Update: As this story was being produced, Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer and co-driver Tom Long won their race at Lime Rock Raceway in Lakeville, Conn.
May 22 was Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer's "Live Day." That's the term service members use for the anniversary where one is catastrophically injured in a war zone. "Some of us, many of us die," says Dwyer, who is still an active-duty Marine. "For those of us that don't, Live Day is our new birthday."
It's been three years since a Taliban IED took the 32-year-old's left leg, all but detached his right forearm and left him bleeding out on an Afghan battlefield. But today? Despite his prosthetic leg and rebuilt body, "Live" is probably the perfect term to describe a man who, by all accounts, shouldn't be here — much less pursuing a career in professional motorsports.
On Saturday of this Memorial Day weekend, Dwyer — along with Freedom Autosport teammate Tom Long — will man a finely tuned car at a technically challenging racetrack.
The race — only his second in a pro circuit — is a homecoming for the Litchfield, Conn., native, who now resides in Bethesda, Md., to facilitate his four to five hours a day of physical therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (where he met his girlfriend, a worker at the hospital). And it's bringing Dwyer full circle as a longtime auto lover.
"When I was just a little boy, my dad stumbled over [Lime Rock] on a race day," explains Dwyer. "He'll tell you that from the moment the engine noises sprung me up in my little car seat, he knew I was going to be an automotive nut."
Dwyer's father — a sales rep and auto aficionado in his own right — probably won't be there this weekend, though. The reason? Prior happenings have made Dwyer senior think his son's hobby and adrenaline obsession is life threatening. And it could be. Car racing is a dangerous game for anyone, but it's especially daunting to someone like Dwyer, who doesn't have all his original mobility.
Most racers start their career early, at kiddie competition level go-karting. It's an expensive extracurricular. The skilled ones enjoy some limelight, then typically fade out their careers by racing classic cars. But Dwyer's taken a Benjamin Button angle to it all. With virtually no formal racing experience prior to his enlistment in 2000, he's put himself through the paces since returning from an Iraq deployment in 2007; first at the self-funded enthusiast level, and now as part of Freedom Autosport, a professional race team dedicated to veteran support and awareness. He's learning it all as he goes.
And learning how to drive again is pretty much the least of it, according to Dwyer. "Think of the guys — the 19- and 20-year-olds that are coming home from war without hands, or worse, their manhood," he says. "We're talking Marines — alpha males in their prime — that have to relearn and readjust to everything big and small."
Figuring out how to use a clutch, by comparison, is little more than tapping into that "you never forget" feel — like riding a bike. It was two or so years into Dwyer's post-Afghanistan readjustment period that he, in the company of friends, decided to rediscover this feel of driving. Failing to account for his the limited range of motion of his prosthetic, it was only moments before the foot of his prosthesis got jammed between the pedals, causing Dwyer's car to buck and shoot through a chain-link fence. That's when Dad — perhaps out of tough love, perhaps out of fear — vehemently refused to support his son's passion any further.
Even with the accident and the falling out, Dwyer knew he'd drive again. Today he's doing just that, despite the unique challenge his primary injury presents. In a manual transmission car, one's left leg — which Dwyer is missing — works the clutch, arguably where the most "feel" is needed to make proper gear shifts. A good percentage of Americans cannot drive a stick-shift transmission with two good legs, let alone a prosthesis and muscle memory. But opting for the easy road is not in this man's character.
Racing alternatives do exist for drivers like Dwyer. Alessandro "Alex" Zanardi, a former F1 and Indy Car competitor, kept racing, even after a crash tore the front of his car — and both legs — clean off. He subbed in electronic hand controls for throttle and brake control. And while Dwyer speaks of Zanardi with almost boyish respect and admiration, he dismisses the electronic workarounds, calling them a financial burden his race team can't swing.
"A good set of hand controls can run you $25,000," he says. "That's really not something we are able to entertain at this point."
The irony here is that Dwyer's prosthetic leg — a mechanical marvel, complete with onboard diagnostics, Bluetooth connectivity and carbon-fiber construction — costs about $130,000. So advanced that civilian doctors don't yet know how to provide service, it could almost be perceived as an unfair advantage by insecure competitors. So, obsessive about the challenge, Dwyer swaps out the bionic apparatus for a race version that's little more than a shaft with an eyelet, which slips over a simple peg on the clutch. Proud Dwyer probably wouldn't use hand controls — or any assistance — if they came a dime a dozen.
Call it a need to reassert his inner alpha male or just an old-fashioned desire to prove others wrong, but Dwyer is quite willing to tell of a defining moment of his journey to recovery. One of his therapists at Walter Reed told him early in the rehabilitation process that he'd never drive stick again. It didn't go over well.
"Her saying that to me really lit a fire under my ass," he says. "You, no matter who you are in this world, do not have the right to tell anybody they can't do something. I don't have a problem with your professional opinion telling me I'll have challenges. ... You know what? Roger that! But don't tell me I can't do something. Let me try, and let me fail however much I need to fail before I get it right.
"Put this on the record," he continues, grinning, as he extends the middle finger of his left hand. "This is my message to her."