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'Dedication and integrity': Aunt and uncle say injured Marine has a patriotic heart

From left, Christopher Billmyer and his uncle, Steve, visit at cousin Brett Percich
From left, Christopher Billmyer and his uncle, Steve, visit at cousin Brett Percich's birthday party in San Diego, Calif., in March. The younger Billmyer, a Marine lance corporal, was injured in an IED explosion in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Oct. 23.
— image credit: Billmyer family photo

-- This version corrects references to the hospital name and address

To hear family members tell it, Christopher Billmyer is pretty much like the handsome kid with the big smile in the photographs. Wiry and athletic, good sense of humor. A patriotic heart, like many others in his heartland USA hometown of Dubuque, Iowa.

He dreamed of a career as a firefighter or police officer. When he decided he would first serve his country in a military uniform, he trained with Marines during his senior year in high school so he would be better prepared for boot camp.

“People describe him as a beautiful boy,” his aunt Bobbi Billmyer said Tuesday. “He’s dedicated and has integrity. He wanted to be a fireman or a law enforcement officer, or maybe work in the Justice Department. He wanted to continue to serve.”

Tuesday, Christopher Billmyer – a 22-year-old Marine lance corporal and nephew of Steve and Bobbi Billmyer of Friday Harbor -- was being flown from Germany to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for treatment of serious injuries sustained Saturday in an IED explosion in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Four other Marines were reportedly killed and possibly several others injured, the Billmyers said. Mrs. Billmyer said medics had to amputate her nephew’s legs above the knee. He was flown from Afghanistan to Germany, and was expected to be at Bethesda by Wednesday.

Lance Cpl. Billmyer is the son of Jim and Cheryl Billmyer of Dubuque, the second of five children. He enlisted in the Marines in 2007 after graduating from a Catholic school in Dubuque. He is stationed with the Marines’ 3/5 L Company at Camp Pendleton, Calif. His cousin, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Brett Percich, is an instructor at the submarine base at nearby Naval Base Point Loma. An uncle, Mark Billmyer, is a senior non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, currently deployed to Dubai. A younger brother, Joseph Billmyer, is a recruit at Army boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga. He has been given leave to join the family at Bethesda.

"It's a horrible thing for the family to have to go through," said Minnie Knych, whose nephew, Army Sgt. Buzz Robertson, was injured in 2005 when his up-armored Humvee hit a mine in Iraq. "What helps is sending cards and letters. When Buzz was at Walter Reed, he and his wife would open his mail together daily. When you're laying there in a hospital bed, it gives you something to do and it helps to know you're not alone."

To send a card or letter to Lance Cpl. Billmyer, write:

LCPL Christopher Billmyer
National Naval Medical Center
ICU 8901
Wisconsin Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20889

In addition, a fund has been established to help Lance Cpl. Billmyer with future expenses related to his injuries. Donations can be sent to the Lance Cpl. Christopher Billmyer Benefit Fund, American Bank and Trust, 895 Main St., Dubuque, Iowa 52001.

Knych said Billmyer will likely be at Bethesda for a while, followed by physical therapy at a military hospital near where he was inducted.

Billmyer is at least the fifth service member with local ties injured since the U.S. sent military forces to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003; two others were killed in action. They are:

— Sgt. Michael Bitz, the son and grandson of San Juan islanders, was killed March 23, 2003 when he and other Marines were attacked by Iraqi soldiers that had pretended to surrender.

— In December 2003, Army Warrant Officer Carrie McLeish of Friday Harbor was injured in a vehicle collision in Tikrit.

— Marine Pvt. 1st Class Cody Calavan, grandson of Shaw islanders, was killed in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, May 29, 2004.

— On Aug. 25, 2005, Army Sgt. Richard (Buzz) Robertson and his Special Operations unit was in an up-armored Humvee when it hit a mine. Several of the men died. Robertson was believed to be on his fourth mission in Iraq. He is now a security consultant at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a counselor for military personnel with spinal cord injuries.

— On May 1, 2009, Army Sgt. Tom Bauschke of Friday Harbor was struck by shrapnel when his unit came under surprise attack from Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. He received the Bronze Star.

— In September 2010, Army Specialist Ryan Buckley, 33, was injured in Afghanistan when a truck drove into him while he was unloading a Black Hawk helicopter; the impact broke his femurs and knee caps.

It's not known exactly how many islanders or people with island ties are serving in the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Knych, a local advocate for military personnel serving overseas, said 10 people are on the list for local care packages.

Local volunteers accept donations for care packages on the first Saturday of the month, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Friday Harbor MarketPlace. Care packages are prepared for mailing on the following Wednesday.

To donate or help, or to add someone to the care package list, call Knych, 378-4662 or e-mail knych@rockisland.com.

— OTHER COVERAGE ONLINE: From KWWL in Dubuque.

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