2/29/12 Veteran gives gift of Purple Heart

Veteran gives gift of Purple Heart
Leigha Martinelli, 18, survived battle with cancer
By Natalie Allison The Times-News 2/29/12     
Reprinted with permission.

Leigha Martinelli, left, and her father, Steve Martinelli, participate in the Radiothon for Duke Children’s Hospital recently

Submitted photo

Leigha Martinelli, left, and her father, Steve Martinelli, participate in the Radiothon for Duke Children’s Hospital recently. Martinelli received a Purple Heart as a gift from Iraq war veteran Jeremy Rausch.

   A Purple Heart wasn’t a gift Leigha Martinelli thought she would receive for her 18th birthday. But when Martinelli, a senior at Williams High School, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2003, she endured pain that most children never know.

   She spent more than two years in Duke Children’s Hospital with less than a 10 percent chance of living. Her time and treatment there allowed her father, Steve; mother, Denise; and brother, Dustin, to develop a lasting partnership with the hospital. That partnership led Martinelli, now living life as an active 18-year-old, to become involved in the Radiothon for Duke Children’s Hospital, hosted by radio station MIX 101.5 WRAL-FM.

   Martinelli’s story, a montage of her sharing her experience recorded over Martina McBride’s “In My Daughter’s Eyes,” was played from the station during the radiothon before she arrived in the studio on Valentine’s Day — also Martinelli’s birthday.

   Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Rausch, an Iraq veteran who was wounded three times, was touched by her story.

   “Jeremy was a part of the hardest hit unit in Iraq,” said Bill Jordan, co-host of WRAL’s “Bill and Lynda in the Morning.”

   “He lost squad members and has seen some pretty powerful stuff, as you can imagine.”

   Rausch heard Martinelli’s story and drove from his home in Fuquay-Varina to WRAL’s Raleigh station with two of his three Purple Hearts in hand. He asked Jordan to give one of the medals to Martinelli and the other to another deserving child.

   “He said he got three (Purple Hearts) but only needed one,” Jordan said.

   Though Rausch was unable to meet Martinelli, Jordan surprised her on-air with the gift and a personal note from Rausch. Martinelli and her father were visiting the station to give an update on her life since being at Duke Children’s Hospital 10 years ago.

   “We were all crying on the radio station,” said Steve Martinelli. “My daughter has been through a lot. She was in the hospital for two and half, three years.”

   Jordan said Rausch’s note to Martinelli was a reminder to her to never give up in the face of struggle.

   “He wrote her the note saying he chose his fight,” Jordan said. “It’s all volunteer military now. He said she was a bigger hero than he ever will be — a real tribute to Leigha’s fight.”

   HEARING ABOUT Martinelli’s will to continue to live a full life while fighting cancer was enough to remind Rausch to continue to have hope, despite his post-war brain injury, lung damage and post traumatic stress disorder.

   “I wanted her to know that you don’t have to be a soldier to be a hero,” Rausch wrote in an email to the Times-News. “To me she is a little soldier. I fought battles in a war, but she has fought an entire war by herself for 10 years.”

   Martinelli, who hasn’t limited her platform to the annual radiothon, said she wants to continue to inspire others with the hope she has received from God.

   “It really, really touched my heart that I affected someone,” she said. “That’s what I want to do — be a motivational speaker. And I affected him in that type of way.”

   Playing on the Williams High School varsity women’s golf team, acting in musicals and the homecoming show and participating in the school’s history club are among the activities Martinelli has taken up in high school.

   Her plan is to major in communications or nonprofit management in college. Her dream is to be sponsored by a nonprofit organization and travel around sharing her testimony.

   This past fall, Martinelli spoke in front of 6,000 young people at Pilgrimage, a United Methodist Church youth conference held in Fayetteville. Martinelli said she submitted her testimony and was selected from hundreds of others to share it.

   “People who didn’t even know me came up, saying how much I affected them,” she said. “I’m so blessed. God saved me for a reason and this is the purpose I’m supposed to live for.”