WIESBADEN, Germany - A former Warrior's powerful story of recovering from the loss of a leg and other wounds suffered while serving in Afghanistan set the tone for the Class of 2013's graduation.

1st Lt. Rafael Chico-Lugo, a 2005 Wiesbaden High graduate, shared his story and lessons learned with the 99 graduates, their parents and friends at the Wiesbaden Kurhaus ceremony June 9.

"Thank you for bringing me back home," said the former Wiesbaden Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet and Purple Heart recipient.

Describing how he was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather after a visit to a military cemetery in Verdun while still a 16-year-old student in Wiesbaden, Chico-Lugo said, "I realized my purpose was to serve my fellow mankind in the United States military."

After completing ROTC at Norfolk State University and going on active duty, the young Army officer said he thought to himself, "This is my chance to make a difference. … As a 22-year-old second lieutenant being responsible for the lives and careers of men younger and older than me is a task that I took very seriously and still do today."

Chico-Lugo deployed with 1st Infrantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Afghanistan in 2011.

"As combat operations continued, so did our casualties," he said, describing how he, too, fell victim by stepping on an improvised explosive device. "It immediately blew off my left leg below the knee. I experienced shrapnel wounds, a groin injury, third degree burns to my left thigh and a piece of muscle that was ripped off that had to be surgically reattached.

"Of course this was the most traumatic experience in my life," he said.

While recovering in San Antonio, Texas, the young officer suffered another blow, learning that one of his Soldiers, Spc. Robert Dyas, was killed in the same village where he had been injured. The setback to his emotional and spiritual recovery was ultimately overcome, he said, when he heard a voice in his head that sounded a lot like Dyas' which told him to "shut up and get up" (except in more colorful language, he added).

Accepting that "some things happen beyond your control," Chico-Lugo said, "I saw this as a resurgence of purpose in my life."

He vowed to honor the fallen Soldier's memory by living life to the fullest and doing the things Dyas could no longer accomplish.

Chico-Lugo shared other lessons he had learned through his experiences: "Never, ever compromise your identity. … Maintain your purpose and maintain who you are. … Always remember to fight for others. … Never allow failures to enter your soul."

His ultimate dream, he said, was to remain on active duty which, thanks to his determination to walk again with a prosthetic leg and positive outlook, became a reality.

As the Class of 2013 absorbed Chico-Lugo's words and celebrated their accomplishments by tossing their caps high into the air, one Soldier watched proudly from the stage -- glad to be a part of helping his fellow Warriors beginning the next chapter in their lives.

"We are honored to teach the children of our nation's heroes," said Wiesbaden High School Principal Sharon O'Donnell. "Regardless of where they travel in their lives, they will remember that they have been and always will be Wiesbaden Warriors."

Page last updated Tue June 11th, 2013 at 00:00