Wiedmer: Memorial Day made for those like de los Santos

Wiedmer: Memorial Day made for those like de los Santos

May 26th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

The twin towers terrifyingly tumbling to earth in his hometown, the whole world suddenly a very scary place, Freddie de los Santos was instantly determined to make amends. He would enroll in the Army. He would protect his family and his neighbors, wherever he had to travel to do it.

"I'm from New York City," said de los Santos of the most painful Sept. 11th in U.S. history. "I was hurting. I took it personally. I wanted to do something to make a difference."

Most of us felt that way. But how many actually acted? How many were willing to say good-bye to family and friends and jobs to serve a greater good?

But de los Santos wasn't most of us. A graphics designer by trade, a husband and father of two, he nevertheless joined the Army. He became a Special Ops Staff Sargent. He wound up in Afghanistan. On April 20, 2008, he began living a nightmare.

"A RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) hit our patrol," he recalled on Friday, three days before his scheduled ride in today's hand cycling national championship criterium. "I lost my right leg. I was in the hospital for two years."

He didn't just lose his right leg, however horrific that injury. He was shot twice, including once in the stomach. The power of the grenade was so great that when his head slammed into the roof of the Humvee he was riding atop as a gunner, his jaw was shattered and his teeth knocked out. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. He lost a portion of his hearing. He was in a coma for weeks. He was confined to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for two years.

"And I'm still not back to where I used to be mentally," he said. "My children asked me why I'm not like I used to be and I tell them, 'I don't know, but I'm trying.' I'm trying every day to get better."

There are thousands of veterans just like de los Santos, brave men and women who have lost their health or their lives to protect the rest of us from the mad men. Today, Memorial Day, is the day we best recognize their sacrifices.

"This day always means a lot," de los Santos said. "There are so many men and women putting their lives on the line every day for our freedom. It means so much to us to represent our country and it means so much to me to represent my community -- the paralyzed veterans of America. I lost my leg. That's a sacrifice I had to make in order to live the way I live right now."

The life he lives now is a life he never envisioned before the injury. A native of the Dominican Republic before moving to the Big Apple in his youth, de los Santos played baseball growing up, second base, a lifelong of the New York Yankees, especially Derek Jeter.

But while in Walter Reed he was approached by the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets. They wanted him to try out the handcycle as part of his return to society, both physically and mentally.

"It never crossed my mind to get into this sport," he said. "It was just part of my rehabilitation when it began."

Now 44, he's won a national championship, the Marine Corps Marathon and competed in more than 25 marathons. He's just returned from claiming a gold medal the World Cup in Italy.

"Cycling has helped me physically, mentally and socially," de los Santos said. "It sounds crazy, but in some ways it was the best thing to ever happen to me. It's given me a chance to travel the country and to bring hope and inspiration to so many people with disabilities."

He told the New York Times last year that he sometimes gets edgy in crowds. But on Friday he said of last year's trip to Chattanooga, "I was so impressed with the hospitality. Everywhere we went, people were so nice and so supportive. It's so exciting to be back here."

More than five years have passed since de los Santos lost his leg and almost lost his life. He's still trying to return to the person he was for his wife and kids while broadening the person he can become in this new life of perspiration and inspiration as a paralympic athlete.

"I'm still an artist," he said. "I love to paint. I'm getting more into photography. I get better every day."

We all lament the lack of heroes these days. Maybe we just don't look in the right places. On this day above all days, maybe we should all reach out to veterans such as de los Santos to thank them for their service and their sacrifice.

"Freedom isn't free," he said. "You have to fight for it. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would."

If that doesn't sum up the reason for Memorial Day, nothing ever will.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com