On May 22, 2011, Staff Sergeant Liam Dwyer stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan. The blast, which also injured three fellow Marines, took most of his left leg and fractured his right leg, while shrapnel sliced both of his arms. Dwyer, a Connecticut native, who had left college in 2000 to enlist in the Marines, was nearly killed.
Dwyer, who always dreamed of being a race car driver, was left walking with a prosthetic leg. Four years later, Dwyer is back behind the wheel, chasing his dream and inspiring others on the way there.
ESPN is featuring Dwyer’s inspirational story this Memorial Day weekend on SportsCenter.
Here’s what you need to know about Dwyer:
1. He Re-Enlisted in the Marines After He Was Wounded in a Different IED Explosion in 2007
Dwyer, 33, has shown his commitment to the Marines and his country on numerous occasions. He left college after a year at the University of Connecticut to enlist in the Marines after he was inspired to join by the U.S.S. Cole bombing. After four years of service he re-enlisted, with a unit that was set to go to Iraq. While there, he was wounded by an IED, but not as seriously, according to the Register Citizen, his hometown newspaper.
After that tour was over, he spent some time working a full-time job and going to night school, but then decided to re-enlist again, this time knowing he would be going to Afghanistan. It was on that tour of duty in 2011 that he was wounded.
Just one year after he was wounded, Dwyer returned to his hometown of Litchfield to walk in an annual road race, with a prosthetic leg.
He recently had a chance to have the Marine who saved him at one of his races, Sgt. Aaron Denning. The Marine put tourniquets on both of Dwyer’s legs and then carried him 100 yards to a helicopter. Denning was awarded the Bronze Star as a result of his actions. Watch a video of their reunion below:
“It’s like a fairy tale,” Denning said after the race, which Dwyer won. “Liam Dwyer is the living, breathing embodiment of a man who was knocked down, and got back up. I’m honored to be here, and I’m honored to be his friend.”
2. He Endured More Than 30 Surgeries & Years of Rehab During His Recovery
Dwyer had been through more than 30 surgeries by May 2012, one year after the explosion, he told the Register Citizen. He remained an active duty Marine after the blast, serving out of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he went through hours and hours of grueling rehabilitation.
His weight dropped to 115 pounds and he was confined to an electronic wheelchair for part of the recovery, he told Jalopnik.
In addition to having a prosthetic left leg, Dwyer’s right knee was replaced and his right arm is held together by a steel plate, a rod and 23 screws, according to OGRacing.com.
3. He Was Told He Would Never Be Able to Drive a Manual Transmission Again
Dwyer has been racing since 1999, a year before he enlisted in the Marines. During his brief time away from the Corps, from 2009 to 2010, he raced on the CART circuit. He said racing gave him a reprieve from all the adrenaline that built up inside him after deployments.
In 2011, in the months after the explosion, he was told he would never be able to drive a manual transmission car again. But he wouldn’t accept that fate. He told Jalopnik what he said to a therapist who gave him that news: “I looked at her and I said, ‘Fuck you.'”
Dwyer went out, taught himself how to drive stick again with his injuries and went back to that therapist.
“Don’t ever tell me what I can do and what I can’t do,” Dwyer said.
He started getting back into racing, but the Marines were a bit hesitant.
“They told me, ‘This is dangerous, you’re going to get hurt,'” Dwyer told Boston.com. “And I was like, ‘You’re the ones who sent me to Afghanistan, a place where I got blown up, and you’re worried about me getting into a car accident?’
“Let’s get real here. I’m 33 years old. I can make my own decisions. If I want to race cars, who are you to tell me ‘No’? Why you can restrict me from doing something I want to do, after everything I’ve been through,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer is now able to race thanks to a specially designed Mazda car. He races on the IMSA tour. In an interview posted on the racing organization’s website, Dwyer said:
The goal [has been] to modify the car as minimally as possible, while making it as safe as possible. I will be using a special prosthesis to activate the clutch pedal. My leg will be physically attached to the clutch pedal via a joint attached to a shaft on the clutch. When I pit, I will pull the cotter pin holding the leg to the clutch. I will be able to jump out and Tom Long (his driving partner) will jump in.
4. He Won a Race in His Home State Last Year on Memorial Day Weekend
Dwyer’s first victory on the IMSA tour came in his home state of Connecticut at Lime Rock Park on May 24, 2014, nearly three years to the day of the IED explosion, a day he refers to as his “Alive Day.”
“Home track, Memorial Day, my Alive Day … surreal does not describe the jubilation I’m feeling right now,” Dwyer said, according to a press release. “Memorial Day is not a day that I take lightly. I know exactly what it means to myself and to my fellow service members. To be here in Connecticut, at Lime Rock, at my home track, a place I’ve camped at before … I can’t explain how awesome this feels right now.”
Dwyer said it wasn’t an easy victory.
“It was 100 percent confidence boost, and zero percent popularity wise,” Dwyer told Boston.com about the victory “You’re running with one of the best drivers in the world. People who know racing, know this series. They know how challenging it is to win. You start last, and come out on top at the very end. It’s not like that race was given to us.”
Another win was just as special. That came in front of Sgt. Denning, the Marine who saved him in Afghanistan, earlier this May during the first race Denning saw Dwyer drive in.
“It was amazing,” Dwyer said of the win during a press conference. “I didn’t think anything could top that emotion (of winning the Lime Rock race).”
5. He Will Soon Retire From the Marines & Will Race a Full Season This Year
Dwyer is set to retire from the Marines at the end of May and will start racing full-time with his Mazda team.
“I am very excited for the 2015 season. I thought things couldn’t get better after last season, but Mazda has once again shown how immensely awesome they are,” he said in a statement. “To be granted a full ride in the Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 is the ultimate dream come true. And on top of that, I have one of the fastest MX-5 drivers, Andrew Carbonell, as my co-driver. I can’t thank Derek Whitis, Rhett O’Doski and everyone at Mazda enough for this opportunity.”
He also hopes to get other injured veterans involved in racing through a program called Racing4Vets.
“Everyone has different injuries,” Dwyer says. “Some people will look at a veteran and say, ‘You don’t look injured,’ but they might have traumatic brain injury or suffer from PTSD. This program gets people back in a team setting with an ultimate goal in mind; a lot of these guys, including myself, are truly grateful for that.”