WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2008 – When Navy Lt. John Pucillo enlisted after high school to be an explosive ordnance disposal technician, he knew the risks involved.
Pucillo knew his choice in Navy jobs would eventually land him in Iraq and that he would be exposed to more danger there than with other specialties he could have chosen. No matter, the young Pucillo yearned for the Navy’s toughest jobs.
“I wanted to jump out of airplanes, I wanted to shoot guns, I wanted to, you know, blow things up,” he said. “I think I was enamored by the Navy.”
The EOD community differs from other units because, as Pucillo said, “It’s not a matter of if you get hit; it’s a matter of when.” Pucillo’s “when” was May 19, 2006.
Remembering his ‘Alive Day’
“A lot of people ask me about ‘injury day,’” Pucillo said. “And the folks at Walter Reed, they have a different name for it. They call it ‘alive day.’ It’s the day not that you died, but that you stayed alive.”
On his alive day, Pucillo said, he was simply doing his job. His unit was undermanned, but that wasn’t unusual.
“I did something that most officers don’t do and that’s go out with the troops,” Pucillo said. “However, I knew we were doing something new.”
There were two other team leaders Pucillo said he could send out with two separate missions. But because this was something new, he expected the enemy would test them. He decided to split up in thirds to lessen the impact if they were hit.
“I won,” he said. “It hit me and not my guys, and that’s what I went for. And what I’m happy about is my guys are fine.”
Pucillo explained what happened that day in Iraq:
“We were driving along Route Senators in Baghdad. And the enemy let four different vehicles by. Like I said, they knew they wanted to test us. I was in the vehicle, and I was kind of at an odd angle in the vehicle because it’s just so cramped that sometimes you shift around to, you know, to become more comfortable. And I had my left leg out, and I was kind of crouched over with my right leg tucked in, kind of a stretching maneuver.
“When it hit, the explosion was immediate. I mean, it just rocked the vehicle. Everything inside the vehicle turned to dust. And you started breathing the hot dust immediately. Your whole body is shocked. It was so close; the shock wave just goes through you. So you couldn’t really tell exactly if you were hit or not, all you knew is that your vehicle was hit and you were out of play.
“There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of smoke. It was hot. And I remember doing -- the first thing that came through my mind was, We made it, because I was still conscious. So whatever happened after that, I knew we made it. I knew. I could see my driver, and I could see the guy behind me. And you know, they got out of the vehicle. It was smokin’, so they couldn’t see me. And I did the finger, toe check.
“Unfortunately, the left leg was not giving me a response. So I didn’t want to look down because if it was that bad, I didn’t want to go into shock in the vehicle.
“At some point, they were trying to get me out of the vehicle, and it was failing. The side of the vehicle was just too mangled. So I started crawling out the back way. And keep in mind, this is a [26-ton] vehicle. It’s almost a trailer-sized vehicle. So I crawled about halfway through the vehicle before one of my buddies met me there. And I put my arm on his shoulder, and we hopped the rest of the way out the back of the vehicle because that was the only exit at that time.”
Pucillo’s leg was amputated. After that, he was flown to Germany where his family met him, then they were flown to the Washington, D.C. area where Pucillo was in rehabilitation at Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Having his family with him, he said, was a double-edge sword. “I was very anxious to get them out of there … not because I didn’t love them or because they were a hindrance or anything like that, but because I knew that I couldn’t truly start rehabbing if they were there,” Pucillo said.
What Pucillo needed, he said, was not to be pitied, but to be pushed. He saw other service members give up.
With Pucillo’s need to be challenged, it’s no wonder he chose to re-enlist and continue his career.
“What the Navy allows you to do is relearn what you already know and have inside of you and they let it manifest itself out into your work,” said Pucillo.
Furthermore, after serving 10 years enlisted, Pucillo became an officer on May 5, 2001.
While contemplating his next move, Pucillo received a hospital visit from then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen shook his hand and asked him what he could do to help, to which Pucillo responded, “Admiral, I want to stay in the Navy.”
A few months later, Pucillo was having administrative problems. Mullen called to see how Pucillo was doing and he explained to Mullen the problems he was having. “The next thing I knew … I was back in the Navy,” Pucillo said.
When Pucillo later thanked Mullen for his assistance, the admiral denied doing anything specific, but just kept an eye on it and that was it.
“You’d be surprised what can happen when the CNO keeps his eye on something,” Pucillo said. “I found out that I was not only in the brotherhood of the EOD community, but I was also in the brotherhood of the Navy.”
While the rehab itself was tough, Pucillo said, the biggest challenge was getting off the drugs. He had become dependant on pain killers, he said.
“I was amazed, you know, as soon as I took the pill, the wave of pain went away and I was in such a comfort zone and I was so happy,” he said. “It would come crashing down 10 minutes later, because I would be so happy. Then the third person in me would say, ‘You’re only happy because you’re a drug addict.’”
After an eight-week battle, Pucillo got off the pain killers.
Pucillo continued rehab and began walking after little more than a month.
“Most people start running a year after being hit … and that’s early … but I was doing it in four or five months,” he said with a confident grin.
“It’s Been No Stopping Me”
Even though Pucillo struggles to run more than a mile, he continues to train and hopes to run between 2.5 and 3 miles. And, he doesn’t let his physical disabilities deter him from pursuing his goals in the Navy and beyond.
After only seven months of rehab, Pucillo began to get involved in paralympic sailing as a competitive sport. Now he mentors for the organization.
“Ever since that point, even before that, it’s been no stopping me,” he said.
With that level of confidence, Pucillo said, he saw no reason why he couldn’t do what he was doing before his amputation. So, he started diving again and graduated from jump school.
Due to the movements and impact when jumping or diving, Pucillo had to be fitted for a special prosthesis made for that type of activity.
Throughout his younger years, Pucillo excelled at soccer until he had a knee injury, which he said helped teach him how to deal with the loss of his leg.
“In a way, it was kind of foreshadowing [the bomb attack]…because when I got hit, I didn’t even view the loss of my limb as a setback,” Pucillo said. “I saw it as maybe this is another moment in my life where new things are going to open up to me. And they did.”
“The injuries that I had in my past …kind of propelled me into new places,” he said.
Pucillo said he doesn’t know what he’ll do in the future. But when it’s time for him to decide, he won’t let his disability be a factor.
Mostly, he’s grateful to his wife and daughters and the rest of his family for helping him through rehab.
“It’s sad to say that my 15-year-old and my 9-year-old saw the worst in me, but they also saw the best in me, so that’s a good life experience for them and that’s what I’m happy about,” Pucillo said.
Pucillo believes his motto may assist other wounded warriors who are struggling with their own rehabilitation, “It’s really simple, Get up!”