Wounded Colombian National Army Captain Breaks Records, Qualifies for Paralympics
By Dialogo October 29, 2015
From the moment an antipersonnel mine seriously wounded him more than three years ago, Colombian National Army Captain Diego Cuesta was determined not only to fully recover from facial and eye injuries, but to exceed the expectations of the physicians treating him.
Twenty-nine-year-old Capt. Cuesta has accomplished that mission and become the country’s first wounded Soldier to qualify for the Paralympic Games by winning the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle swimming competitions at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, an international competition held in August for physically disabled athletes.
“Being there to receive that medal is huge," said Capt. Cuesta, who was moved to tears by his victories, which included a meet-record 59.65 seconds in the 100 freestyle. "The fervor of people who are far away from the country celebrating your victory. The best feeling is standing atop the podium looking calm, without owing anything to anyone, listening to the national anthem and knowing that it is because of your efforts that they are raising the Colombian flag. Despite my disability, I thank God for this life changing experience.”
Sports programs support wounded Soldiers
Capt. Cuesta's achievements and progress have been supported by sports programs that provide rehabilitation services for wounded members of the country's Armed Forces, according to Gladys Sanmiguel, the executive director of the Matamoros Corporation, a private entity that has worked with the Ministry of Defense since 1986 to help uniformed victims of the armed conflict and their family members. The corporation launched the sports component in 2003.
“He has become an example not only for Colombia, but for the world,” Sanmiguel said. “His efforts and hard work demonstrate the human capacity to break mental and physical barriers and welcome the opportunity to move forward with a full life, even as a victim from a conflict as bloody as the one in Colombia.”
Cuesta is one of 6,921 Colombian National Army service members who have been killed or maimed by antipersonnel mines during more than 50 years of armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Currently, 5,000 service members are involved in education programs and 300 in sports programs; since 2013, the country has invested 600 million pesos ($300,000) in the rehabilitation of Soldiers through sports.
Sixty-seven percent of Colombia's disabled population belonged to the country’s security forces, according to Sanmiguel. The Matamoros Corporation's goal is to ensure that 50 percent of the Colombian Paralympic team’s members are Soldiers who have been affected by the armed conflict.
A challenging road
Capt. Cuesta's road to becoming a member of the Colombian Paralympic team has been challenging. In 2003, 17-year-old Cuesta entered the Army full of enthusiasm and following the example of his older brother Alex, who served in the Armed Forces and is now retired at 38.
“The dream was always to wear the uniform, to display the medals, and that was a source of motivation," he said. "As soon as I finished school, I wanted to go [into the Armed Forces], and it was a big change because I went to the Military Officers School in Bogotá and I am originally from the city of Ibagué."
Six months after joining the Armed Forces, Capt. Cuesta became a member of the company of athletes and represented the Military Officers School in the South American Cadet Games in Pirassununga, Brazil. And three years later, in 2006, the Military promoted Cuesta to the rank of Second Lieutenant and made him a platoon commander. He enrolled in the Army’s Lanceros
course, which trains Soldiers in unconventional combat so they can enter the Special Forces Command.
“I had been transferred to the 27th Mobile Brigade in Neiva, but the jurisdiction was Caquetá," he said. "I had been there for a year when the accident happened; I was 25 at the time. The exact date was March 10, 2012.”
On the day he was injured, Capt. Cuesta and his Troops were conducting a mission to find a leader of the FARC's Teófilo Forero Mobile Column. The platoon reached a minefield in a jungle area in the department of Caquetá, so Capt. Cuesta took charge of the situation because he belonged to the Corps of Engineers and knew about explosives.
“Until that moment, we were the only Mobile Brigade unit who had never had anyone wounded in combat by a mine, so the Soldiers also had a lot of confidence in me," he said.
Capt. Cuesta put down his weapon and started to clear the land surrounding the mine.
“To do this, I took a stick and I inserted it into the ground at a diagonal angle, because if it is triggered on the top, it explodes. If it is hit horizontally, it also explodes,” he recalled. “Diagonally, it is possible to check for something blocking the movement (...). So, I would stick it into the ground and use the machete to pick everything up. I managed to take three steps forward opening the path and I found something. I lifted it up, but what I lifted was covering the mine and in doing so, it was activated.”
The sound of the explosion was not new to him. In 2009, in eastern Cordillera in the department of Meta, Capt. Cuesta had temporarily damaged his hearing by an exploding mine that caused a colleague to lose a leg.
This time Capt. Cuesta's injuries were much more severe.
“You get the feeling that everything is going away. You have the sensation of going and coming back, dying and returning. I believe that my God did not want to let me go that day and what saved me was that my face was not within range of the mine; otherwise it would have taken my head off.”
After the 16 Soldiers in his platoon moved him from the area, he was ultimately transported to the the Military Hospital of Bogotá, where a medical team rebuilt his face and eyes. Today, the vision in his left eye is 20/800, and 20/600 in his right eye, which means that he has about 40 percent of his vision and suffers from photophobia – an extreme sensitivity to light.
“The first thing I heard from the doctors was that they had to take out my eyes because they were totally destroyed, but my family insisted that they try to operate, even though they said it was useless because I would not see. Now, I have mobility and see everything opaquely, but I see something.”
A dramatic physical rehabilitation
From the moment he began his recovery, Capt. Cuesta – with the Army's full support – refused the help of a cane and attacked his physical rehabilitation aggressively, and ultimately resumed his Military career. Soon after he began his physical rehabilitation, he received an invitation to join the Armed Forces Disability League, where he immediately learned of many colleagues who had been injured like him – or worse.
“I developed a rapport with them and put aside my disability to start training. Then, in April 2013, the Army sent me to the Loterías Caixa International Open in Brazil and by June [of that year] I started traveling with the Colombian national [swimming] team.”
Miguel Ángel Otero, coach of the Armed Forces Disabled Swimming Team since 2012, recognized Capt. Cuesta’s potential in the pool.
“When I asked for his swimming times, I realized he could certainly be a national champion and participate at the international level,” said Otero, who met Capt. Cuesta for the first time in October 2012 at the Simón Bolívar Aquatic Complex in Bogotá. “So we began a process to reach the Rio Paralympics with him.”
Initially, Capt. Cuesta "was not that interested in competing, but step by step he became open to the idea that this was a way to move on with his life. When he started winning, he realized that when he represented Colombia and carried the flag, he was continuing his work as an Army fighter, but through sports, which is more cheerful and positive.”
Otero's plan for Capt. Cuesta adhered to the Paralympic cycle – the South American Games, followed by the Parapan American Games and the Paralympic Games.
“So then the Army committed to this, as there hadn’t been any disabled Colombian Soldiers who had gone [to the Paralympic cycle] and as they saw the possibilities, they provided more support...” Capt. Cuesta said. “That was when they told me to dedicate myself to training because my new mission would be to represent the Armed Forces wherever possible, to set the pace, make history, and prove to the other guys that you can go far.”
Capt. Cuesta views each sports challenge as an Army mission and dedicates every victory to the Armed Forces, so he will spend plenty of time in the pool in during the next year.
Between November and the end of December, he's scheduled to participate in Colombia’s Paranational Games – along with 11 of his teammates – the Loterías Caixa Open championship in São Paulo, Brazil, and the Can-Am North Dakota Open in the United States. In 2016, he'll compete at the Jimi Flowers Classic Open in Colorado Springs in January; the Australian Open in Sydney in March; the Open Test in Rio de Janeiro in April; the IPC Swimming European Open Championships in Funchal, Portugal, in May; and the German Paralympic Swimming Open in Berlin, in June.
When he's not competing, he's training daily for two hours, on land and water, swimming 7,000 meters – 3,000 more than his teammates. Otero said Capt. Cuesta possesses a dedication and Military spirit that "not even an antipersonnel mine could destroy." He believes sports are the best rehabilitation for wounded Soldiers, who are dealing with insecurity and high stress levels.
“For example, those without legs believe that without them they will not be able to swim. I welcome all of the Soldiers when they begin rehabilitation therapy, and it draws them in, because I start to encourage them to play competitively and that helps a lot to overcome their limitations.”
Otero put a call out to Colombia’s disabled Soldiers to start practicing any sport to improve their lives, as athletics provide opportunities to experience other countries, cultures, and languages, in addition to the added health benefits.
“When Soldiers realize that there are other people with more severe injuries than theirs, they immerse themselves in training to improve their times and records and then they put aside the self-pity that often serves as an obstacle," he added. "Sports help people realize that they can always go further.”