A few dozen operatives leave the small convoy of unarmored, high-back Humvees and shuffle through an affluent neighborhood on the northeastern outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. The summer morning is hot and dry. Each commando in the task force carries a standard-issue M16A4 assault rifle and wears desert camo fatigues, a ceramic plate-loaded tactical vest, a Kevlar helmet. They stole five hours of sleep last night if they were lucky. But they are alert, stropped with adrenaline.
The squad leader and his men cordon off entire street blocks and surround the compound where their VIP targets have holed up. The targets are the top of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s most-wanted deck of Iraqi playing cards, carried by U.S. forces to help identify the conflict’s highest value targets: Uday and Qusay Hussein, ace of hearts and ace of clubs. A soldier triggers a bullhorn and demands the Hussein brothers surrender. His words hang in the baking air.
The silence breaks. Machinegun fire flares from the second-floor windows, and the soldiers return fire. Bullets wasp through the dust. Three commandos drop, stung. The squad leader hunkers down near a building across from the compound, locked in the firefight. He leans his weight into the wall, plots counter fire and rescue. Before he can venture a look, an RPG ruptures the haze and strikes his refuge. The roof and wall that had been his protection explode, and their ruins entomb him.
Blackness drops like a veil of stones.
Andy Chavez was airborne a long moment before he hit, tumbled, and slid to a cold halt. He stared down the treelined chute and clutched his stomach, nervous about the impact he’d just sustained. Andy was an experienced snowboarder who grew up on the southernmost flanks of the Rockies in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and he knew his way down piste. The fall should have been a minor one, but it took him a moment to get up. He took stock, checked his six, a soldier’s habit, and felt for injuries. Could be worse.
He was perched partway down a steep run on the snowy Schmitten mountain in the Austrian Alps, seven hours south of his post in Giessen, Germany. The town of Zell am See nestled below against Lake Zell’s western shore. It was Thanksgiving weekend 2004. Following a combat tour in Iraq, Andy and a crew of 30 friends, including his new wife, Sophia, had taken advantage of the holiday for an off-base ski trip. The late afternoon sun was careening toward the horizon, and Andy’s Army buddies had long since charged ahead. By now, he figured, they’d be spraying powder at the bottom, and Sophia would be slipping toward panic wondering where he was.
Andy, a 25-year-old captain in the 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment of the 1st Armored Division, had graduated from West Point two years prior in the spring that followed the 9/11 attacks and had just finished his first Iraq tour the previous summer. At six-foot-one, 230 pounds, he was a big, athletic guy known for his humor and quick wit. In the military, if you don’t want to do a job twice, you do it poorly the first time. Early in his Iraq days, Andy pulled shit-burning detail at the latrines — 55-gallon drums cut in half that served as chamber pots. Most guys dragged the drums somewhere far enough away and lit the shit aflame with diesel fuel. Andy set up right next to the mess tent and burnt it down along with the mess in the drums. That was the last time he burned shit. His platoon buddies knew Andy as a charismatic, confident soldier, not quite cocky, but funny and smart as hell. He was a natural working with locals and leading a squad in Task Force 20, a no-knock-entry special-ops unit that executed covert raids and extractions like the one that nixed Uday and Qusay. He’d be up for another tour before long.
Andy stood and edged his board perpendicular to the slope’s fall line. The one thing he couldn’t bear was to disappoint his crew. He’d offered to drive the black Cadillac STS he’d shipped to Germany, shiny as Darth Vader’s helmet, and now he stood alone on the mountain while everyone else was below.
Mosul had rocked him. But that was more than a year ago. He massaged his abdomen, took a deep breath, and considered the burgeoning pains he’d felt since his men had unearthed him from the rubble, concussed and senseless. He bore it stoically, kept the pain to himself, and no one suspected his worsening condition. He preferred it that way. For the last three or four weeks, though, he’d been nursing cramps and regular bouts of diarrhea that had been harder to hide, especially from Sophia. He’d always had an iron stomach, but these days it felt more like churning taffy.
He nosed the board downward and gained speed, his turns tight and infrequent. He eased into a crouch, his muscle memory kicking in, but a sharp jolt of pain broke his flow once more. Again the mountain spun off its axis and slammed against him, hard. He took a steadying breath, clenched his jaw, and rolled to his knees.
That night he skipped dinner and got in bed. He woke up moaning at about two in the morning and told Sophia he needed a hospital. She couldn’t get much more out of him, and his frightened, tired expression startled her. It was only last year, on her college graduation day, that Sophia had learned Andy was shipping out to Iraq. Their wedding had been a rushed affair in Santa Fe, and she’d moved with him to Geissen in July. Their first anniversary was just a few weeks away.
She budged Andy into the Cadillac and sped to the Tauern Hospital on the far side of the lake. The place was dark, deserted, eerie. A doctor roaming the empty corridors admitted him to the nearest exam room and laid him belly up on a table. His swollen abdomen, now laid bare, looked nine months pregnant. The doctor shot Sophia a grim expression. Andy needed surgery, she said. Now.
Surgeons opened his abdomen within the hour. What they found was unthinkable given that Andy had been on his feet only hours earlier: half-inch long bowel perforations, necrotic and liquefied intestines, and an indurated, swollen pancreas. Portions of his liver, stomach, and spleen had ruptured and gone septic. They suctioned out the dead tissue and kept Andy in a medically induced coma, his re-layered gut still flayed open.
The doctor pulled Sophia aside. “Has Andy been anywhere hot?” she asked. “Like a third world country?”
Sophia blinked. “He was in Iraq for a year and a half.”
Andy’s surgeons had scraped out a toxic abscess teeming with rare, unidentified bacterium that was causing his body to poison itself, and it was still lurking inside him. Others were coming out of Iraq with similar symptoms, the doctor had heard, but the cause was still a mystery. Tauern sent a sample to a lab an hour away that died en route. Penicillin would likely wipe it out, but Andy was allergic and teetering on so fine an edge that they didn’t dare administer it.
Andy hadn’t talked much about the war and never admitted to an injury, but Sophia had heard something from his commanding officer about Mosul and the wall that had buried him. Iraq’s desert environment was riddled with sand fleas, possible carriers of a deadly bacterium eager to assail his weakened system.
By December 15th, more than two weeks and seven operations later, Andy had deteriorated drastically. He spiked a fever of 108 and coded for 12 minutes on the surgeon’s table. Tauern’s doctors couldn’t draw him from the coma. Resources exhausted, they handed him over to the U.S. Army for a transfer to a stateside military hospital in Maryland. Their final note to any new doctor assigned the delicate patient: Don’t look inside if you don’t have to.
The C-130 Hercules medical transport plane rumbled, then charged down the runway. Sophia sat in a cramped jumpseat, Andy strapped to a gurney beside her. Their anniversary was in three days. She looked out the window, considered the question the military doctors had asked: Do you want to bury him here or at home?
In all likelihood, they made clear, Andy wouldn’t survive the flight.
For as long as he could remember, Steve Chavez had loved to cook. He honed his talent as a youngster in his grandmother’s kitchen. One night a week when they were kids, Andy, four years Steve’s senior, played chef and cooked hamburgers or hot dogs for all. Steve’s night featured Cornish game hen and roasted potatoes.
Look at him now: North Vancouver, British Columbia, first classes in classical French cuisine at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts just a few weeks away. One day he’d open his own restaurant. First things first, he had to get through school. Steve had only been in Vancouver a week and had little more than the inflatable couch he was sitting on. There was still a long way to go.
The phone rang. His old man.
Steve’s father had grown up a Navy brat on bases from Treasure Island, where he caught sharks on a line out of his bedroom window, to Guantanamo Bay, where he was a boy when Fidel Castro swept into power in ’59. His own father had fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars from the deck of a destroyer. Not much about the realities of a military life broke his cool.
And yet …
Andy had an accident, his father said. His prognosis looked dire. Odds were good he’d be dead on arrival stateside. Wake or vigil, if Steve wanted to see his brother again, he needed to get back fast.
Steve hung up, dazed. When Andy had gone off to West Point, then to Iraq, Steve had naturally been concerned, but going to war was a family tradition. Both of their grandfathers had served, and though their own father chose Harvard instead of the Naval Academy, he’d served by way of his military childhood.
Whatever his concern, Steve knew one thing in his heart: Andy would make it home, no matter what. Steve flew back to Santa Fe to discover he’d been right. Andy had lasted out the long flight and clung now to life support. Steve held his emotions at bay, as if to transmit his own strength, through some quantum fraternal alchemy, to his brother who was grappling for his life.
Christmas passed in a fog. Some clever doctor claimed Jell-O had more electrical activity than Andy’s brain. A hail-Mary dose of penicillin finally killed the bacterium responsible for Andy’s condition, but a scan showed a mostly white mass where a heat map of neurons should be. Andy was braindead and would never recover. He was gone. The contents of Steve’s chest moved to his throat. He wanted to see his brother again.
Steve couldn’t remember who said it first, that Andy wouldn’t want to be a vegetable. The family discussed pulling the plug, but he wouldn’t hear any of it.
Fuck that, Steve thought. He’ll pull through. Give him more time. He’s a fighter.
He remembered one summer when he and Andy were kids. Steve was six, Andy 10. Their father had led them up to Big Tesuque Canyon, high in the Sangre de Cristos above Santa Fe, to hunt mushrooms. He and Andy wandered alone by the creek, out of earshot, when a snap monsoon speared lightning around them. Steve was afraid but Andy drew him close, told him they’d be okay. That was Andy, ever calm and collected. Andy, the protector. The same impulse drove him to West Point, to Iraq, without complaint. Fact was, he confronted those trials so Steve wouldn’t have to shoulder the family’s military inheritance.
Steve made his position clear over the next few contentious days: Andy deserved more time. But he was the lone holdout. In the end, unable to sway his family, he relented. He told himself he couldn’t keep Andy around for his own selfish reasons. If he could give him one thing now, it would have to be peace.
Steve paced at home in Santa Fe, powerless. Andy’s end of life procedure was scheduled for the next day, Saturday, January 1, 2005. Tomorrow would be a new day, a new year, a new life in which he’d never again see his brother’s mischievous grin or the canvas of tattoos that heralded his singularity: the Spam barcode etched on his back, the vivid half sleeve with blue cross, red heart, or the flowing script on opposite thighs: Evil on the right, Good on the left. Inked across his back, spanning his broad shoulders like a protective mantle was a pair of angel’s wings.
On their way to sign the papers, the family found a notice on the door indicating the office had closed early for New Year’s Eve. Steve took it as an omen. The doctors, he reasoned, they’re not gods. They don’t know everything. The doctors couldn’t do anything until the papers had been signed.
Then, a miracle. In the limbo following their auspicious fluke of timing, Andy had squeezed his mother’s hand. Not only that, he opened his eyes, gazed around the room, and stared at his toes. Doctors, skeptical at first, had no explanation. Andy had all but risen from the dead.
Steve took a deep breath, elated but not surprised. His older brother was a fighter, and he’d always had a hell of a sense of timing.
A year and a half later …
Andy wished his roommate would keep quiet. When the deranged old man — Magada, they called him — got going, he raised hell and raved at the little people living inside his stomach.
Magada was back at it, ordering the little people around, and Andy could only stare, bedridden, incapacitated. Since awakening, it had been hard for Andy to stitch reality together into a seamless narrative. His instincts were still sharp, though, and he knew he had to protect himself. He took precautions. When nurses turned their backs, he secured a disposable Gillette cartridge and extracted its trio of razor blades. With some tape he came across, he wrapped the bottoms of each blade to craft makeshift handles and hid the shivs inside the wallet in his nightstand drawer. This all took him some time, and when he was done, he forgot why he needed them.
Andy’s abdomen still bore a dressed, open fistula from his surgeries in Austria, compounding his sensitivity to Magada’s stomach ramblings. He’d been shunted over to longterm care at the VA in Menlo Park, California, a sort of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ward of Korea and Vietnam-era veterans whose faculties were impaired.
Andy’s own progress since his miraculous awakening was scant. His frontal lobe was permanently damaged, speech begrudging and monosyllabic, and walking a dream best forgotten. No one knew the precise length of his remaining intestines, but it wasn’t much, which meant a visit to the toilet almost immediately after eating. His short-term recall was shot to hell. For living in the moment, he’d inspire envy in any Zen monk. He’d live five years, doctors said, ten if he was lucky.
Another Korea and Vietnam vet named Dave Brown, more cogent than Magada, befriended Andy and took him under his wing. The squad of older vets played bingo, solved puzzles, and engaged in regular outings — concerts and Sharks hockey games — that Andy, immobile, couldn’t join. Afternoons, Dave squeaked his wheelchair into the younger vet’s quarters, lifted a brow at Magada, and enlisted Andy for karaoke hour. Dave’s song, inevitably, was “Danny Boy.” Andy mostly watched, since his voice rarely cooperated with his intentions. Once in a while he’d offer his impression of a strangled rooster crooning Johnny Cash.
Dave’s friendship lent him a modicum of solace, but where was Sophia, lifeline to his old self? He did not always know where he was or why. In moments of clarity, he believed simply that his particular existence couldn’t hold. Where was Sophia?
Summer now, a year and a half after he woke. Andy glanced up as his wife entered the room. She had landed a job at Stanford and had hardly shown herself in the last six months. For Andy, whose memory mirrored a filing cabinet tipped over, that fact was less tangible than intuitive. Sophia sat down. She wanted a divorce. The conversation was one-sided.
That night, Magada grumbled at his stomach’s tiny occupants, but Andy hardly listened. Confused though he often was, one thing was sure: he loved that woman. If he had ever had a home, she was it. He took a notepad from his drawer and scrawled a spidery letter to her. He reminded her that he loved her and wanted her to be happy. When he was dead, he wrote, he hoped she’d marry again.
The halls were silent, the room’s lights shuttered. Magada, quiet now, was probably asleep. Andy drew his belt from its loops and cinched it around his neck. Willing his fingers to work took all his concentration, but he secured the end of the belt to the headboard’s railing. Then he flung the sheets away and rolled out of bed.
The belt held, but a nurse rushed in to lift him before he passed out. Perhaps Magada had yelled. Doctors put Andy on suicide watch until his parents came a few days later to take him home to New Mexico. Relentless in their search for the best care, they found him a bed at the Albuquerque VA hospital. One morning a few weeks in, a nurse turned the corner and stepped into his room. She froze, looked around. Andy’s bed was empty. He had no appointments and couldn’t walk. She knew of his recent suicide attempt, may have heard about the hidden razor blades. She rushed room to room, but no one had seen Andy.
At the far end of the building, a sigh of relief. There he was, all six feet two inches, hunched on the tiny library’s floor, nonchalantly flipping through books. He’d army crawled past dozens of offices full of hospital personnel to get there.
Doctors had claimed Andy would never walk again and was best confined to a bed. Andy never saw it that way. By December he was roaming the halls at will, clawing his way upright and shuffling spiderlike down corridors on foot, holding tight to the wall’s comforting rigidity. It was dangerous. A fall or a blow to the head could end him. Then again, so would stasis. His doctors were dumbfounded but gamely outfitted him with a foam helmet. One nurse wrote that Andy “overestimates or forgets limitations, not realistically assessing ability to go to the bathroom or ambulate.”
He had his own sense of realistic. What Andy wanted most now was movement.
Calls from his father had a way of shifting Steve’s gears.
Life after culinary school hadn’t exactly gone to plan. He had graduated at the top of his class, had even been offered a spot on a Canadian imitation of “Top Chef” before they realized he was American. Since then he’d been living with friends in Boca Raton, Florida, swaggering through the last few years of his 20s. In Santa Fe, after culinary school, he’d helped a friend open a Spanish tapas eatery, but launching his own restaurant hadn’t panned out by early 2011. He spent his days partying, wahoo fishing, and managing at Tijuana Taxi Company, a Mexican joint for which he was dramatically overqualified.
His father had other ideas. Veterans Affairs had just spawned an experiment called the Family Caregiver Assistance Program that would allow participating wounded vets to enter the care of a family member who would be paid in their capacity as primary caregiver. The VA was starting small with a hundred-person test group. Steve’s father was calling to say he’d signed Steve up to be Andy’s caregiver.
Not even a “Do you wanna do this?” Steve noted.
He didn’t argue. He remembered a time in grade school when Andy had lifted a schoolyard bully by his neck and informed the kid that he would be leaving a much smaller Steve alone. Andy had always been his champion.
Steve went home to Santa Fe and began the program’s required basic nursing classes. He promptly learned this was a full-time job.
The brothers had long shared a love of the outdoors and a formidable competitive streak. Maybe, Steve began to reflect, adaptive athletics was the key. “You may be injured,” Steve reminded him, “but your life’s not over.” They launched a string of adventures: rock climbing, river rafting, scuba diving. Steve thought: Suckers, man. They’re paying me for this?
Andy smiled more, spoke more clearly. Among other veterans he became infamous for zooming around on a Segway outfitted with knobby all-terrain tires, which had him lording eight inches above the crowd. He still couldn’t walk far, but the Segway became a stand-in for his legs, at least temporarily.
A trip to Pismo Beach was a revelation. Andy realized he could catch a wave, albeit standing on his knees. After his set, he looked on as a 92-year-old man who had been surfing all afternoon suffered a heart attack in the water and died on the beach. “He died with a smile on his face,” Andy stuttered. “Doing what he loved. Not laying in a bed waiting to die.” Menlo Park and Magada were years behind Andy now, but his heart still recalled their miasma, the slow and certain decay of a sedentary life.
The trip had opened Andy’s eyes. He wasn’t broken. He had never had much tolerance for limitations, one of the things Steve admired about him. Now the old glint had come back to Andy’s eyes. Steve felt proud.
The pair cultivated a self-prescribed program they dubbed Life Therapy. Andy got out of the house once a day, ditched town once a week, left the state once a month, and would dust his passport each year. Movement, social engagement, and a community of vets who understood his trials in ways no one else could comprehend, an extension of the old wartime brotherhood.
But Andy was in danger from a new threat. Not long before their activities ramped up, he developed a blood clot in his leg. Clots, perilous for those with mobility issues, can cut off circulation and require amputation. Physical activity can jar them loose and send them straight to the heart. Andy’s doctors had already expressed discomfort with his activities, which fell way outside the norm for someone with his laundry list of physical ailments. Should a clot recur, Andy would likely lose his lower leg, the tattooed word Evil lingering above like an omen. He was just beginning to walk more, expanding his range both on foot and in the adaptive sports arena, and amputation was a cruel prospect. It would mean regression to a bed-shaped cage, a life without movement.
At the same time, Andy began struggling with his identity. Too often, the average stranger wrote him off as mentally absent. Camaraderie with other vets helped, but to the rest of the world he felt he couldn’t convey his intelligence, capability, or complexity. He wrote poetry and painted, but he began to wonder what the point was.
He needed a mission, something to keep him focused and moving forward. That’s when a sturdy, gray-haired woman named Janet Escobedo came knocking with a madcap plan: Andy would captain her field events squad at the world’s biggest wheelchair competition for veterans, to be held that year in Pittsburgh.
Janet Escobedo believed in the old saw that you could learn more about a person from an hour of play than a year’s worth of conversation. She owned a gift of eternal optimism that proved handy when her charges got down on themselves — common enough among veterans in the VA’s Spinal Cord Injury Unit.
Years earlier, Janet had been a lieutenant colonel at Kirtland Air Force Base and worked as a computer communications intelligence officer. One morning she woke early and tugged on her Air Force uniform, adjusted her name tag in the mirror, patted it into place, and prepared to turn away when she heard a voice say: I want you to be a counselor. She did a double take, knew God’s timbre clearly enough. She’d never considered counseling before and hadn’t taken a psych class in her life, but those were just details. Salute smartly and get out of the way, she thought.
Janet had been a competitive javelin and discus thrower at Virginia Tech in the early ’70s. In 1983, as a captain stationed at Zweibrücken Air Base in Germany at the height of the Cold War, she traveled to a divided Berlin to compete in the Armed Forces Continental Sports Conference and won gold in discus, even setting a conference world record.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games and the prospect of coaching a New Mexico squad appealed to her, and she had a few guys in mind. First was Tony Johnson — if she could convince him.
Tony was a tough case, Janet’s favorite kind. In July 2008, he had been working a job installing windows with one of his uncles’ outfits when he fell off a ladder and drove the talus of his right ankle into the tibia and fibula, breaking both. One botched surgery and several months later, the leg turned black and green. A neglected staph infection crept into the bone and was eating at his heart lining. The leg was dead, but it stayed. For the next six months, Tony sank into a drinking habit he’d first nursed in the Army, when he kept a bottle tucked under his pillow and swigged before he brushed his teeth each morning. He scored cocaine on the streets when he could. It didn’t numb the pain, but it numbed him.
Tony turned a corner at two o’clock one November morning when he woke up, head drenched, pillow soaked through with tears. He needed help, wanted to live but didn’t like this living. He phoned his aunt’s partner, a pastor, desperate and bawling. Reverend Brown was practically blood, Tony’s only father figure growing up. Over the phone, they prayed a good twenty minutes. Soon after, he let his rotting leg go, an amputation at the calf.
Janet found Tony dealing poker with the other vets in the spinal cord unit where she worked and tried to draft him for the games. He had his answer ready before she finished: “Nope.”
Depressed since losing his leg, Tony didn’t want to consider whether or not he could hack it. He used to be vital, a star forward on his Army post’s team, but now he was a 55-year-old man without a leg. He didn’t even have a wheelchair.
“You’ve got one good leg, right?” Janet rejoined. “Good. You’re on the team.”
Janet met Andy at an art festival, where he took top prize for his painting of the fiery aspens he and Steve used to admire on their old mushroom hunting grounds. The offer of a real competition shook him out of a stupor, and she found him a much easier sell than Tony.
Janet locked in Andy and a scruffy graybeard named Jack Richardson. Three athletes wouldn’t constitute a state team, though, according to Wheelchair Games rules. New Mexico just didn’t have the bodies. But they could compete as individuals with team support.
The three men made a string of dark horses, first-timers who didn’t stand a chance against bigger, better funded teams who had been competing for years on the wheelchair circuit. This was the Super Bowl for veterans living with disabilities, and they were a pickup squad.
Janet didn’t betray a moment’s doubt.
Andy looked on as Tony’s first throw wobbled down the grassy field like a fumbled football. Tony shook his head. He couldn’t quite figure out the discus, a two-pound, steel-rimmed plate that required considerable centrifugal force to send more than a few yards. Problem was, you couldn’t get much torque from a wheelchair.
Tony and Andy were training at Bullhead Memorial Park in Albuquerque, four weeks out from the Wheelchair Games. Jack Richardson would train on his own. Their slender team was underfunded and underequipped. Coach Janet schooled the pair in the proper techniques for flying the discus and putting shot. With no funding or sponsorship, they were practicing with her personal equipment. Javelin would have to remain theoretical until the time came because she didn’t have one. Even strength training machines were off limits after someone in the VA threw up a wall. There, too, they’d have to make do with whatever makeshift weights they could find.
Got to earn your throw, Janet stressed, showing them the motions. Imagine the discus in your hand. Don’t hold on. Heft it gently, swing the arm, let it fly. Letting go the right way was key.
Tony hefted the 6-pound, 10-ounce shot, which felt like an iron softball. He spun it in his hands and cradled it. Palm the shot, Janet coached. Lean and thrust. All in the shoulder. Tony cocked his elbow and hucked the ball onto the grass. It was his eleventh try, and for the first time he felt like he was improving.
Janet had no tape, so she placed a borrowed tongue depressor where the hunk of iron landed. Good throw. She wasted no time lamenting the fact they didn’t have an elevated competition chair to practice on, which would have made things easier. The wheelchair was unstable and stole power.
Andy’s turn. His control was shakier and his hands didn’t often do what he wanted them to. But Andy had competed in shot and discus in high school, had that edge on Tony. He’d also been a runner-up state champion wrestler and an ace offensive lineman. The muscles remembered, and where the brain misfired, the body’s recall sometimes made up some of the difference. On this throw, it wasn’t enough. Andy’s shot fell short of Tony’s. Janet placed the tongue depressor.
“You’re doing great!” she cheered. “Guys, I think you can win something!”
Tony laughed and nudged his teammate. “She’s doin a psych game on us, Andy.”
A month later, Steve loaded Andy and his Segway in their Escalade and pointed it east toward Pittsburgh. It was a long drive, and the thump of lane dividers sounded like a beating heart and brought to mind the danger of the trip. Frequent stops would be vital to keep blood flowing in Andy’s legs and prevent a clot. Andy wasn’t worried, as usual. Steve decided to take the drive in a few easy days. They made a pit stop in Sandusky, Ohio, rode Cedar Point’s coasters front of every line, and landed in Pittsburgh on the third night.
Opening ceremonies of the 31st National Veterans Wheelchair Games commenced the next day. Tony carried the New Mexico flag into the University of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, wearing a prosthetic leg, prouder than he could ever remember being. Andy, atop his trusty Segway, and Coach Janet kept pace beside him. Jack Richardson brought up the rear in his electric chair. Each team member looked sharp in a custom yellow jersey emblazoned with their state’s Zia sun symbol and red track pants — justifiable expenses, they figured. More than 600 other athletes, warriors all, had descended on the arena to compete. When the Texas team wheeled in some time after them, the trio from New Mexico watched dozens upon dozens of competitors roll by. It was hard not to be self-conscious of their own meager, ragtag corps, which fell short of the six members it took to qualify as an official team.
The torch bearer wheeled in and set the cauldron aflame. The Games were underway.
“No Segway today,” Steve announced. “We’re walking.”
If he had learned one thing, it was that Andy thrived on a challenge. More to the point, he had had enough of the ponderous, bulky contraption. They had been in Pittsburgh for two days and had been turned away from more than one restaurant.
The elevator at the Omni-William Penn Hotel was crammed with chair-bound vets, and a line wrapped around the corner. Andy and Steve took the stairs down from the fifth floor. Andy grasped his brother’s hand for support, walking the half-mile to the convention center, where several of the competitions were held.
They watched quad rugby, a spectacle known affectionately as murder ball. Wheelchairs hurtling toward one another, slamming full force, toppling. Andy wished he could play. That night, they met the rest of their crew across the river at Heinz Field for a block party. Wheelchairs had commandeered the streets of Pittsburgh, turned it to a place a wounded vet could get comfortable. Andy flirted a while with Mrs. Pittsburgh and earned his cheek a good luck kiss for the next day’s big contest. He had a goofy grin on his face the rest of the evening. By night’s close, Jack had pestered the DJ into playing something old school and was dancing in his electric wheelchair, hopping across the floor with four women at hand.
The field events would be held at a baseball field ringed with bleachers at Shady Side Academy, a private high school on the city’s outskirts. Tall trees lined the field and Pittsburgh gleamed in the humidity beyond. Andy had been classed as a walking quadriplegic, which meant all of his limbs were heavily compromised. Ten throwing stations lined the field. Javelin would be first, then discus. Shot-put, his strongest event, was last.
Tony, grouped with the paraplegics, was up first. His left forearm was heavily bandaged from a wrist injury he got playing softball a couple days before, and it wreaked havoc on his throws. Helpers had to fasten his arm to a brace on the throwing chair with an Ace bandage. It hampered his mobility, killed his leverage. His throws in discus and shot — 59 and 22 feet respectively — earned no medals. He collected himself, thought back to the woman he’d seen throw a discus clear into the trees, the power she summoned. He knew he could muster more from his tiring arms. When his turn at javelin came, he managed a bronze with a 41-and-a-half-foot launch. The cocky dip in his step as he walked off the field wasn’t from the prosthetic.
Andy’s bracket was up next. Tony stood by with Jack, who won first place in the power chair 200-meter race, and Coach Janet to watch and holler. Steve hung with Andy, ready to assist him into the chair when his time came.
A Dallas man, part of the legion of Texans, wheeled up beside them under the tents, looking cucumber cool and strong as braided rope. Sorted into Andy’s field class, he’d come to throw for all he was worth, and he had good reason to suspect that he couldn’t lose. Robbie Green believed God had anointed him to triumph.
It wasn’t a passing fancy. Robbie’s injury stemmed from a haircut. Working as a maintenance man at a Houston apartment complex, he was due for a trim and paid a visit to his friend Sleepy, a barber. Sleepy sat him in his chair and started with a shave. Robbie twitched, and Sleepy nicked him. Robbie twitched again, got lightheaded, started breathing heavy. Sweat sluiced down his back, and he felt like he needed air. He tried to stand and blacked out, cracking his head on the corner of a chair on the way down. He came to and tried again, but smashed a coffee table and convulsed. Sleepy put Robbie’s head in his lap once he stopped shaking, but he’d gone limp.
The doctors told him he was paralyzed from the neck down. There were some last shot surgeries, but the odds were slim. Robbie was alone in his hospital room when a stranger appeared at the foot of his bed. Robbie didn’t know where the man had come from, hadn’t heard a door open.
“I’m a preacher from Dallas,” the man said. “Wanted to see how you were doing.”
“Do I know you?”
No, he said, they’d never met. They talked a few minutes, that was it. Just as the preacher was turning to leave, he looked back at Robbie.
“You know,” the preacher confided, “they said I’d never walk again.” His stare was thoughtful, penetrating. “But six years later, I stand before you.” The stranger let that sink in, then turned around and walked out without another word. Robbie eyed the door, closed now, though he hadn’t heard it shut. Once the preacher had left, Robbie couldn’t for the life of him recall what the man looked like.
Next morning, the doctor showed up with bad news. Surgery hadn’t done the trick. They’d already surgically replaced two vertebrae, and his neck hadn’t even scarred.
Robbie laughed. The doctor asked what was funny.
“I’ll be back to see you,” Robbie told him, “and I’m gonna be walking.”
The doctor checked his notes. “Medically speaking, I don’t see it happening.”
“Medically speaking,” Robbie answered, “I’ll be back.”
Nearly five months later, he stood and grabbed his walker, strolled down the hallway and out the hospital doors for good.
Now he was at the Wheelchair Games. Earlier that morning, he’d raced the 100-meter at the outdoor stadium. His time — one minute, four-point-five-nine seconds — had won him a gold. A fire burned in his heart. He was an athlete again. A Navy veteran and a boiler tech who’d worked steam propulsion engines, backbone of the ship, he knew about maintaining good momentum in an otherwise lumbering vessel. He eyed Andy. Good luck, son. By God and the Dallas preacher, he’d try to trounce him.
The sun was fierce, the air hot and muggy. Andy was dripping. It was the javelin, and Andy was up, one of seven in the event. He hadn’t even thrown a javelin yet but went through the motions they’d practiced at Bullhead Park. Locked them in. The lance was lighter than he’d expected at just over a pound and seven feet long. The old warrior in him connected with its spearlike heft. Andy leaned back, gripped the chair’s pole with his left arm, and hucked it. Not bad. But he could do better. The next throw went wild. His third was solid and looked like his best. The marker came out and measured just shy of nine feet. That put him in first place, for now.
Robbie was watching. Those were good throws, but he thought he could do better. Strapped to the chair, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and thought back to the unnamed preacher at the foot of his bed, the man who told him all was possible. Robbie opened his eyes, visualized where Andy’s javelin had landed. He leaned, sprung forward and launched. A shot of pain surged through his hand. Somehow the javelin had cut his finger on the release and Robbie was dripping blood. An official wiped and bandaged it and suggested he forfeit the final two throws to spare himself further injury. Robbie looked at where the javelin had landed and saw clearly enough that it was short of Andy’s mark. Hell no, he would throw again. The second throw was better, but still not good enough. The finger throbbed. He hefted the javelin one more time, its metallic shaft feeling cooler than the air. He breathed, speared it forward. As soon as he released, he knew.
Robbie whooped. He had the gold.
Andy had drawn a fierce competitor. Before the discus event, he stood in the tent with Steve behind and the rest of the scrappy team looking on. Tony, still charged from his own bronze, cheered loudly. Hundreds of people crowded in the stands.
Robbie went first. Climbing into the throwing chair, he waited for the assistants to strap his legs and waist. The chair stood about three feet high with a grip pole jutting up on one side. He took the discus in his right hand, pole in the left. Since his accident, his hand had been crooked, the fingers stiff and clawing. He swung back and arced his arm forward. It felt like a good throw, but the release was off. The discus dropped a few feet in front of him. Two more tries, but each was worse than before. He had left Andy an opening.
Andy had made a few miles yesterday, and Steve could see all the walking had paid off. Blood was flowing to brain and body. Andy looked confident, his speech that day had been clearer. He was ready. He took his seat in the throwing chair, discus in hand, and swept his arm toward the field. The discus sailed past Robbie’s markers. One try, two, three. Twelve and a half feet. The crowd went nuts. Andy unleashed a Cheshire cat grin that lit up the field.
Both out of the chair, Andy and Robbie watched the rest of their division. A guy named Arthur Forest threw an astounding 20 feet. Robbie was out, but that put Andy in second place, a silver medal. Not bad for a guy they were going to pull the plug on.
There was one event to go.
Andy was smiling now, his sights set on Robbie. This man was good competition. Shot was last and would feature the top finishers in the previous two events: Andy, Robbie, and the discus gold medalist, Arthur Forest.
Arthur went first, but he didn’t look good. Robbie marked the field mentally and took the chair. He set the iron ball on the heel of his hand and tried to curl his stiff fingers back so they didn’t grip it. He cocked and thrust from the shoulder. The shot thudded a mere four feet in front of him. Robbie shook his head, chuckled to himself.
His friend from the Dallas VA ran over. “Mr. Green,” she chided. “What happened? You threw better than that in practice.”
“I know, Amy. Damn!” He still had two attempts.
In all the excitement, Robbie was having trouble concentrating. The second throw was flat, no better. Last try. Palm the shot, feel it fly. The bandaged finger stung, but he paid it no mind, let it play no part in this moment. He leaned way back, far as he could with his other hand on the grip bar, hung a moment, and sprung forward. Damn near eight feet. Good as gold. Robbie dismounted into his wheelchair, confident he had it.
It was Andy’s turn. Steve helped him climb into the chair and they shared a look as officials strapped him in. High on his throne, Andy rolled the shot in his palm, snugged it in place. His doctors had recently marked the deformity of his hands and the hyperextension in each finger. They’d noted his “loss of use of hands,” used those exact words. Andy had long since stopped listening to nonsense like that — the same was probably true for every competitor at the Games. Andy should be dead, but he wasn’t. He was alive and he was going to throw for everything he had.
He reared back, chambered his elbow, and heaved. It was a good throw, but not good enough. Behind him, Steve howled his encouragement. Janet and Tony cheered from the sidelines. Andy flashed his teeth, because why not. Eight years earlier, a young captain with a mission, he had been buried and pulled from the rubble on a street in Mosul. Had been at left for dead and come back again more than once. This was fun.
He prepped his second attempt. Looking on, Robbie squinted, held his breath. Surely, he had this young man beat. With little flourish, Andy hauled the shot back and thrust. It seemed to hang in the air, the din of the stadium dropping out. The shot sailed eleven feet and change and thudded to the ground.
The marker confirmed it. He wouldn’t need a third try. Teammates, brother, and coach sprang forward, rushing Andy, slapping his back. Robbie, on the sidelines, clapped appreciatively. Kid had it today, a worthy opponent. He’d get him next time.
Andy collected his medals at the Games’ closing ceremonies, a gold and two silvers, and took his picture with the New Mexico squad before a final, raucous celebration. All days that came before seemed to have lead to this. He had never known a prouder moment.
Later that summer, Janet claimed her own gold in discus at the Golden Age Games in Hawaii. Tony jumped to the Golden Age Games as well the following year, a contest for able-bodied competitors, where he played stand-up basketball with his prosthetic, the only amputee on the court. Anchoring his team as center, he medaled several times. Robbie, inspired by a camaraderie greater than any medal, fell in love with the Wheelchair Games and went on to win 40 golds in track, javelin, and shot put, becoming a well-known and much respected athlete on the veterans’ circuit.
After the games closed, the Chavez brothers returned home to Santa Fe. Steve told their father they’d be retiring the Segway. Andy could walk for miles now and didn’t need it. He presented his medals, recounted his triumphs. As long as his body let him, he’d keep hunting down new adventures. Keep moving, keep growing.
Andy’s father looked him over. “Life threw you a curve, but that hasn’t changed who you are.”
“Moved on, moved on,” Andy stammered. “I know who I am now.”
Nick Davidson is a storyteller, musician, yogi, and martial artist whose tales live at the outdoorsy crossroads of adventure, environment and science.