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NEWS | Sept. 24, 2013

The 'silent hero'

By Staff Sgt. Wesley Farnsworth 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

August 24 started out like any typical Saturday for the Bilyeu family. But that day, one of their own would have a brush with death.

Twelve-year-old Sierra Bilyeu would help save the life of her dad U.S. Army Staff Sgt. John Bilyeu, an instructor with the 1-210th Aviation Regiment, 128th Aviation Brigade at Fort Eustis, Va.

While Bilyeu's wife Heather went shopping, his daughter Sierra decided to stay home to help sort through a maze of boxes in the garage; remnants from the family's move last year. As Bilyeu opened one of the final boxes, tragedy struck.

"I felt a sharp pain in my stomach," Bilyeu said. "It felt like I had done 1,000 sit-ups."

His muscles painfully tightened up. Bilyeu started to wave his shirt and saw a bee drop out onto the table he was standing on. He knew he was allergic from previous allergy tests, however, he had not been stung and was unsure what the symptoms were.

"I heard my dad say 'Sierra, I've been stung. Call Mama and get a cold towel,'" Sierra said.

Immediately, Sierra went into action. Heather had only made it about four miles down the road when her cell phone rang.

"I thought it was weird because [Sierra] hadn't used her personal cell phone in a long time - maybe she just wanted me to pick something up from the store for her," Heather said. "She said 'Mommy, Daddy got stung by a bee,' and I told her to get his EpiPen and that I was on my way home.

"We have never had a near-death moment with him, so when I hung up, my heart skipped a beat and something inside me told me I had to get home," Heather continued.

The closer Heather got to the house, the more scared she became, and the more terrified she felt for Sierra.

Meanwhile, Bilyeu was struggling to breathe.

He knew he had to get to his EpiPen, which was only about two or three feet away. But as he stepped toward it, his muscles completely locked, causing Bilyeu to fall to his knees, and face first onto the garage floor.

"I remember thinking, 'This is it; this is how I'm going to buy the farm,'" Bilyeu said. "I've had a lot of [scary] moments in combat, but after being shot at and blown up in all my tours, I [thought] I was going to die from a bee sting right in my garage.

"When you have a moment like that, things slow down you start to pick things apart," he said. "You think, 'Did I say "I love you" to my spouse and children,' You just don't know if you covered all your bases."

Bilyeu remembers a few moments laying on the ground and seeing his own father who had already passed away.

"I had a few moments where I saw him, and he was telling me 'Just relax, it doesn't hurt, come on,' but I told him 'I'm not ready yet,' and so I fought."

Bilyeu knew from survival school that if he kept the blood flowing in, it would reduce swelling and keep his airway open.

"I bit down on the side of my tongue so hard I broke skin and drew blood," Bilyeu said.

Sierra returned only to find her father lying on the ground.

She began pacing back and forth saying, "I don't know what to do." Sierra called her mom again, who told her to go to a neighbor's house and tell them what happened. But Sierra didn't want to leave her dad alone. She called 911 instead.

A few minutes after speaking with Sierra, Heather decided to call back. When Sierra answered, she said, "Mommy I can't talk, 911 is on the line, I have to go."

"She thought to call 911 all on her own without anyone telling her to do it," Heather said.

Bilyeu remembers watching everything unfold and not being able to speak or help Sierra in any way. He knew that if he stopped biting his tongue it would swell up, and he could die. "I kept biting so hard I could feel the blood running down my throat, and the pain was so intense that I couldn't feel my tongue anymore," he said.

Shortly after placing the 911 call, the police arrived.

"I was searching for his EpiPen and I couldn't find it. I didn't know it was in his softball bag," Sierra said. "One of the officers stayed by my dad and called my mom, while the other one helped me search for the pen."

The four-mile trip home for Heather was hard, she said.

"The traffic was terrible, I couldn't speed and I didn't even have a chance to run a red light," she recalled. "I could see the emergency vehicles and their lights down the street, and I knew exactly where they were headed."

Shortly after the police arrived, so did a series of fire trucks and an ambulance.

When Heather arrived, the paramedics had already begun working on Bilyeu, preparing him for transport to the local hospital.

While Sierra could no longer be by her dad's side, she never stopped watching. When she saw them put him a big stretcher, she started getting scared and knew it was more serious than she thought.

Bilyeu remembered being loaded into the ambulance. He specifically remembered a female paramedic, who he called, "the magician of all paramedics."

"She stuck me in both arms, cleared my throat and talked me through everything," Bilyeu said. "With all the lights inside the ambulance glowing around her, she looked like an angel. I thought, 'I know I'm going to die, you are just trying to ease my pain right now.'"

However, thanks to the quick actions by Sierra, Bilyeu is alive today to tell the story.

"It's funny because I'm the noncommissioned officer in charge of safety for my unit, and now when I look at those [safety] classes, I see them differently," Bilyeu said. "People always think, 'that will never happen to me.' I don't live by that anymore."

In 17 years of service and with three deployments under his belt, Bilyeu said this experience was something completely different than anything he trained for.

"We're always thanked for our service and the things we do, but [Sierra] is more of a hero than I've ever been," Bilyeu said. "These are the moments that count, not those on the battlefield. This was the moment where all my training and experience meant nothing; she was a true hero saving someone in need.'"

Even though Sierra's actions that day were heroic, she doesn't want to be treated any differently.

"She wants no attention; all she wants is to just to be here with us," said Heather. "She did what she had to do but wants nothing in return. That, to me, makes her a 'silent hero.'"