Paralyzed as a consequence of the explosion of a mine in Colombia, Soldier Mario Calle found a new vocation: manufacturing wheelchairs for his comrades also wounded in combat, an activity that has also enabled him to heal psychological wounds.
Retired at the age of 49, this former cavalry major was allowed to set up his workshop at a Bogotá garrison.
A screwdriver, pliers, tongs, and metal tubes are piled up in a small, dark room, in which this thin, wiry man works without rest, with a lively gaze behind delicate glasses.
“Disability, I don’t know what that is, it doesn’t have any meaning for me,” he assured AFP.
In October 1999, an anti-personnel mine put an end to the career of this former member of the Special Forces, when he was patrolling in the department of Antioquia, in northwestern Colombia, a country marked by half a century of conflict with guerrilla fighters and where even last year, 2,089 Military personnel were wounded, and another 483 died, according to government figures.
Calle received 17 impacts, one of which severed his spinal cord and prevents him from moving his legs, but it did not take away his optimism. “And nevertheless, I’m here, and that’s everything that matters,” he said.
Six months ago, thanks to a course in the United States financed by the Army, Mario Calle began to manufacture wheelchairs, including his own. Adapted to each Soldier’s wounds, the wheelchairs are sold for half the market price, and repairs are free.
“My objective isn’t to make money, but to help those who need it, give them energy and strength,” affirmed Calle, who draws a pension of around 385 dollars a month, just slightly more than minimum wage.
Néstor Narvas, a 26-year-old infantry Soldier, was the victim of a grenade that caused him to lose his legs last year. He was at the garrison to leave his damaged wheelchair with Calle, who gave him a new one in exchange. “Outside, it would have been very expensive, and he gives it to me as a gift,” he murmured upon departing.
At the garrison, which houses around 1,700 people, including the members of the demining brigade, Calle has become someone indispensable who is asked for repairs of all kinds.
“Hello, Calle! What’s up, Calle!,” people greet him as he passes. Some offer him candy; Soldiers’ wives give him a kiss.
“He’s an example of how to overcome a disability. He represents hope for all the wounded,” affirmed Javier Marroquín, a doctor at the base’s health center, which Calle visits frequently in order to encourage new arrivals.
The retired Military man is convinced that he understands “what they’re feeling better than a psychologist, since I’ve lived it. The workshop is one thing, but in reality, I’m here for the human part; that’s what’s most important.”
His girlfriend, 24-year-old Angela Vargas, is paralyzed on one side as a result of a traffic accident, and is not jealous of his abundant activity. “He’s a pioneer in what he does, and I’m very proud of him,” said the young woman who met him at a running track.
Sports, in fact, are the other passion of Calle’s, who has covered more than 30,000 km around Latin America in a wheelchair. In a corner of his workshop, he keeps his greatest treasure, an 80 cm3 motorcycle that he manufactured in his free time.
“The only limits aren’t those of the body, but those that we have in our minds,” he maintains.