NEW YORK -- To lay eyes on John Feal is to know he was marked by Sept. 11.
His blue shirt displays the Statue of Liberty in front of the American flag. Like the red bracelet and ring he's wearing, it bears the name of a Sept. 11-related foundation he started. His black SUV carries a silhouette of the logo that's on his shirt.
A tattoo on his left arm shows an eagle in front of the twin towers, a flag rippling in the background, and the letters "FDNY" running down toward his elbow. Nearly his entire back is taken up by a depiction, in black ink, of the Statue of Liberty holding a baby. Above her are the words, "No Responder Left Behind." To the left, there are five dates.The first is 9-17-01:
"The day my life was altered," Feal says.
A construction supervisor who worked 70 to 80 hours a week at sites around the New York City area, Feal, 44, a lifelong Long Island resident, was called to ground zero on Sept. 12 to help remove debris from the twin towers wreckage. On Sept. 17, an 8,000-pound steel beam fell on his left foot. He spent nine days in the hospital, where he had multiple surgeries and almost died of gangrene. Doctors had to amputate part of the wounded foot.
"As soon as they amputated it, I probably didn't talk to anybody for about four days," he recalls. "I just counted ceiling tile. I just went into complete shutdown."
Over the next five years, he underwent more surgeries on both feet and he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He couldn't work because of his injury. And, because of when he got hurt, his application for financial help was denied.
Only people who got hurt within 96 hours of Sept. 11 were eligible to receive money from the first victims' compensation fund set up by Congress. Feal was hurt about 120 hours after the attacks.
That timing is what has transformed his life. A patriot and Army veteran, he refused to accept the terms the government laid down. And he's since worked to change them -- making a name for himself in Washington and setting up the FealGood Foundation to help anyone hurt or made sick by Sept. 11 get health insurance and other benefits.
"I don't need 9/11 to know right from wrong," Feal says in the room in his home that functions as his office. "I don't need 9/11 to show how my mother raised me."
Feal, who's short and muscular with a shaved head that's covered much of the time by a hat, is the youngest of five kids. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, he says, and his mother, Patricia, was his best friend, someone he could tell anything to.
Feal was captain of his high school wrestling team, and he prides himself on how he stuck up for kids who were bullied. When his wrestling coach's son was born with Down syndrome, he raised money for the family.
After high school, he joined the Army, serving for almost three years. Feal thinks military service should be mandatory for America's high school graduates.
His recollections of Sept. 11 and his life are peppered with praise for the United States and a conviction that politicians are the ones responsible for the country's problems. His sense of duty and his compassion are unmistakable.
"When you're in the position to help somebody, when you have power, you have a responsibility to help those less fortunate. That is the moral code in life," he states. "Your moral compass either points south and doesn't give a rat's ass about anybody. Or it points north, and you want to complete yourself as a better person and help as many people as you can."
Feal's mother died of cancer at age 64 on April 2, 2006. He calls it "the day my life was altered again" and says he visits her grave often and thinks about her every day, still using her wisdom and advice to guide him through life.
After Sept. 11 and his injury, Feal's patriotism and moral compass combined, as if he had morphed into a real-life version of his favorite superhero -- Captain America.
He went to physical and mental therapy in the years after Sept. 11. He also went to support groups, where he met other Sept. 11 responders and saw what was happening to them.
They had families and were facing financial ruin. He wasn't married on Sept. 11 (he is now -- to Marzena, whom he met online), and he had saved money from his construction job, though he did experience economic hardship years later and almost lost his house. At the time, though, he found himself one of the lucky ones.
Then, in 2003, he was coming home from a particularly rough day of therapy when he went to a McDonald's. He was finishing up his meal when he saw a father walk in with two daughters, whom he estimates were about 8 to 10. One was "normal as day," and the other mentally disabled. The three of them sat down together to eat.
"I was watching this girl who was just enjoying life. Couldn't make conversation, yet she was having a conversation with her father and sister," he recalls. "But to watch her get her mouth above the straw just to have a sip of her drink, probably took five or 10 minutes. And I'm saying to myself, 'This girl loves life. She doesn't know any better. She was born without a choice, and she's not complaining.' And I'm saying to myself, 'I have a choice. I lived a good 34 years before my life was changed.' And since that day, I've never felt sorry for myself, complained."
In 2005, he started the FealGood Foundation. He credits the girl at McDonald's with helping him decide to devote his life others.
On Aug. 30, 2007, he donated more than just his time and money -- he donated a kidney after offering it to a stranger in need who got in touch with him through his foundation. (That man wasn't a good match, but Feal was able to donate his kidney in a "swap" that allowed the man to get another person's kidney.)
"Now, I never won the Lotto. I don't know what it is to be super rich," he says. "But giving somebody the gift of life, there's not a better feeling in the world."
In the two years between the incident at McDonald's and when he started his foundation, as Feal was fighting to get his own financial compensation (he eventually settled a lawsuit over his injury -- he can't say for how much -- that keeps him afloat now), he says he became known as "the guy that could help."
When someone with Sept. 11-related injuries had a Social Security or workers compensation hearing, he would show up with other ailing Sept. 11 responders to urge the judges and lawyers to grant the victim benefits.
"It was kind of thuggish and kind of caveman-ish at best," he admits, "but it was effective. Because these men and women were sick and dying, and I'll never apologize to anybody when it comes to human life. You do what it takes to get the job done."
This past December, he used the same "thuggish" style to urge members of Congress to approve the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act -- a $4.3 billion measure that expands the pool of people eligible to receive money for injuries or losses because of Sept. 11. It passed on Dec. 22, 2010.
Feal cried that night, after the celebration, on a lone chair in a hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building.
The president signed the bill in January. Feal says it's not perfect -- he gives it a six out of 10 -- but it's better than nothing.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who worked closely with Feal to get the bill passed, calls him "one of a kind" and has helped get him back to Washington this year.
Now Feal's working at the request of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who, Feal says, told Gillibrand and her fellow New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to get him to "do a Zadroga on the Senate" for another Sept. 11-inspired bill. This one would create a public safety broadband network that could be used to help first responders communicate during a national emergency.
"The day Osama bin Laden was removed from this earth" is what Feal calls the final date on his back.
He says the death didn't give him closure, though, because Osama bin Laden's "work" is continuing as Sept. 11 responders keep dying. He might add more dates to his tattoo -- ones commemorating the days some friends have died because of Sept. 11.
This Sept. 10 is a big day for him -- it's the opening of a park in his hometown of Nesconset that will feature a 60-foot-long wall bearing the names of Sept. 11 victims who have died in the years since the attacks. Feal notes that his name might be on the wall someday and sees it as a place for victims' families to "remember them as champions."
He's not sure what he'll do this Sept. 11. He's been to ceremonies at ground zero in the past, but now he generally likes to stay home on the anniversary.
Even 10 years after the attacks, Feal shows no signs of slowing down. His goal is to make sure everyone affected by Sept. 11 gets help. He's also thinking of running for office.
Despite his physical and mental pain, Feal now thinks Sept. 11 altered his life for the better.
"I lost half a foot," he says, "but I grew an extra heart."
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