A badly burned Iraq veteran rises above his setbacks to win Dancing with the Stars.
Posted in , Apr 19, 2014
The moment was here. Ten weeks of rumbas, chachas and tangos. I stood on the dance floor, hand in hand with my partner, Karina Smirnoff, and waited to hear Tom Bergeron, host of Dancing With the Stars, announce who’d won the coveted Mirrorball trophy.
I stole a glance out in the studio audience for my mom. She smiled broadly, proudly. This could be the greatest day of my life, I thought.
You may know a little about my story. How I was raised by a hardworking single mom, how we moved from place to place during my childhood and wound up in Dalton, Georgia; how I played strong safety for my high school football team and went to the state championship; how I was popular and my head might have swelled a bit from girls telling me I was good-looking.
I dreamed of becoming an All-American hero. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. I had no real job skills, and hadn’t done well enough in school to earn a college scholarship. Maybe that was why, not long after I graduated high school, a commercial I saw about the Army intrigued me.
That summer of 2002 I went to the Army recruiter at the mall. “I want to enlist,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“To serve my country.” My mom came to the U.S. from El Salvador and she taught me to be grateful for our life in America. After basic training I was assigned to the 502d Infantry Regiment. In March 2003, at age 19, I was deployed to Iraq.
My job wasn’t glamorous. On April 5, less than a month into my deployment, I was doing the usual—driving a Humvee near Karbala, a small city about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. We were at the head of a convoy escort. Our mission: Secure a local airfield.
There were four of us—three enlisted men and a sergeant. It was just weeks after the invasion. I was driving with one hand on the wheel, like I was cruising the boulevard back home.
My buddy riding shotgun joked, “Wouldn’t it be great to get a purple heart? Every restaurant you went to, you could jump to the head of the line.” Bravado covered up our fear. We knew how dumb we sounded, but humor helped take our minds off the dangers of being in a war zone.
I felt our left front tire hit something. A land mine. Boom! The other three guys were thrown clear by the explosion. The Humvee burst into flames. I was trapped inside, burning alive. “Help! Help!” I screamed. I could hear the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire outside. My guys were pinned down, under attack. No one could reach me. God, help me. The pain was indescribable. I watched the skin melt and fall off my hands. Flames seared my face, my arms, my back, consuming me. I’m going to die.
Someone’s hands reached for me, pulling me out of the Humvee. My buddies. They had suppressed the fire. I remember being lowered to the ground, the sergeant cradling me like a baby. “My face, my face,” I shrieked. He held my hands and wouldn’t let me touch my face. Then by the grace of God, I passed out.
I awoke at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, three weeks later. Doctors had put me in an induced coma and I’d been airlifted from Iraq to Germany then to the U.S. There was Mom at my bedside, looking at me with such love in her eyes. But it didn’t mask her worry.
Those first weeks were a blur of pain and medical procedures. Forty percent of my body was burned. My left ear was so badly damaged it had to be removed. Doctors amputated part of my right ear too. I was tethered to a ventilator because of smoke inhalation. I had skin grafts and surgeries, some taking over 10 hours.
I told the doctors and nurses I wanted to see what I looked like, but they kept putting me off. One day, after about five weeks, I grew frustrated. “I’m going to have to live with this for the rest of my life. I might as well start learning now.”
Finally the nurse sat me at a table with a mirror above it. Slowly, I raised my eyes. The whole left side of my face drooped like a melting fudgesicle. My flesh was discolored and covered with angry-looking red splotches. All I had was a hole where my left ear had been. My eyes sagged; I had no eyebrows.
“Your grafts are coming along nicely,” the nurse said. “You’re looking better and better.” I couldn’t say a word. Who was this man in the mirror? It was like some creature out of a horror movie staring back at me. That’s not me, that’s a freak! How could I go out in public? I’d scare people.
I turned away from the mirror, sobbing. For four days, I lay in bed. I didn’t eat or talk. I didn’t want to live.
Mom never left my side. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the sickening images of my reflection, to shut out the world, but her prayers broke through. “Be with my son. Comfort him, Lord,” she said. “We know you feel his pain. Keep him strong. Give him courage.”
“You have to hold on to your faith,” Mom told me. “That’s what will get you through.” She’d had her own experiences with tragedy—living in war-torn El Salvador, losing my older sister, Anabel, to a congenital illness.
“I kept going,” she said. “God showed me I still had things to live for. He has a purpose for you too.”
“But what do I have left, Mom?” I asked. “I don’t recognize myself. I don’t even know who I am anymore!”
“You are still my son,” she assured me. “You are who God made you. I know you’re worried about girls. The people in your life who count will be there for who you are, not what you look like.”
I wanted to believe that. Like my mom, I took to talking to God, praying my way through more treatments, more surgeries. I know I survived for a reason, Lord. Lead me to the other side of this pain, and show me that reason.
One day a nurse came to me. “We have a new patient on the ward, another burn patient. He’s having a hard time,” she said. “Do you think you could talk to him? It might help him to know things do get better.”
“Okay,” I said, though I wasn’t sure how much use to him I’d be.
The nurse led the way to his room. I peeked in. It was dark inside. “Hey, man,” I said, “can I come in? I was injured in Iraq. I’ve been here for a few months.”
“Oh, really,” he said listlessly.
I walked in and sat next to his bed. Even in the dim light, I could see both his ears were missing. So was his nose. He must be in the same dark place I’ve been in, I thought.
I tried some basic questions: Where are you from, what do you like to do? His answers were short. I kept trying, and gradually he loosened up. Soon we were talking about all kinds of things. Our favorite music. Life in the military. Before either of us knew it, 45 minutes had passed.
I stood up to leave. “Is there anything I can bring you?” I asked.
“A visit is all I really need,” he said.
I stopped by a few days later. This time his drapes were open. “I don’t know what you said to him,” the nurse told me, “but you really made a difference.”
Maybe Mom’s right, I thought. Maybe I do have a purpose.
I spent almost three years recovering at Brooke, underwent 33 surgeries. I visited people on the wards almost daily, talking to servicemen and women who’d been injured. After my discharge, I joined veterans’ organizations and traveled the country giving motivational talks.
Then—can you believe this?—I landed a part on the soap opera All My Children, playing a wounded vet. Mom turned out to be right about true friends seeing who I am on the inside. The team on the show became like a second family, and I fell in love with a production associate, a wonderful woman named Diana.
Dancing With the Stars was the icing on the cake. Dancing for hours at a time was something else. It was grueling, like football practice in the hot sun, like basic training. The first week of rehearsals Karina showed me a new dance step. It took me a full day to master it. When I did, I flashed the biggest smile.
“You got it!” Karina said.
But I was thinking something else. Talk about a plan! God had opened up a new world for me.
I was thinking the same thing, waiting on the dance floor for the winner to be announced. After an eternity, Tom Bergeron called my name. I said a prayer of thanks and leaped for joy. Mom rushed down from the audience. I hugged her, hugged Karina. And I hoisted the trophy, hoisted it as high as I could.