Big challenges lead to bigger dreams for wounded warrior
May 13, 2011
By L.A. Shively
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Capt. Juan Guerrero never thought of himself as an inspiration to others.
Born in Lima, Peru, Guerrero enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School in Miami., Fla., and deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm.
"It was very physical and I wanted big challenges," Guerrero said with the hint of a "Ricky Ricardo" accent. He completed four years then left the Marines.
Unhappy with civilian life, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained in a myriad of skill sets - rigger, pathfinder, airborne, infantry.
Guerrero fought in Operation Enduring Freedom and then deployed back to Iraq twice to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. Guerrero excelled in the Army, eventually earning a commission as Quartermaster Corps officer.
Then he was seriously injured. Returning from a routine ordinance disposal escort mission during a third tour in Iraq, a roadside bomb ripped through Guerrero's Humvee, mangling both legs. Medics were able to stop the bleeding and get him to the hospital in time to save his legs.
Despite eight surgeries and several skin grafts, the bones in his right leg did not heal properly. To beat the chronic pain, he tried hypnosis, then ultrasonic stimulation to promote bone growth.
"We exhausted everything that we could possibly do. I had an implant on my back to block the nerve pain, acupuncture, drug treatments, all kinds of stuff and none of it worked," Guerrero said. Not only was the pain a physical challenge for him, it was a mental and an emotional challenge as well.
The captain put on a heroic front. He turned toward sports and began cycling, riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles and competing in California, Texas and Washington, D.C.
"It's a way of getting back into shape and showing you that you're still able to do normal stuff - with some limitations of course," Guerrero said. "It helps not just the body but the mind."
One of the first things wounded warriors excel at is bike riding explained Janis Rozenowski, who stores the bikes for the riders and hosts weekly gatherings at her house in San Antonio.
"I think they're really comfortable bike riding because it's one of the first things they learned to do as children."
She said competition is an important motivator for Soldiers' healing.
"They help each other make the march, make the distance."
Rozenowski has been supporting and helping wounded warriors since 2003.
Sports have been successful ventures for Guerrero who competed in three categories during last year's inaugural Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo. He won gold, shooting the 10-meter air rifle in the prone position.
Though competing and winning helped Guerrero endure the suffering, his leg continued to feel like he was standing on a wasp's nest. He could ignore the blistering pain while competing, but his home front was not thriving.
"I wasn't able to play with my children. My (second) marriage went downhill," Guerrero said.
"He was lying in bed, taking naps, watching TV - that was what his life was like," said Shannon Guerrero, his third wife.
"I decided it wasn't worth living the next 40 years limping as opposed to letting it go and getting a (prosthetic) leg," Guerrero said. "I made that decision two and one-half years ago and finally I took my case to the doctors and told them this is what I want."
His surgeon relented, amputating Guerrero's right leg below the knee last September.
Guerrero had no fear.
"I was not wrong. I got my first leg at six weeks after surgery and I haven't touched my crutches since. At four months I started running, cycling, playing sled hockey."
"And now, every day he's up to something new. That's how much his life has changed," Shannon said. "Before they amputated his leg was actually the hardest to be honest. Now he's racing cars. I have to put him on leg restriction at home."
Her husband is even thinking about getting his pilot's license - fulfilling a childhood dream.
And he's planning to compete in the Ultimate Champion pentathlon at this year's Warrior Games.
But for Guerrero, the sports competitions and new challenges are just an intermission from work.
"My goal is to return to duty and deploy again. Afghanistan would be fine with me."
His biggest dream is returning to command a company of Soldiers in combat and he is planning for the best while expecting the worst.
"The medical board will, most likely, find me unfit for duty because I am missing a leg. I'll have to request a continuation of duty."
Unfazed, he is fully confident he can pass the Army's fitness test even at 40.
"I'm at an advanced age," Guerrero jokes. But he is serious about his ambition. He's completed 22 years in the Army and focused on staying for 26 to honor a 10-year commitment he made in officer candidate school.
"I'm half-way there and this is not going to stop me. I think about my kids, showing them that if you put your mind to it you can do whatever you want," Guerrero said.
"Just because I'm missing a leg doesn't mean I am unable to do all the things a Soldier needs to do to get back to work."