From wheelchair to an Ironman, Otero owns resiliency

From wheelchair to an Ironman, Otero owns resiliency

by Maj. Joel Seppala
10th Regional Support Group

TORII STATION, Okinawa, Japan - From a wheelchair to the finish line, Sgt. 1st Class Raul Otero knows what it is like to keep fighting to stay in the fight. Soldiers train regularly on how to be resilient, on how to bounce back from stressful situations to maintain their statuses as good Soldiers or otherwise good citizens. In some cases, those same Soldiers training might well ask “what does a resilient Soldier look like?”

If a Soldier is assigned to the 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment in Okinawa, Japan, he or she can find a ready example of what it means to be a resilient warrior within his or her own formation.

Otero, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the battalion personnel section, has a moving story of recovery and resilience rich with heroism and intestinal fortitude as any that have come out of the past decade of sustained conflict.

Otero survived a devastating wound to his right leg below the knee and overcame years of rehabilitation to not only resume his previous lifestyle, but improve upon it in a most inspiring way. His story transcends the core values of the U.S. Army and exemplifies the most primitive of all human desires which is to live - and live not just in a manner so as to survive but to enjoy life and to serve as a humble example to others when one refuses to listen to critics, pessimists and chose to run when others said he would never walk.

Otero was born and raised in Bronx, New York, and joined the Army in January 1995 as a way to find a more productive life for himself than what his neighborhood offered. His only request when visiting with an Army recruiter that winter was to be able to wear the coveted maroon beret of the airborne, one of which Otero happened to spy hanging in the office of the recruiter.

“I want to wear that hat.” Otero recalls saying.

Otero went on to serve 12 years in the Infantry, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after completion of his initial entry training. During those years he deployed to Iraq twice, in 2004 and again in 2007. In addition, Otero served as a scout squad leader at the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula from 2003-2004. He was an All-American Soldier as the 82nd Airborne patch he wore on his left shoulder attested to during his time at Fort Bragg. Life changed quickly for Otero on a fateful day just north of Ramadi, Iraq, in May, 2007.

While on patrol inspecting houses north of Ramadi, Otero and some of the men in his element stopped 200 meters from a housing area after seeing evidence of suspicious activity in the town. As Otero stood up to scan the town for activity, an enemy sniper fired a round into the torso of Otero who was protected by his body armor but was knocked to the ground. He regained his footing and stood again only to receive a second shot, this time in the right leg. His tibia shattered, and Otero was evacuated for medical treatment.

Otero underwent three surgeries. Prior to completing the first surgery, his doctor asked him what he would like to do once he recovered. Otero replied that he wanted to be “as good as before, in fact better.”

He wanted to run but the doctor told Otero that he would never run again. Otero spent the next two years in a wheelchair. During the summer of 2009, he was watching his 8-year-old daughter swim.

“I wonder if I can swim,” said Otero, pondering ways of being able to swim.

Using a buoy between his legs, Otero jumped in the pool with his daughter. By the end of 2009, the man who was not to run again began to expand his goals past the pool and once more to competing on land. Otero completed the Savannah, Ga., River Bridge Run in December 2009 without the use of a cane. A remarkable accomplishment for a man who had been wheelchair bound only seven months earlier.

“I can pass my PT test,” Otero professed just as the Army was considering removing him from its ranks.

Despite his unexpected progress, Otero was still pending separation from the Army due to his injuries but beat the odds and passed the Army physical fitness test, proving that he could still serve.

Otero was reassigned in April 2010 as a senior human resources sergeant. In 2010, after transferring to Okinawa, Otero set a goal to complete his first triathlon along with his daughter. He completed the Futenma triathlon in August 2010 and has since gone on to complete 16 triathlons of varying distances. Perhaps above all, Otero deployed to Afghanistan from Okinawa during the months of March through October 2012.

In Otero’s words, “I wanted to deploy and face the enemy one more time.”

There is little to nothing that can be added to the personal story of Otero to make it more inspiring. No superlatives can make his journey any more impressive. The raw courage and determination displayed by his shining example speak for themselves in terms of qualities of great character.

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