goals, and my lifestyle. I never thought I would be the guy that’s in bed by ten, but they exhaust me like nothing else can. It’s not just a physical exhaustion like I was used to, but mental, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual tiredness – and I wouldn’t change it for the world. They have altered my mindset by making me want to live for them. I want to live as an example to them that you can overcome, an example of diligence and work ethic, and as an example of a man of faith that has a positive impact on society.
I honestly don’t know how much, or if, I will talk to them about my wartime experiences other than generalities. As kids do, they ask lots of questions. I remember when my daughter, the oldest of my children, started being aware of my amputation and asked me about it. I knew I had to give her an answer and didn’t want to lie or detract from the meaning it entails, so I simply told her that it happened from a bad guy that didn’t love America. She is 5 years old now. To this day, that is all she knows, but it made her love America with a passion I didn’t expect. Just this year, she asked me if she could have an American flag in her room for Christmas. These are the lessons that my children have learned about service at their very young age. They learned that military members are “good guys” that protect us from the “bad guys” that want to hurt people. Kids notice and emulate everything a parent does, I just hope that I can be a good example to them to show them what matters most in this world – God, Family, and Country. Hopefully, by living a life of public service to the greatest nation on Earth, my children will all appreciate the freedoms and opportunities they have and continue to keep this nation the great one it is.”