Marine Jeremiah Hill of Struthers will receive the Purple Heart.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
AUSTINTOWN -- Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Hill's first thoughts when he regained consciousness after his humvee was blown up in Iraq on July 14 were about his fellow Marines, his mother and his twin brother, Jedediah.
Fortunately, he did not lose any limbs or suffer serious shrapnel wounds when the powerful improvised explosive device exploded about 11/2 feet from the driver's side door.
"I'm very fortunate God was with me," said Hill, a former Struthers High School football standout, whose parents -- having partially reared their family in Struthers -- now live in Austintown.
He did suffer a severe concussion, which caused some memory and hearing loss. Also, several teeth were loosened and nearly two months later, his body is still sore from the explosion.
He and the other two Marines in the vehicle, who also had severe concussions, are to receive Purple Hearts when they return to Camp Pendleton in California.
"It's an honor, but I don't feel worthy because I'm still alive and a lot of good men have died," Hill said.
The bomb, which was heard three miles away, flipped the humvee, trapping its occupants. Its 5-inch- thick bulletproof windshield was shattered and there was shrapnel throughout the vehicle. The tires were blown off, the engine was shredded and oil was everywhere, Hill said.
Bulletproof glass on top of the vehicle, which protects the gunner, was riddled with shrapnel marks, leading Hill to believe the gunner would have been killed without it. It had been installed just a couple of weeks before.
Hill's vehicle was part of a four-vehicle patrol traveling about 15 miles an hour along a road at night, with a canal on one side and a high earthen berm on the other. He said the explosive was concealed well and he did not see it. It was armed with a washing-machine timer and detonated from a distance by dialing a number on a cell phone.
Hill, meritoriously promoted to lance corporal when he arrived in Iraq, was unconscious for a period after the explosion. When he awoke, his first question was about the other two Marines. "I wanted to make sure my boys were OK," he said.
At the hospital, Hill asked that they not call his mother. He wanted to call her himself so she could hear his voice and reassure her. "I was afraid she would fall apart if a stranger called before she knew I was alive," he said.
Getting the call
Hill's call came to his mother's cell phone July 15 while his parents, Barbara and Rick Hill, his brother Joshua and his sister Wanda of Youngstown, were at Penn State to watch Jedediah participate in Penn State's annual Lift for Life benefit event. Jed is a backup defensive end and linebacker with the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Jeremiah's father and Jacob were at Jed's off-campus apartment complex and Jed was driving his mother and Wanda to go shopping. Barbara said her cell phone rang and it was Jeremiah, who told her he had been hurt, but was all right.
Jed, realizing from his mother's reaction that something was wrong, pulled the car over and talked to his brother. "When Jed asked me 'What's going on?' and asked me to tell him about it, it made me feel better," Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah said there is still some potential for brain damage and hearing loss, but speaking last week at his parents' home, he said he's getting better all the time. "There is that whole nightmare thing, but I guess everyone has that," he said.
Military doctors said the concussion caused his brain to swell, but the swelling has subsided and there was no bleeding, so they expect him to recover. Hill said he still gets headaches and has a hard time with math. He said tests will be done when he returns to Camp Pendleton after his leave.
Hill was reunited with family and friends Aug. 26 when his plane landed at Pittsburgh International Airport. His older brother Joshua, who lives in Indiana, and Jed were not able to be part of the homecoming. The twins were to see each other for the first time when Jed ran onto to the field at Saturday's game between Penn State and Akron University. Jeremiah had a sideline pass and was with his brother during the game.
"I can't wait to see my twin brother. He's my boy," Jeremiah said before their reunion. "Jed will need his football pads because of the hug I'm going to give him. I miss that big lug."
The Hill family moved from Valparaiso, Ind., to Struthers when the twins were freshmen in high school. Neither had played organized football before, but became stalwarts for their high school team. Jed, who played linebacker and fullback, grew to be 6 feet 4 inches and now weighs about 256 pounds. Jeremiah, 6 feet, now weighs about 200 pounds -- but when he played football in high school he weighed 295 pounds.
Both men received football scholarship offers, but Jeremiah said he had become determined to join the Marines after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. Jeremiah said he received football scholarships from Youngstown State University and Mount Union College and others, but turned them down.
"I just wanted to be a Marine. I wanted to help," he said. "Maybe after the Marine Corps, I'll give football a try."
Before the Marines would take him, he had to get down to 215 pounds, which he accomplished. By the time he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., he weighed 205.
Coincidentally, he graduated from boot camp July 14, 2005, one year to the day before he was injured. That date is also his father's birthday.
"Without the mental toughness and discipline learned in boot camp, you won't survive. But no training can prepare you for when those first rounds fly," he said.
Jeremiah, who enlisted for four years April 14, 2005, celebrated his 21st birthday Jan. 23, while he was on the plane to Iraq, where he arrived Jan. 24. He expects to get an "early out" from active duty in January 2009. After that, he expects to be on inactive reserve status for the remainder of his eight-year obligation. However, before his active duty enlistment is up, he plans to return to Iraq "within a year" for another tour, and after that possibly become a boot camp drill instructor.
"I plan to go over again. I don't want my boys to go back without me. It's dangerous there," he said.
'A price for freedom'
Hill said five of the original 13 in his squad were either killed or wounded so severely that they had to be sent back to the states. "I just want people to know there is a price for freedom. If they take freedom for granted, they take the friends I lost for granted," he said.
Besides the danger, there are the terrible conditions in the field, Hill said. Equipment is heavy, it's very hot, sometimes it's weeks between showers and the MREs (meals ready to eat) are not all that good.
The first meal he wanted when he got home was stacks of his mother's pancakes smothered in syrup and peanut butter.
Jeremiah believes what America is doing in Iraq is right but acknowledged it's a slow process. He said the terrorists not only attack U.S. forces, but the Iraqi civilians. In one instance, he said an 11-year-old boy told him his family was slaughtered because they had fed some Marines.
"We try to limit our contact with them just to protect them," he said.
His mother, who calls Jeremiah her "brave defender," said she's in awe to hear what he has been through. "I am so grateful to be able to sit with him and have him home. My heart aches for the moms who don't have that," she said.