Life has dealt Centreville's Purvis family some tough blows. Dad Joe was rendered a quadriplegic after a devastating fall in August 1999 and died of resulting complications in September 2002 at age 57.
AND NOW, son Josh — who turned 22 on Wednesday — is putting his own life on the line every day as a soldier in Iraq.
But neither he nor his family would have it any other way.
"This is a resilient family that's finding its own way, and we still have a lot of joy," said mom Dianna of Gate Post Estates. "I'm incredibly proud of Josh. He's found direction and is filled with encouragement, leadership, bravery, honor and character. He does the right thing for the right reasons, and he's grown into a fine young man."
Rounding out the rest of the Purvis family are Josh's siblings — Jordan, 18, a freshman at Christopher Newport University, and Megan, 20, attending NOVA — plus his wife Nicole, 21. While he's overseas, she's staying in Centreville with his mom and working at a Chantilly security company. The couple attended Westfield High and married July 3, 2006.
Josh joined the Army at 18, graduated from infantry school and airborne school and was then assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. His rank is specialist (E-4), and he's both a rifleman and a paratrooper.
"I absolutely love it," he said earlier this month while home on leave for the holidays. "I used to be so scared of heights, and now I love tackling fear."
And there's fear a-plenty where he is now but, like everything else he does, he's facing it head on and with confidence. Josh's unit deployed in August and ended up just outside Samarra, a large city about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Before joining the military, though, he admits being a little worried. "I didn't want to be away from my family, but I wanted to make my dad proud and I wanted to make a difference," he said. "I was 17 when he passed."
Josh watched TV programs about the escalating troubles in the Middle East when he was younger and, he explained, "I wanted to be part of the effort and serve my country. There may be a lot of chaos over there, but the best thing we can do is to try to do the right thing."
Once embroiled in the thick of things, himself, he quickly learned he has to make lots of decisions about right and wrong every day. "You try to keep a positive attitude and fight on through the mission, even though it may be long and hard and dangerous," he said. "The right thing may be just to keep on."
SOMETIMES, he passes out candy to the children there. "The kids love us," said Josh. "And we know we're going to be there until six months from now." Still, he said, his work is "very taxing and complicated," and that makes it even harder.
"We try to move through Samarra and get rid of the terrorist cells there, while trying to help the Iraqi police and army take control so one day they can do these things themselves and we can leave," he said. "We train their troops on how to deal with a threat."
Josh has 60 pounds of protective armor. "The kit I wear around my chest has ceramic plates," he said. But still, he added, "The scariest thing is getting shot at daily."
"We bring in Apache helicopters — security helicopters — to watch over things and be our eyes and ears," he said. "The Black Hawks go from place to place. Everyone gets out of the area and does our mission and returns to base. We do at least two missions per day; we have three different platoons and each takes turns."
One of their main missions is to stop the roadside bombs. "That's probably the biggest threat and causes the most casualties — the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the road," said Josh. "My unit [more than 200 people in two companies] has lost four people. I knew two of them, and it is very surreal. One day they're there and, the next day, they're not — and you've still got to go out and patrol where they were."
He said platoons of 15-30 soldiers go on patrols and, usually, they're afternoon and night missions. "The biggest thing I learned was — no matter how much you train and run scenarios of what you expect to happen — you learn how to get things done and make them work," he said. "And it's not from the book — you improvise."
But through it all, Josh has formed close friendships with his fellow soldiers. And the life-and-death nature of their work has only deepened their bonds.
"Probably the hardest thing for me to deal with when we all come back," he said, "will be the unit disbanding, because they're my brothers. We'd all take a bullet for each other."
And in the toughest times, humor really helps. "It becomes a joke when things get hard because we're all doing it together," said Josh. "So we laugh a lot."
The worst part, he said, is being away from his family. "I miss them a lot, and it's been hard coming back [for the Christmas holidays], knowing that next week I'll go back," said Josh. (He arrived home Dec. 30 and left again for Iraq on Jan. 15).
Back in the U.S., he said, he was free to go wherever he wanted and do what he wanted to do, such as spending time with his family and seeing close friends. However, he added, at least time passes quickly in a war zone.
"I'VE NEVER experienced time going by so fast in my life, since I've been in Iraq," said Josh. "I don't even know what day it is. It's a 24-hour job." And while he loved being home, he said, "Honestly, I can't wait to get back to the guys, because they're my family, too. They need everybody they can get. They're working hard, and I want to contribute to it."
Afterward, Josh says he'll probably re-enlist and make the Army his career. And he'll soon be promoted to E-5 (sergeant). Overall, he said, "I think my unit's a good one and we've made positive changes over there, helping the Iraqi forces take control."
"We also try to talk to the people and find out what's going wrong," he continued. "One time, we searched a home and accidentally broke a person's bed, and we brought them a new one to show we were sorry. Whatever good we can do, we've done it."
Josh also learned not to take for granted anything he has here at home. "You go to a third-world country and see how little they have," he said. "Opportunities exist here that don't exist elsewhere. Regardless of whatever anyone's opinion is, I'm proud to be part of the effort that will ultimately be responsible for the security of our nation."
His mom said Josh's dad would be tremendously proud of him and the man he's become — one with good character and values. "And I know Joe's with him when he's in danger's way and watches over him," she said. "I visualize him and his buddies being in a protective bubble that deflects the bullets."
Added Josh: "I feel like Dad is with me every time I jump." As for his wife, the former Nicole Gallagher deals with her husband's dangerous occupation one day at a time. For now, she said, "I hang out with the family, just waiting for him to come home."