The last time I saw Freddy de los Santos, he had a broken mouth. His teeth were broken by the same explosion that caused him to lose his leg.
And yet he was always smiling.
It’s 2009. We were both treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. I too lost a leg in southern Afghanistan. We spent months with soldiers and photographers. He would tell me about his exhaustion, his sorrows, and his nightmares.
A dozen years later, Freddy has a new life. He is a Paralympic athlete, one of several American soldiers who survived horrific injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan to compete at the Tokyo Games. And I’ve restarted my career with a camera, traveling the world and telling stories.
Sometimes I feel like I’ll give it my all – my life’s work, the awards and recognitions, even the Pulitzer I was awarded this year – just to walk on both feet again. for. But I also realize the role my disability played in shaping who I am today.
And I wonder: can disability really give us more than it takes from us?
I wanted to share these reflections with the soldiers who were wounded in the war. Talk to a disabled person with a disability about the abilities we have achieved in spite of our disabilities. And so, I crossed over to the United States to talk with five Paralympians.
I didn’t have the kind of intimate conversation with triathlete Melissa Stockwell that I was looking for, the kind of talk that could only happen between two people with a missing leg. We are more connected as parents who are doing their best to raise their children.
When sprinter Luis Puertas and I talked about his life before an improvised explosive device tore off both his legs in Iraq, he liked to bury the past and look at the challenges his life still faces. Does matter.
“I like to be myself, I want to be myself,” he has told me over and over again.
Cyclist Tom Davis assured me that his injuries changed his and his family’s lives for the better. He is a better man, a better husband and father, after all the ambushes that deprived him of his leg.
He said he would not give up his new life for the chance to walk again.
Freddy de los Santos feels different. Now when he smiles, he shows off a fine row of false teeth. He has the physique of an athlete and moves easily.
But he claims that he will give up all his possessions – his house, his racing bike, his paintings, the brand new Tesla he just bought – to get back on his feet and leave behind the ghosts of war that day- The night keeps bothering him.
Unlike others, like me, swimmer Brad Snyder lost not a leg but his eyesight. I’d never taken photos for a blind person’s story before, and I decided to disable silent mode on my camera so that I was aware of every photo I took with a “click” of the shutter.
My lenses focus on the retina of the subjects. Brad doesn’t have a retina, so by the time I turned the feature off, the camera focused on the eyes of his guide dog Timber.
Brad told me that before he lost his sight, he wanted to be anonymous in the world, like many others, to ride his motorcycle across the Pacific coast, from his experiences in Afghanistan to a normal life and job. running.
When we were sitting, I turned off the lights of the kitchen when he did not pay attention. For a moment, Brad and I were talking together in the darkness of their world.
I thought we were all unlucky. But we are also blessed to have received healings that have allowed us to move on with our lives.
There are many Afghans, it is not known how many were injured and they were not so lucky.
And I thought yes, we would love to live happy, anonymous lives. But because of that fateful accident, our lives were turned upside down and we went on different paths to become different human beings.
We died that day, even for a few seconds, and amidst the chaos of war we find peace and perhaps even joy in death. We returned to the life we had not chosen, living with disabilities as our constant companions.
Each of us must come to our own conclusion. But I go about my life and am happy.