Corwyn Collier Sr. thought he was about to die.
While he was deployed in Iraq on May 23, 2009, a roadside bomb detonated under the truck carrying him, a driver, a gunner and a private contractor.
Collier, riding in the passenger seat, was the only one wounded. The bomb blew up underneath him, mangling his right leg and right hand and causing severe burns. He lost 13 units of blood through a severed leg artery.
“I was bleeding out,” Collier said.
In recalling the incident, Collier said his thoughts at that moment turned to his family. He prayed to see his wife and sons again.
Inspired by his own survival, Collier now wants to be a role model and mentor to future generations.
Collier is winding up a semester of student teaching in the Springfield school district and is set to graduate from the University of Akron with his master’s degree Dec. 15.
“He says you can do anything you can set your mind to,” said 13-year-old Bailey Hall, one of the student-teacher’s biggest fans who says she wants to be a teacher herself someday.
Collier’s message of thankfulness, gratitude and strength has struck a note with many students at Spring Hill Junior High this fall.
For Collier, 30, the road that led him to a junior high building in Springfield Township began with an Ohio Army National Guard unit.
A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Collier grew up in Maple Heights and had been a standout track star in both high school and college, running hurdles and sprints. After college, he entered the National Guard in 2006 and joined the 135th Military Police Co.
In 2009, he was sent to Iraq as a sergeant. In the blast soon after his deployment, he lost four fingers and the fibula in his lower leg.
“It felt like somebody took a hammer and broke all my bones,” he said.
Army officials called his wife, Iisha Collier, and told her to prepare for the worst.
After being treated in Iraq and Germany, he was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he underwent 30 surgeries over nine months of treatment. For nearly six weeks, his right hand was sewn to his right hip so that skin from his hip would graft onto his hand.
“My first month in the hospital, I beat myself up,” Collier said. “I questioned my faith and my religion. I questioned what my life was going to be like. I questioned everything.”
Soon, however, his survival instincts kicked in. He told himself he could persevere.
“I am going to be the same person I was regardless of what’s missing,” he told himself.
No longer able to run — his right ankle was fused — Collier took encouragement from an Army captain at Walter Reed and began power weightlifting.
Then he decided he wanted to be a school teacher, like his wife, who teaches fourth grade at Harris Elementary School in Akron.
“I wanted to be around kids,” he said. “I told her I needed to do something that is going to be positive.”
In July 2010, he entered the master’s in education program at the University of Akron. He is among about 700 Iraq/Afghanistan veterans enrolled in classes at UA.
Earlier this month, Collier spoke to the student body at Spring Hill during a Veterans Day program. He told the students his story of overcoming a battlefield injury, and dreaming and working hard to become a school teacher.
“I told them [not to] let their current situation dictate their future,” he said. “Sometimes, things look bad, but they will get better. If you have a dream or you have a goal, keep pushing for it.”
He told the students that along their journey, “there will be plenty of ups and downs. I tell them everything is not always going to be the way you want it to be, but I promise you, if you keep working and you keep pushing, things will be a lot better in the end.”
Collier has goals
Collier, of Stow, said his goal is to get a teaching job after he graduates. He also wants to coach track. Another dream is to compete with the U.S. Paralympic Team as a power lifter on the 2016 team.
Springfield Superintendent William Stauffer said Collier’s life story of climbing back from a war injury to teaching in a classroom “lets kids realize what is going on in the world and the dangers that are out there and the sacrifices people make for their country.”
Susan Elliott, the classroom teacher with whom Collier worked this fall, said his story hit home with the students.
“He chose not to baby himself and to strive to be a better person,” she said.
Brianna Shannon, 13, said Collier’s story inspires her because of how he has responded and bounced back from such adversity.
“It is touching that he got a second chance,” she said.
Collier said he is thankful every day, especially for his wife and three sons.
His two older sons, Malachi, 8, and Corwyn Jr., 5, have told their parents they want to grow up to be either engineers or doctors. They want to fix his leg so he can run again.
His third son, Aaron, was born last fall.
Collier said his battlefield injury made him a better man.
“I have a different perspective on life,” he said. “At first, I took a lot of stuff for granted. … After I was injured, it made me look back and reflect on my life.
“I can lose everything just like that. … To me, I am just thankful to wake up in the morning most days.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.