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Wounded Marine winning at life

For Marine Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer, a race car is a bulldozer.

Because in a race car Dwyer is on level ground. In a race car, Dwyer's left leg isn't missing and he moves just as swiftly as you move. More swiftly, in fact.

In a race car, Liam Dwyer is fully able and unconquerable.

In his race car, "you can't" is muted.

In his race car, "I can't" is nonexistent.

A race car, by nature, is a vehicle. For most race drivers, that vehicle offers transportation from a starting line to a finish line, manned and started and manipulated with but one goal in mind. But for some race drivers that vehicle is much more than a set of wheels and raspy motor and a means to an end.

For some race drivers, the vehicle is a means to a new beginning. Despite racing's fundamental premise, for some race drivers the race car isn't always about the speed.

Depending on a particular racer's philosophical approach, wants and needs in a given moment, his vehicle can take on myriad forms and present countless opportunities. A race car can be its operator's psychologist. It can be his therapist. It can be his refuge. It can elevate him like a roller coaster and drop him just as quickly.

For Dwyer, it's an escape.

"Racing is a mental relief for me," Dwyer said recently via Apple FaceTime. "It's the one and only thing I do where I don't give myself any excuses. When I'm walking to and from the store, I always have an excuse that I can't do a whole lot, because I don't walk well and I hate my wheelchair.

"When I'm racing I'm not thinking about being an amputee, or thinking about my right leg and arm being damaged so bad. It's made me realize what I'm truly capable of, and to motivate others to do things they didn't think was possible."

For a time, amid a taxing cycle of surgeries and grueling physical rehabilitation, Dwyer wondered what might be possible. And what might not. Then he got a race car, and it sped him into some semblance of normalcy in a life has been anything but normal.

On this cool November day Dwyer is seated at a computer desk at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, staring into the eraser-sized camera lens on his laptop. With a toothy grin he recalls the late-July 2010 phone call that summoned him into Marine Corps reenlistment. That call meant he was headed back to war and he knew it, and the thought of it now makes him smile from ear-to-ear.

This mischievous grin is perplexing to a civilian. When this is noted to Dwyer he smiles even wider. He can't decide whether it was that particular phone call from Afghanistan, or the one from IMSA Continental Tire Series race team Freedom Autosport -- which confirmed he would race sports cars professionally -- that made him happier or had a greater impact on him.

Both calls would change his life forever.

"It's impossible to describe what those [phone] calls did for me," Dwyer said, leaned back with his left hand on his left cheek. "Both definitely created huge opportunities in my life."

Just then, Dwyer excuses himself from the conversation for a moment. His prosthetic left leg was giving him grief. Seated in a wooden chair, the leg had become uncomfortable. So he took it off. From there he pushes play again, and details the sensation of getting blown up.

That is not a hyperbolic football term or teenage telephone jargon. It is a literal statement.

That prosthetic left leg is a story. That story begins with that July 2010 phone call from AFG.

MARINE TO THE CORE

Dwyer initially enlisted in the Marine Corps after a failed attempt at college. Upon graduation from high school he attended Norwich University in Vermont, a military school. He didn't like it, so he left there and enrolled at the University of Connecticut. Academically, that didn't go so well, either.

"I majored in something other than school," he laughed. "And I majored in it quite well, actually."

Gone from UConn, Dwyer chose to enlist in the military. He initially thought the Army would be his home, but a Marine Corps recruiter made an impressive sell. After 10 minutes Dwyer knew he was supposed to be a Marine.

"We're an elite, crazy bunch," he said, that grin back again. "I say that with great pride."

Just after he enlisted, Al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in Yemen. Seventeen American soldiers were killed and 39 others injured. In January 2001 Dwyer went to boot camp, and the following summer was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. While there, he watched the Sept. 11 attacks happen, live on television. Like many, he remembers the details of that day very specifically.

And he knew America was headed to war.

"I got excited," he said. "I was ready to take care of those people."

In 2006 Dwyer was deployed to Iraq. During combat he was struck on the left side of his body by shrapnel from an improvised explosive devise (IED), while serving as a turret gunner in a Humvee. Upon return to the U.S. he resumed time-trial racing, which he'd done since high school.

Then, following three years of civilian life, the phone call came from Afghanistan. It was an old friend with whom he was deployed to Iraq, who hoped his buddy would rejoin him in the mess.

Dwyer jumped at the chance. He spent Thanksgiving with his family, and 10 days later he was in Afghanistan. His very first patrol was on Dec. 28, 2010. It was miserably cold and the firefights were early and often. The group would wade through canals of frigid water. They would uncover some 20 IEDs in several compounds that day, Dwyer said. During a final search, Dwyer's team leader came across yet another IED, this one remote-detonated.

"The warhead went through Capt. Nguyen's neck, ripped both his carotid arteries," Dwyer said. "He was killed almost instantly. To see him get thrown 25 feet ... that's always been on my mind. I literally just saw this guy die right in front of me. It was intense, man."

January and February calmed down a bit, Dwyer said. But on March 1, 2011, "all hell broke loose." Of the 31 days in March, Dwyer estimates he spent 25 of them in combat, seven to 10 hours at a time.

Two months later marked Dwyer's "Alive Day."

BLOWN UP

On May 22, 2011, Dwyer was on patrol, casing a Taliban stronghold area. He explained that he was the area-expert, and on this patrol a new unit accompanied him. He was showing them various examples of Taliban presence. Dwyer said there was ample evidence.

As the team was exiting the compound, Dwyer stepped on a pressure-plate IED. It blew up beneath him, immediately knocking him unconscious. When he came to he could still smell the chemical burn. The air was saturated with dirt and dust. His team was on a seven-day operation, so he was carrying a 145-pound backpack full of gear. He only weighed 160 pounds.

When the bomb blew up, the pack held Dwyer upright, in the seated position. He looked at his legs. They were mangled. His left leg, just above the knee, pointed 90 degrees to the left, shattered above the knee. The toes on his left foot pointed behind him. His right arm was blown apart. His right leg, too, was positioned awkwardly.

"I looked down at my body and thought, oh [no], I'm in a real bad spot, here," Dwyer said. "At that point I slumped over."

From there he remembers nothing until he woke up in Walter Reed weeks later, his family alongside him. When he woke at Walter Reed, he said he was so disoriented that he instantly began screaming at his family as if they were still in battle.

Both of Dwyer's femoral arteries had been severed in the blast, and he said he was bleeding out and left for dead. He didn't blame his brothers one bit for tending to others first. He estimates five or six Marines were injured in the blast, and explained that supplies are limited in combat, so in a case with mass casualties they choose the most-likely-to-live and tend to them first. Based on appearance, Dwyer seemed the least-likely-to-live.

"I'd have done the same thing," he said. "With the amount of blood that was around me and with my body splayed-out all over the floor ... you don't waste your supplies on somebody who's dead."

Then, Sgt. Aaron Denning, whom Dwyer described as a war-hardened veteran who served several tours -- and a really good friend -- noticed movement. Dwyer was breathing.

"Never seen anything like that -- there was blood everywhere, all over the ground and the walls. It was everywhere," Denning said. "From where I was standing, I could tell Dwyer had stepped on [the IED]. Both his legs and his arms were mangled, bad. I still don't know how he still has them. I've seen a few Marines pretty tore up, but never anyone as tore up as he was. And he lived."

Denning went to work on the initial steps that would save Dwyer's life.

Here is Denning's point-by-point recollection:

"He was losing blood real quick. It was very chaotic. I thought he was dead at first. He wasn't breathing well. Wasn't moving initially. You could tell his arteries in his legs and arms were severed. We were trained how to handle that. Arterial bleeding is bad. It's brighter colored. It spurts. That's what was coming out of his legs and arms. I buried my knees into his thighs to slow the bleeding down. I put tourniquets on his arms, then his legs.

Then the tourniquet on his arm broke and I went knuckle-deep into his arms to find that artery and pinch it. I only had one hand. I had no more tourniquets. I kept my hand in there. Another Marine put the tourniquet above where my hand was at. I left my finger in there long enough. And then [Dwyer] woke up and started screaming. He looked down at his legs and arms, and he panicked.

"Guys look down and see that, and f--- it's scary.

"When I got to him ... his feet were up by his face, and he looked like hamburger meat in between."

The only thing Denning could think to do was start talking, keep Dwyer engaged. And the first thing that came to mind was ... football.

"As they're working on me I have choice words for Denning," Dwyer says now with a laugh. "He has this story that I died in front of him that day. Apparently, when people die, they get to ask God any question they want. I carried my message from God to Denning."

That message? The New York Giants, Dwyer's favorite team, would win Super Bowl XLVI.

"May 22, 2011, Denning asked me, 'Dwyer who's gonna win the Super Bowl next year?' " Dwyer continued. "God told me the Giants will win the Super Bowl. So, they end up making it to the Super Bowl against the Patriots, and Aaron calls me up that day and says, 'Dwyer ... I swear to God if the Giants with the Super Bowl ...' "

The grin is back. The Giants won Super Bowl XLVI.

"He called it. He totally called it," Denning said. "S---. I was just as scared as he was. F--- man! I don't want this other Marine to die because I f----- something up! S---! First thing I could think of was football. He said, 'the Giants are going to win the Super Bowl this year.' Sure enough, they win it all. I give him hell about it all the time.

"I think he died and was at Heaven, and Jesus was like, 'I'll answer one question.' I tell him, 'Man! You could've cured cancer or anything! And you asked him about the damn New York Giants!' "

Denning and the others loaded Dwyer into a helicopter and medevac'd him off to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.

"That was the longest, worst 100 yards I've ever walked him my life," Denning said. "His legs and arms were folded over themselves. He was in quite a bit of pain."

THE MIRACLE

If you ask Dwyer, the doctors at Camp Bastion saved his life. The list of injuries he sustained is harrowing.

According to documents supplied by Dwyer to ESPN.com, his left leg was amputated above the knee. His right femur and tibia sustained compound fractures. Shrapnel extensively damaged his right hip, lower back, buttocks and intestines.

His sacrum was fractured. His perineum, too. Both bones in his right forearm sustained compound fractures, severing nerves. Both femoral arteries were severed. So were both radial arteries and his right ulnar artery. His left lung collapsed.

"Without a doubt, he is a miracle," Denning said. "When I was walking up to him, I said to myself, 'I'm walking up to look at a dead brain.' I could see his foot in his boot, folded up to his chest. From mid-calf to mid-thigh, it looked like hamburger meat.

"When they told me he kept both arms and one leg, I couldn't believe it. It's a miracle they saved so much of him. His limbs were barely attached. If you had given any one of them a real good tug, they'd have pulled right off."

THE AFTERMATH

Dwyer underwent several surgeries and was transported to Germany for several more. Eventually he wound up at Walter Reed, hollering at his family. He doesn't remember any of it.

"I was so confused, thinking I'm still in Afghanistan," he said. "I'm yelling at my family like I'm still in combat. Just screaming at them."

Dwyer spent several months in the hospital. For the first 60-90 days, he said, he was in surgery every other day. He had more than 50 surgeries. His right arm is now held together with a steel plate and 23 screws. His right knee has been replaced. His calf muscle was removed and sewn back into his knee, to administer fluids.

And his left leg from the thigh down is gone, replaced by that prosthetic noted earlier.

Rehab was brutal. The first three months in the hospital were the most painful of his life. It didn't take Dwyer long to accept and acclimate himself to being an amputee, but the pain was substantial.

His right knee was destroyed. Doctors compared it, he said, to dropping a teacup on the floor. Doctors drilled rods into his femur and his tibia, so they could connect a large handle used to move his leg. He couldn't move in bed at all. He couldn't sleep. No one could touch him. It hurt too much. If his leg was off-center by even millimeters he experienced excruciating pain. He lived on pain medication, which he said caused him to hallucinate.

Post-traumatic stress disorder haunts many military veterans. Dwyer said he doesn't suffer badly from PTSD. There are things that set him off, though, he said, and he continues to improve in that area due to the support of his friends and family. And racing.

"The biggest thing racing has done for me is it allows me to re-engage in society in a manner I'm able to control," he explained. "That allows me to slowly, and at my leisure, get used to being around a lot of people in 360-degree scenarios. When my stress was highest, I only wanted people to be in front of me. If you were beside me -- or God forbid, behind me -- and you scared me, bad things were happening."

Racing is noisy. That static has made Dwyer's emotional view clearer.

"You go from being alpha male, and being extremely strong to ... . Listen, we don't back down from fights -- we go looking for them. And then you're in a state that you can't do any of that, and actually have to rely on others for everything."

His girlfriend or his parents had to feed him. His father had to shave him.

"That's a painful experience," he said slowly. "I look back on it now, everything they've given me. Do you regret anything? Do you regret stepping where you stepped? Absolutely not. They've taught me more about myself, and others. I am well aware that the reason I got in this position to race with Mazda is because of my injuries.

"Not just my injuries -- I'm talented behind the wheel. But there are many talented drivers who never get that call. I don't have the money. I have the talent. But I have a story to get told."

RACING

Dwyer loves auto racing. His eyes gleam chatting about it. Over the past several years, he has dabbled in various forms, including time-trial events in his cherished Nissan 350Z prior to his deployment to Afghanistan.

After Afghanistan, in November 2011, a friend invited Dwyer to attend a vintage car event at Virginia International Raceway. He met several folks there, including Kaye Fairer, who also served as a corner-worker for the Rolex 24 at Daytona -- one of the world's premiere sports car races.

Fairer invited Dwyer and some friends down to Daytona. While there, in February 2012, he met Derek Whitis and Tom Long from the sports car team Freedom Autosports. They suggested Dwyer should race with them. He didn't think they were especially serious. Later that year, Dwyer was a guest at the sports car racing banquet, where he was seated with Mazda racing's executive and public relations staff members. They hit it off.

In January 2013 Dwyer attended the Rolex 24 again, and deepened his relationship with Freedom. Throughout that year he raced his own 350Z, as well as more vintage car races for High Performance Heroes Racing, a team that helps combat-injured veterans achieve their racing goals.

He performed well, and at the end of the year Whitis called to request a racing résumé. Dwyer cobbled one together and shipped it. At Christmastime, Whitis requested a test run at Sebring. Dwyer had never seen the place or driven a spec-Mazda Miata, but for two hours he proved to Whitis and Long that he had the skill to race for real.

"I talked to Tom, and asked, 'Do I have the skills to do this?' " Dwyer said. "He said, 'Absolutely.' I could tell by his mannerisms that he wasn't blowing smoke up my a--."

Long was floored.

"My expectations were, he might be a club-level driver, potentially, that could be confident in the car. But not somebody who would embody the ability to race at the professional level," Long said.

He knew very quickly that inclination was incorrect.

"There's a lot that goes on in a race car. You have to function at a very high, confident level. And you have to be quick while doing all of this," Long said. "When we saw what he did in the first day of running around -- not only lap times, but also everything he did around traffic -- we [entered] him in a race.

"That wasn't part of the testing process, but we felt that confident in him. And he led a lot of it. It was really impressive how he handled himself that whole day. It was above and beyond any expectation I had."

That he can race at all is miraculous. In order to race, Dwyer uses a prosthetic leg specifically tailored to attach and detach from the clutch pedal. It was a work in progress. Initially, he used a simple Velcro strap to attach his foot to the pedal.

But as he progressed through the ranks he drove more powerful cars, which ultimately impacted his ability to hold his prosthetic foot onto the clutch. The vibration would, at times, cause the foot to slip off the pedal. He needed a new method.

Dwyer's car chief at Freedom Autosport, Eric Arms, and co-driver, Long, devised a brilliant method to enable Dwyer to use the clutch, and still make swift driver changes. A heim joint is attached to Dwyer's prosthetic leg, and then slides over a shaft that is welded to the clutch.

A cotter pin is placed through a hole in a shaft, which is welded on and prevents the leg from sliding off of the clutch.A steel cable is attached to the cotter pin, which runs up Dwyer's leg to a T-handle.During a driver change, he simply yanks the T-handle to release the cotter pin, which then allows him to slide the heim joint off the shaft, thus releasing him from the car.

Brilliant. Off he went.

Dwyer signed on to run three races for Freedom during the 2014 IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge season, as Long's teammate.

He crashed out of the first event at Laguna Seca. He was mortified, and couldn't wait for a chance to redeem himself. Three weeks later the series rolled into Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Connecticut, Dwyer's home track.

"And a movie script was written," he said.

Dwyer started the race at Lime Rock, and ran until the race's initial caution. That, he estimates, was roughly 30 minutes. In that form of racing, Dwyer explained, pitting first tends to help produce victories. Dwyer turned the car over to Long, who ran away with the victory.

"I think he and I both shared the same feeling -- speechless. It just meant so much to us both," said Long, a 15-time winner during his career. "I've been fortunate to be around a lot of race wins. But that one meant so much more, for many reasons. Liam was in awe -- it's his home track he grew up at, in his first pro season, second real race, and here he is about to step onto the top step of this podium in front of his home crowd.

"That's one of the biggest races for Lime Rock all year. There was a huge crowd on hand. There couldn't be a better story. Everybody loved it -- the crowd and the competitors, too."

Three years and two days after Dwyer was blown up, a world away from home in what Denning called "a bad, bad, bad f------ place," by an IED, and lost a leg, he stood jubilant and triumphant in Victory Lane at his home racetrack.

A movie script, indeed.

"I can't begin to tell you what that was like for me," Dwyer said. "It was a dream. It is a dream. Racing shows me I'm normal. I can do things other people can't do at a high-level, even with the injuries I have. That is beyond any words I can use to describe my feelings. We won, man!

"A lot people make excuses in life for not doing things, able bodied or not. They say, 'I can't do that, it's too hard.' Or, 'I'll get to it tomorrow.' That has made for a very dependent society, where people always look for excuses. If we put as much effort into doing things as we do to avoiding it, we'd see a completely different society.

"I've had people tell me I've inspired them to do this or that. I'm not a show-offy person, but if I can inspire people to do other things, I'm honored to do that. I really like to do that. There should be no excuses."

One of those people is Denning.

"He's an inspiration -- obviously to veterans, but to everyone else, too," Denning said.

At the end of his deployment, Denning was blown up, as well. His injuries were not comparable to Dwyer's, but he suffered a traumatic brain injury and back injuries. Dwyer's relentlessness urged Denning to try something new, too, consequences be damned.

"I'm playing ice hockey now," he said. "Seeing Dwyer go out and race -- it's one of the reasons I'm trying to learn something new. And not give in to the excuse that my back's garbage and I have a brain injury. If Dwyer can go run 200 mph with his peg leg, what excuse do I have?

"He's so positive all the time. Sometimes [depression] comes outta nowhere, and it's helpful for me to think about him being positive. That is leadership, leading by example. I will not give up on myself. I'm very fortunate to call him a friend."

As Denning says this, he is between games at the Armed Services Hockey Association Charity tournament. Twenty-seven teams from across the country compete, and raise money for the USO and Defending the Blue Line, a charity that provides hockey equipment and gear for military children.

He is playing five divisions higher than his skill might suggest, he said. And in the game that morning, he scored his first goal -- a deflection.

"My team went nuts, man," Denning said. "They're all rooting for me. I'm playing because of guys like Dwyer. He inspires me every day."

Long added, "Liam is a hero -- not only for our country, but also for everything Freedom Autosports stands for. That's something we really cherish. He's a huge inspiration for us all.

"You look at what he's done for our country, and continues to do, to represent the armed services. What he's gone through, some folks might say, 'My life or career is over.' He doesn't accept that. He doesn't accept letting things that slows other folks down slow him down. Not everybody has that fight."