The first time he walked again, Dakota Boyer knew exactly where he was going. He headed to the hospital where he was told that he would be confined to a wheelchair for life. Boyer had to brace himself with a walker, but luckily, his fingers worked fine.
"I had a little trip down to that hospital," Boyer said, "and I flipped that doctor off."
From the waist up, Marine Cpl. Dakota Boyer, who is competing in the Warrior Games this week, still looks as if he's ready for his next assignment. Muscles bulge from his tattooed biceps; bravado flows from his lips. He did show that doctor off, recovering from a horrific 2015 training accident in California, where an engine fell on him and crushed his back. Boyer couldn't move his legs or his right arm after the accident, but he eventually worked his way to a walker, then two canes, then one cane; and now he walks unassisted.
He even tried running last fall -- again, against doctor's orders -- because he has to run 3 miles, among other things, to be cleared for duty. But his knee swelled up, and reality finally began to sink in. His body is no longer built for running, and if he can't run, he can't be a Marine.
"Both of my knees are pointed inward now," Boyer said. "My feet don't stay straight. I kind of walk like a duck and I run like Forrest Gump.
"But I will do anything that anybody challenges me to do, and I will do it to the best of my ability -- win, lose, no matter what. That is the exact reason why I joined the Marine Corps."
For two years, sports is the one thing that has kept Boyer going. His words flow easily when he's smack-talking the Army and Navy -- "All the other branches are way below us," he jokes -- but Boyer is hard-pressed to put into words what it felt like when he stepped into a pool or got on a bike for the first time. He says it made him feel normal again.
This week in Chicago, he'll compete in at least four events in the Department of Defense's Warrior Games for wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans. Swimming has become one of Boyer's greatest loves. He recently caused a minor internet stir when he challenged Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps to a race. Boyer hasn't heard back from Phelps yet, but he's convinced he could make things interesting.
And that's exactly what Boyer has done for his fellow wounded Marines. He was such an inspiration last year that he won the Heart and Soul of the Team award. Sometimes, he'll be playing volleyball or swimming and it brings him back to the days when he was doing exactly what he was meant to do, being on a team, being a Marine.
The Warrior Games is a welcome distraction, and he needs that right now because he has no idea what comes next. People close to him are trying to nudge him toward college, but all he knows is the Marines. He is 22 years old and is told he has the whole world in front of him.
"I had the whole world in front of me," Boyer said. "I don't know about anymore."
Boyer was 6 when he knew he wanted to be a Marine. For years, Boyer's dad was an Army man, from an Army family, but the last thing he wanted was for his son to join the military. Boyer's father had served during the Vietnam War era and remembered how soldiers were treated when they arrived back home. He didn't want his son to experience any of that.
But Boyer's mind was set on Sept. 11, 2001. Though he was barely old enough to read, images from the day are still vivid -- the twin towers falling, the adults "freaking out," the bus ride home that was canceled because school officials feared the yellow school buses would be terrorist targets.
He got home, and like everyone else, was glued to the TV. There, he saw a Marine, in uniform, trying to help in the rubble at the World Trade Center.
"I just remember him being covered in ash," he said. "I don't know. Ever since that day, I've wanted to be a Marine."
Boyer grew up in Petoskey, Michigan, a picturesque coastal town that served as the backdrop for several Ernest Hemingway stories. Years later, Boyer's life would change in another resort city on the other side of the country in Coronado, California. It's still so tough to swallow, preparing to die for your country in a battle somewhere overseas, then almost seeing everything end -- during a training exercise -- on a beach in California. Boyer had been in the Marines for two years and two days on the day of the accident, and he had planned to be there for the full 20.
But so did many of the other Marines he met at the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton in California. Sgt. Heraclio Juarez had been at Wounded Warrior for a couple of months when Boyer arrived about a year and a half ago. Juarez, who broke both of his legs when his seven-ton vehicle rolled and flipped, also was injured in the United States.
Boyer was still in a wheelchair at the time, and Juarez remembers his spirits being fairly low.
"I wouldn't say he was depressed," Juarez said, "but he was pretty down about it. But shortly after that, I guess, his inner self kicked in. He was motivating everybody."
Boyer and Juarez immediately clicked. Now they're so close that Boyer occasionally stays over at Juarez's house, and Juarez's wife calls Boyer his "other half." They bonded over workouts and video games. They share angst about the unknown. Juarez, at 23, also is faced with starting over without the Marines.
"[Being in the Marines] is almost an arrogancy," Juarez said, "but in a good way. That's the mindset you get since boot camp, and it shouldn't go away."
In the middle of his recovery, Boyer met a woman at a movie theater. He got Gloria Cuevas' number, they went on a date and although he won't go into details, things must have gone badly, because both parties thought they'd never go out again. But Boyer, in true form, was persistent.
"I kept bugging her," he said.
Now they're engaged.
Boyer is used to getting what he wants, but this time, he knows it's different. There is a long list of tests, he said, that he would have to pass to be cleared for duty.
He'd need to run 3 miles.
He'd have to sprint 880 meters in camouflage gear and boots.
He'd be required to complete a drill that involves buddy-carrying another person around a set of cones.
He'd have to do situps and pullups.
Before that day on the beach in Coronado, Boyer wouldn't flinch at any of this. But now it's more daunting than learning a couple of foreign languages in a week. So maybe he'll go to college and become a teacher or a lawyer. He loves baseball, and he just got his umpire certification, so he might be an ump for a while.
Juarez knows Boyer will be fine as long as he listens to his own words. When Boyer is competing and his teammates are down, Boyer is the one who screams and shouts and pushes them to do things they didn't imagine they could.
Boyer even gave a pep talk at the end of his interview.
"No matter what your story is, no matter who you are," he said, "don't give up on yourself and don't let other people dictate where you're going to be in life. Otherwise, you're going to be right where they say you're going to be."