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PVA From The Top: Moleda's Impact

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News December 2016

Friend, mentor and PVA member

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In September, Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA’s) supporters, partners and friends gathered in the nation’s capital for our annual Mission: ABLE Awards. You will read more about the event in this issue, but I wanted to share with you a part of the program that was particularly special to me.

As the evening came to a close, I took the stage to introduce my mentor, friend and PVA member Carlos Moleda. Just days before, Carlos had returned from the most challenging journey of his life — to the summit of Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. Being paralyzed has never stopped Carlos. It hasn’t even slowed him down. He is a five-time Ironman champion, a competitive handcyclist and a PVA peer mentor. Carlos’ latest feat brought to the forefront of my mind how I came to know him. It was first only by name, and then a twist of fate made us brothers in chairs. I shared the following story with our guests that evening, and I wanted you, our members, to read it, too. 

In December 1989, I was approaching graduation from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Of the nearly 100 students who had started in my class, only 16 had survived up to that point and hopefully would graduate from one of the hardest special operations training programs in the world. Just days prior to Christmas break, I was pulled from my warm bed and “ushered” into the icy Pacific Ocean. There, I joined my classmates in yet another early-morning session of what we referred to as “surf-torture.” 

Honestly, this was nothing unusual since being cold and wet was the prime motivator for students to drop from the all-volunteer program. However, this time was different because the instructors had an agenda besides simply trying to make us quit. One of the instructors had a copy of the San Diego Union-Tribune in his hand, and he loudly read the headline: “Four Navy SEALs Killed, Nine Injured.”

It was during Operation Just Cause, a campaign to capture Panama’s ruthless dictator Manuel Noriega, when a platoon of 14 Navy SEALs was caught in a vicious firefight on the runway at Paitilla Airfield. Nine were seriously injured, and four were killed. 

For hours, the instructor repeated the names of the four SEALs killed, while the cold waves crashed over us — one name with each wave, over and over until the sun came up. It’s no wonder I have never forgotten the names of Lt. j.g. John Conners, Chief Don McFaul, Petty Officer Chris Tilghman and Petty Officer Isaac Rodriguez. 

The remaining SEALs fully recovered from their injuries and went back to work, all except one. Carlos Moleda had been permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He was awarded the Purple Heart and medically retired from service. It was another name I didn’t forget, understanding that SEAL’s life had forever been changed.

I never could have fathomed that five years later, in 1994, I would be sitting in a wheelchair next to Carlos in the Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in San Diego. 

He began competing in sports immediately upon completing his rehabilitation, and he was trying to convince me that adaptive sports could help me physically and mentally in the rehab process. As a newly injured veteran, I was reluctant to get involved in competitive sports. But Carlos was a PVA member and a natural peer mentor, and he had seen this reluctance countless times. He knew he had to get through to me. And he did. 

I can’t remember exactly what he said to me that day in front of the SCI center, but he motivated me to engage in sports as a means of reinventing myself. Our friendship continued to motivate me, as we developed a friendly competitiveness to accomplish more than the other in adaptive sports. With that relationship, not only did I immerse myself in a healthy pastime, I found a new purpose.

In this month’s issue of PN, you will read about Carlos’ incredible trip to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and how he has turned his combat-injury into his greatest adventure. His tenacious pursuit of conquering the world one challenge at a time has impacted many lives, not just veterans. He certainly changed my life. And had he not been a PVA member, he may have remained just one of the names I remembered from the cold beach that December morning.   

 

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PVA From The Top: Moleda's Impact

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