Written by Rich Forestano Friday, 15 February 2013 00:00
Honored, humbled, taken back…cherished. These were the feelings running through James Byler as he was lauded for serving his country Tuesday, Feb. 6 at Village Hall in Mineola. He was presented with more than $10,500, all through bottle and can donations from Mineola and area residents.
Byler, a first lieutenant with the U.S. Marine Corps, lost both of his legs in October 2010 in the Northern Helmand Province, one of the deadliest provinces in Afghanistan. While leading his platoon on a dismounted patrol of a narrow alley a month into his tour, Byler stepped backward on an improvised explosive device (IED) that was buried in the dirt.
Members of his platoon brought him to safety with a wheelbarrow. Byler was awarded the Purple Heart.
“It’s incredibly encouraging,” Byler said. “When I see something like this and it gets this kind of reception, it lets you know that people are behind you. Maybe not everyone on the street that comes up to you, but it’s very psychologically reassuring to know that people are behind you; they support you in what you’re doing.
“I’m completely overwhelmed by the efforts of citizens just trying to give back,” stated Byler. “I thank everyone here for the efforts put forward in welcoming home veterans.”
When the IED went off, Byler didn’t know what hit him…but he never lost consciousness. Byler said his legs were obliterated.
“Both my legs were blown off right away,” he said. “At first, I was in so much shock I didn’t feel anything. It felt like a dream where you’re in this haze and you sort of know what’s going on.”
Byler, of Huntington, credited fellow marine Matthew Broehm for saving his life. Broehm immediately applied tourniquets to both legs, saving precious seconds.
“When you sever both femoral arteries, you can bleed out in minutes,” said Byler. “[Matthew] without hesitation, whipped out tourniquets and stopped the bleeding in both my legs.”
Broehm was killed in action two weeks later.
“If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” Byler said. “I think of him everyday.”
Mineola resident Bill Urianek, who is also known as “ The Can Man,” with the help of other residents (both in and outside Mineola), has been on a quest since 2004 when he noticed two cans lying in the street. He felt that ten cents could be saved for something.
“I thought maybe if we collected a few beer cans and bottles, maybe it would be worth something,” said Urianek. “We could do something with it, which we did.”
To date, Urianek with the help of residents across Long Island, has collected more than 250,000 cans. He honored veteran Christopher Levi of Holbrook in 2010.
“This is a great day for us in Mineola,” Urianek said. “It’s the second time we’re doing this. In a way, I hope it’s the last time we do it. The first time we did it for Christopher Levi in the same situation. Both lost their legs. It’s a great honor for me to know [Byler].”
Mineola Mayor Scott Strauss, holding back tears said, “A thank you doesn’t seem enough. The sacrifices that you’ve made...I can’t thank you enough for allowing our kids to live the life they live and to allow us to live the life we live. Thank you for that.”
American Legion Post Nos. 349, Albertson Post 144, Elmont Legion Post 1033 the Mineola Junior Fire Department and Senator Jack Martins were also on hand to commemorate Byler.
“We look for inspiration where we can,” Martins said to Byler. “You stand as an opportunity to show what it is to be an American and sacrifice for your country with dignity, with pride and with spirit.”
“Bill is an amazing man. He’s a great American. They don’t make em’ like that anymore. A quarter of a million cans? That’s absurd,” Byler said, prompting laughs from the crowd.