Fire in his soul: Double-amputee firefighter calls for change for disabled Americans


    Dustin Pruett, a 24-year-old double amputee, is a Bellmore, Indiana, firefighter who advocates for greater access for the disabled in work and outdoor pursuits.

    BELLMORE, Ind.—Dustin Pruett’s parents never went easy on him. Doctors said they could either “baby” him and worry constantly about his disability or treat him just like any other kid—letting him climb tall trees and make dirty mud pies in the backyard.

    Meeting Dustin, it’s easy to tell which path his parents chose.

    The 24-year-old double amputee has never known a “normal” life. Dustin, a Bellmore, Indiana, firefighter, was born with an unknown medical condition rendering one of his legs all but unusable.

    Dustin said his condition didn’t show on any ultrasounds, so his doctor was just as surprised as his parents. With this news, Dustin’s parents had a few decisions to make—some more difficult than others.

    “My parents had a choice: Either wheelchair-bound me or take the leg off that was mangled,” Dustin said.

    His parents chose the latter, and it wasn’t until 2018 that Dustin went from a single amputee to a double. After years of pain in his remaining leg and innumerable treatments and surgeries that failed to help, he said he realized there weren’t any other options left.

    “I straight-up asked my doctor, ‘Have we done everything for this?’ and he goes, ‘Well, we could do …’ and I said, ‘No, tell me. Is this it? Like, have we done everything?’” Dustin said.

    When his doctor revealed they had done all they could, Dustin’s response was true to his direct, not-sugar-coated personality: “OK, where’s the papers to sign and get it taken off?”

    The crew beside him

    Dustin hasn’t been the only one affected by his health issues.

    His mother, Karly Pruett, didn’t get any sort of warning during her pregnancy about the trials her son would face. The news hit her at an already vulnerable moment—in recovery from giving birth.

    “Everybody else knew because that was when they had the nursery window. I found out in recovery because they didn’t necessarily want me to, I guess, like, freak out on the operating table during my C-section,” Karly said. “But, I mean, it was instant tears when the pediatrician came down to talk to us.”

    The first few days of Dustin being earthside were troublesome. He was passed from one gloved hand to another until, Karly said, she finally got to connect with her son on his third day. A nurse came in with Dustin and explained his condition at length, giving Karly her first chance at really understanding Dustin’s health.

    Karly said she’s had her motherly instincts ever since.

    Driving him from one doctor’s appointment to another gave Dustin’s family plenty of time to grow close, but his main connection to his father grew from their shared desire to serve their community—and to play with fire.

    Growing up watching his father work as a firefighter made him fall in love with the fire service. He spent his childhood playing in a fire station, looking with wide eyes at the fiery red engines, dreaming of the day he’d take them on calls of his own.

    An unlikely profession

    While there are multiple amputee firefighters across the country, double amputee firefighters are few and far between. Dustin said he’s one of the only ones he knows of in Indiana.

    Dustin joined Rockville’s Bellmore Fire Department in 2019. The department, nestled between Turkey Run State Park and an Amish country store, attracted Dustin with its active training schedule. Dustin loves the education aspect of the job, holding dozens of certifications in everything from medical practices to instructing.

    Dustin Pruett, left, and his best friend and fellow firefighter Cameron Jenness.

    Since joining, Dustin has grown a strong relationship with the men and women in his department. Dustin serves alongside one of his best friends, Cameron Jenness.

    Cameron first met Dustin in 2019 after joining the department the same year.

    “It’s just kind of grown from there of just being good friends with each other,” Cameron said. “We take him on hikes and go hiking with him. We’ve done a lot of stuff together.”

    Cameron said much of their friendship was fostered from Dustin’s integrity and bluntness.

    “He’s very open and very blunt about things, but in a very appropriate way,” Cameron said. “If he thinks you’re doing something wrong, he’ll tell you and he’ll give you the reasons why.”

    Many tend to question Dustin’s ability to do everything the job entails. Being a firefighter involves quick thinking, but it also involves quick action. You may be on the floor tending to a patient on one call and then climbing up a ladder on the next. Cameron makes an effort to destigmatize people’s concerns whenever he hears them.

    “I just tell people, whenever I tell people about him, I say, ‘He can do everything that I can do,’ or if it’s another firefighter, I say, ‘Everything that we can do, he just has to do it in a way that is different than us,’” Cameron said.

    “I also tell people that he does what works for him, and in all honesty, I trust him more than some people that I’ve met in the fire service,” Cameron said. “I trust him to come inside a burning building, get me out if I’m in trouble.”

    Seeing him on and off the job, Cameron said Dustin always has a passion for what he’s doing.

    “He’s involved with so many things, and he doesn’t just hop into things and then stand in a corner. He hops into things, and he doesn’t just take over, but he definitely takes charge and takes on a leadership role. He does a really good job with all of it,” Cameron said. “Dustin wants to leave places better than how he found them.”

    Dustin often goes over to see Cameron and his wife, Emily Jenness, for regular game nights. The couple had Dustin serve as the best man in their wedding, and they’ve stayed close friends since.

    Coming back from the burns

    People in the fire service don’t always understand Dustin the way Cameron does.

    “Cutthroat isn’t even the word for it. I’ve literally had guys say, ‘Well, your legs are gonna melt, I don’t trust you in a fire,’” Dustin said.

    Dustin’s legs are made of titanium and fiberglass, which melt at such a high temperature that no firefighter would survive––amputee or not.

    Dustin said that while he knows his own limits, he can do everything any other firefighter can do. If needed, he can go inside structures on fire calls, climb ladders and do anything else needed to help a scene.

    If anything, the comments and stigmas just motivate Dustin to continue, and he isn’t stopping his work anytime soon.

    What keeps him going

    Dustin said he sees himself in child amputees, and if he can, he said he wants to help them live lives of joy, just like he’s learned to.

    “I really enjoy the kid part of [sharing my story] because to me, if you know anything about education, a kid is gonna learn faster than an adult. You take an adult, someone who has had something their whole life, they’re more than likely set in their ways. A kid that has the same issue, you can change [their mindset] for the better,” Dustin said.

    Years ago, a then 19-year-old Dustin was called by Shriner’s Children’s St. Louis to meet a young man contemplating whether or not to have surgery to become an amputee.

    At the time, Dustin said the child didn’t even understand what an amputation was. Dustin talked with him and gave him the tools to understand what would happen to him if he decided to amputate.

    Within six weeks after his surgery, the young man was walking again.

    “He beat [my record] by about three-four weeks, walking, and he started playing baseball that summer,” Dustin said with a smile.

    Dustin said he still sees his mentee whenever he can. The pair live about two and a half hours from each other, and he said he’s always willing to drive the distance.

    “I’ve been to St. Louis Cardinals games with him, St. Louis Blues games, his own [baseball] games,” Dustin said.

    Looking forward, Dustin said he hopes to continue to mentor kids.

    “Adults are a little more like you got to be really, really serious, I guess you could say,” Dustin said mid-laugh. “And the kids you can really, really have a lot of fun with them.”

    A brighter future

    Dustin is tossing around the idea of starting a foundation to help amputees go hunting and hiking more effectively. Dustin said his biggest issue with the hobby is successfully making it down range, something a sport utility vehicle could help with.

    “I don’t have $20-30,000 sitting around,” Dustin said. “Neither does the next amputee that does hunting and walks miles and miles and miles to get to their hunting spot, which they shouldn’t have to. What if I could start something where they could get that?”

    He said he wants people with disabilities to be able to enjoy themselves like anyone else, regardless of physical or monetary constraints.

    “For me, if there’s something that someone needs [to add] for adaptability, there shouldn’t be a cost,” Dustin said. “Like, if it was up to me, someone should be able to go into a dealership, and if they want a four-wheeler, they can get a four-wheeler. If they want a side-by-side, they can get a side-by-side, something that’ll be comfortable for them.”

    Not the type to complain without action, Dustin said he wants to make a change.

    Dustin was featured by the national coffee chain Seven Brew as their July Hero. For every month of 2023, the company picked a hero from across the country to recognize and win a year’s worth of free coffee and other drinks.

    Seeing his face plastered all over various stands was a lot for him, he said. He’s not one to desire special recognition and especially not the type to call himself a hero, but he said he’ll use a platform if it means he can push for change for disabled Americans.

    The lack of transparency and assistance from the government and prosthetic companies angers Dustin more than anything. Insurance companies give him daily headaches, denying him financial assistance for his prosthetics.

    Dustin said his main issue is that to get help, one often has to put oneself in front of a camera, and even those brave enough to do so often aren’t completely understood.

    “The problem is trying to get those that are holding the camera to understand that I’m not just doing this for gain because I could care less if I’m sitting in front of this camera and doing this. I’m doing it because people need to understand that that wheelchair that that person is sitting in was $5,000,” Dustin said.

    If it weren’t for his pre-calculus grades, Dustin said he’d be going to school to go into biomedical engineering. Why? Because prosthetic companies don’t understand what the average amputee needs from a prosthetic leg.

    “They [engineering professionals] probably wouldn’t like me because I’d be so brutally honest with them. They’re up there designing all these fancy legs that can move, but when they cost the cost of a new vehicle—how’s that equal?” Dustin said. “How’s it equal that a person like me gets denied [from insurance] all the time, but Joe Schmo speaks in front of a camera and gets it? That’s a standard that’s not right.”

    Dustin said that even if insurance accepted every single one of his requests, he still wouldn’t be satisfied.

    “If I got approved, OK, great! What about the kid next to me that can’t run?” Dustin said.

    Dustin said if he was able to talk to lawmakers or talk to those who make prosthetics, he’d want to advocate for lowering the costs of the products. His current prosthetic cost thousands—which Dustin said felt excessive.

    “Why does a piece of titanium pipe and some titanium screws and pipe cost that much?” Dustin asked. “If you really think about it, you can order these pipes online for a couple hundred bucks.”

    More than a number

    Regardless of his unique position, Dustin said he just wants to do hard things—things he loves.

    One of Dustin’s next goals is to visit—and climb—every fire tower across Indiana’s state parks. Combining his love for the outdoors and his goal to prove that amputees can be just as active as anyone else, Dustin loves tackling the historic towers, taking in the sights at the top.

    The towers range in height but usually all involve slim stairwells with thin, metal stairs.

    “Climbing the Hickory Ridge Tower in the National Forest, 110 feet up and you’re above the canopy and you can see for miles … That’s awesome, I love that,” Dustin said, shaking his head as he recalled the memories.

    Hoping to inspire others to get up and take new steps, Dustin just unveiled a new Facebook page—Dustin’s Outdoor Adventures. On the page, Dustin said, “I hope to post things that inspire others to be better and that you CAN do anything you set your mind to!”

    In just one week, the page gained 200 followers. Dustin said he’s by no means a social media expert, but he’s tried his best to put out engaging, inspirational content.

    Dustin uses the page to show his tower climbs, hikes, and—as the group name suggests—his outdoor adventures.

    The page isn’t just for him, though. He has deeper motivations for posting. With every post, Dustin said he hopes someone with a disability will realize they can do more than they realize. It may just be the beginning, but Dustin has high hopes that with people holding the ladder around him, he’ll be able to make a real change for those with disabilities.

    “I knew it could be a thing, but I didn’t expect it to hit what it is at this moment. I was not expecting to have that many people following, or caring, or liking,” he said with a laugh.

    “Just that support that people are wanting to help me help others better themselves [means everything].”

    It’s easy for Dustin to say he’s grateful for the help he has received, but it’s much harder for him to describe exactly how it makes him feel.

    “Something like that, it’s such a special thing that really hit me close to home,” he said. “I can’t put that kind of feeling into words.”

    Ashlyn Myers is a reporter for, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.