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Breehl keeps fighting the good fight - over and over again

July 03, 2008|By BOB PARASILITI

Editor's note: Independence Day is a time when sports and patriotism are celebrated.

Athletes who have become soldiers are the common link to this day.

The following is a compelling look at five local athletes who competed on our ballfields before defending us on battlefields as soldiers.

Jonathan Breehl is a fighter.

He has been and will be one always. The degree of the battle has varied over the years, though.

It all started when he was 6 when he jumped on a wrestling mat at the old YMCA on North Potomac Street. He immediately fell in love with the idea of hand-to-hand combat for survival.

"I was the center of the sport," Breehl said. "Everything is on you. It is how you train and it's up to you to decide the outcome. I like the pressure. I like that people on the team have to rely on me."

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He carried those beliefs through high school while competing in wrestling, football, baseball and track before graduating from North Hagerstown in 2005. It served him well when he joined the Marines, where practicing hand-to-hand combat and submission fighting were daily exercises.

But from there, the drive grew. Battles on the mat took a backseat to what became a fight for his life and livelihood in September 2006 when he was severely injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol with his unit in Habbaniyah, Iraq.

Even multiple injuries couldn't take the fight out of Breehl.

Now, after three surgeries on his thigh, another on a knee and hours of therapy, Breehl is trying his hand at wrestling again. He is getting back in shape - working out daily - and competing in open tournaments with hopes of competing in college while getting his education.

And even to get to this point was a battle.

"The hardest thing for me to overcome was when I came home and I couldn't be active and compete because of my injury," Breehl said.

Wrestling - and sports - helped Breehl get to this point of his life and it is giving him focus to move forward.

Breehl's love affair with wrestling started purely by accident.

"I started wrestling after almost drowning in the 'Y' pool at 6," he said. "My grandfather took me there for swimming lessons and asked me if there was anything else I wanted to try. I saw them wrestling."

Sports became a way of life. Breehl played football and baseball, but wrestling was his passion. He qualified for the Maryland state tournament his senior year despite injuring his ankle in the regional tournament a week earlier. He gave up baseball for track during his senior year because of his other calling.

"My grandfather was a Marine," Breehl said. "I was familiar with it and I wanted to go to the military. I didn't play baseball my senior year to go out for track so I could get the running in to get ready for the Marines."

The tenacity he learned on the mats and the training he had in high school quickly helped him when he joined the Marines.

"I wanted to be the best. Wrestling carried over for me," Breehl said. "Practice that (North wrestling coach Greg Slick) had is tough. He prepared me to have drive. It got me promoted to PFC out of basic because I was first in my physical fitness scores."

Breehl did that with emphasis, considering he covered his three-mile fitness run in 20 minutes while suffering from pneumonia.

He was deployed with his unit - 3/2 India Company out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. - to Iraq in July 2006. Just two months into the tour, Breehl's unit was on patrol and turned into an alley. As the patrol moved down the alley, Breehl - the seventh man from the back of the formation - ended up right next to where the IED detonated.

"They usually wait until half of the unit goes by so they can force the front of the patrol to go back," Breehl said. "I was medically evacuated to the hospital. I had immediate surgery on my thigh to have a major piece of metal taken out. My hip was grazed and my right wrist got hit and I had minor cuts and scratches all over. Basically, my flak jacket saved my life."

From September to December 2006, more surgery and physical therapy was required. Breehl finally received full medical clearance in July 2007.

"That part was kind of depressing," he said. "I had always been so active and athletic. For nine months, you kind of lose the motivation. Coming back was the hardest thing, but I felt like I got a second chance. Usually when people get hit by an IED, they lose a limb. That is what motivated me. I still had all of mine. It wasn't too late because I was 21. It was all on me. I had to get back."

Before his clearance, Breehl started wrestling again. In May 2007, Breehl wrestled in an open tournament in Waynesboro, Pa. He had matches against college wrestlers and held his own.

"It hit me then that I could do it," Breehl said. "I wondered what would happen if I got back in shape."

Breehl has since competed in a couple more open tournaments, including one at North. His goal is to get to a college with a wrestling program.

It is just another fight.

"The Marines are the main reason I have more drive now," Breehl said. "Wrestling gave me the traits, but the military enhanced them. I would never take anything away. Never. Not many have lived through what I have at age 21. I have more life to live. Once you survive war, you can survive anything."

Breehl is making plans in case the opportunity to wrestle in college never materializes. He says he might attend fire and rescue school to become an EMT. As for wrestling, he knows he will still be around it because other members of his family are hitting the mats just like he did.

Sometimes the biggest fight is knowing when to stop.

"I'm getting to a crossroads," Breehl said. "I love competition, but I want to give back. I just want to help people. I want to try and go to fire school, stay around wrestling and be a normal citizen in this great country I fought for."

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