MADISONVILLE, Ohio - In between squalls of a passing storm, Gregory Heeg took one of his students out for a walk with his German shepherd Sarge.
That student, Aaron Elsaesser, knew this time was very special.
Heeg says he has instructed green berets, police and military from around the world.
Elsaesser was walking down the rain soaked sidewalk with a real-life ninja warrior.
"Just to make sure that they can have a safer life for themselves and their families," Heeg clarified of his purpose in life.
Heeg holds the second highest rank in the 1,000-year-old discipline, 15th Dan.
The only one higher is Grand Master Masaaki Hatsumi in Noda City, Japan, at whose feet Heeg has trained.
Part of the ninja, or budo taijutsu, creed is to endure.
"You survive," Heeg said. "You win. There is no doubt. There is no losing."
One endures so one may serve and protect, Heeg says.
Throughout much of his 59 years, Heeg says he had been an emergency responder in Kentucky, back when it was called "Civil Defense."
He says he did jobs many others wouldn't or couldn't do.
He was called to the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977, where 165 people perished.
"Specifically what I did was to load the bodies into the trucks and take them to the Fort Thomas morgue," he said.
Now, he is engaged in a battle for his life.
"Three years ago, I got some pain in my left foot," Heeg said. "We went to the doctor and found there was a lump in it."
Doctors cut out the lump, but 6 months later it came back. It was a rare and deadly form of cancer, synovial sarcoma.
"To save my life they had to remove my left leg below the knee," he said.
The cancer didn't stop.
Now, it is growing inside his lungs.
"It is the toughest battle I have ever been in," he said from his tiny, sparse living room in Madisonville.
Heeg, who lost an eye in sword training, can no longer teach, and his wife Collene had to quit her job to prepare for the road ahead.
In typical ninja fashion, they both endure: "We sold anything that's special to us to pay our own way," Collene said.
But their opponent has them outgunned.
Their medical bills are already approaching a half million dollars, and that is before he's to be admitted to M. D. Anderson in Texas, a hospital that specializes in the disease.
"It's very hard for Gregory and I to ask for help," Collene said. "We're the ones used to giving it to people."
The martial arts community is coming together to help their revered sensei, organizing fundraisers, and getting the word out of the Heeg's plight.
They have launched a website, senseiheeg.com to help raise money.
The outpouring of support has overwhelmed Heeg.
"There are people I haven't seen in eight years," he said. "They're all donating, they're all sending emails."
Elsaesser is resolute. "We can't let this beat him," he said. "We can't let this beat us."
In other words, they will endure.
"I'm winning this one," Heeg said. "The key thing is to be with my family, my wife, my kids,my students. I have a reason to live."
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