In the military community Alive Days are important anniversaries, commemorating the day a warfighter is severely wounded in battle. They memorialize a day that went from just another day on the job to the day when a new normal began. Retired Air Force Staff Sergeant Dan Acosta has celebrated 11 Alive Days since the fateful day in December 2005 when he was injured by a bomb while on patrol, lost his left arm and suffered significant damage to his legs.
Dan joined the Air Force in 2002 knowing that he wanted to be an Explosive Ordinance Device (EOD) Technician. As he puts it, he was drawn to the challenge. Simply graduating from EOD school is a significant achievement as it is among the most difficult training schools in the military. The school is open to all four military branches, and to enlisted members and officers alike, but the school is so difficult that it has an 80% failure rate.
“It had the academic challenge, the physical challenge, the mental attitude challenge,” said Dan. “It just puts you to the limit where you have to commit. You have to be all in, 100 percent or not.”
Dan was up for the challenge, and after successfully completing school he was sent to Baghdad, Iraq. To get a sense of Dan’s life in Iraq, it is best to picture the 2010 Academy Award Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, which follows a EOD technician dismantling explosives in Baghdad.
“Every single one of those situations in that movie, I’ve seen or been in a lot worse,” said Dan. “The scene where they’re called to a roadside IED, that was like four or five times a day for me.”
On December 7, 2005, Dan was called to a ‘routine roadside bomb’. While routine and roadside bomb don’t seem to fit into the same sentence, this is the routine for those special graduates of EOD school who are sent overseas.
That day, Dan and his team found and successfully disarmed two devices.
“I just had a gut feeling that there was a third one there, so I wanted to find it and disarm it,” he said. “So I started to do a little courtesy sweep where I thought it might be and sure enough I found it.”
Dan stepped on a pressure plate with 30 pounds of explosives attached. In addition to losing his arm, the bomb sent sand and dirt coursing into Dan’s skin at a high pressure, causing severe damage to his legs.
“A lot of people look at a bomb go off and see the fire, the thermal effect, and consider that as the damaging part of a bomb,” he said. “It’s actually the overpressure that it creates. Just that amount of pressure against my body, the sand and dirt and debris literally just tore the meat off of my legs.”
Surviving his first surgery was another milestone for Dan, whose survival expectancy rate was determined to be 10 percent according to the doctors who were operating on him. Dan’s teammate Staff Sergeant Joe Upton, who saved Dan’s life providing combat first-aid immediately after the explosion, was told that if he survived the first surgery his chances would be 50 percent survival. Dan passed that milestone too, and six days later arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas for more surgeries and to start rehabilitation.
“I felt like the moment I was in that hospital longer than I should be was going to be the thing that killed me,” he said.
It was at BAMC that he re-learned to walk, and shortly thereafter he signed up for to snowboard with Disabled Sports USA in Breckenridge, Colorado.
“I actually spent my very first Alive Day in Breckenridge,” said Dan. “That was the milestone that just really was the tipping point to want to live happy. From coming to re-learn how to walk and spending my first alive day snowboarding was just awesome.”
In addition to snowboarding, Dan also participated in the Warfighter Sports golf program at BAMC. While it wasn’t a sport he had participated in prior to his injury, Dan found his swing quickly, and completed the eight-week clinic series with local PGA Professionals. As part of his completion of the program Dan received a set of custom-fitted PING clubs. The game helped his recovery, in more than just physical rehabilitation.
“Golf is one of those games where it’s a game of consistency and a little bit of strategy and just really controlling your own anxieties,” he said. “All of that stuff really helped at that time in my life with really balancing out my own personal life.”
Today, Dan lives in the Chicago area, where he works full-time for iJet International as an analyst and risk consultant. The full time job and Chicago weather don’t let him get out on the golf course as much as he would like, but he still uses his PING clubs on the links as many times a year as he can.
Dan remains involved in adaptive sport as an ambassador for Warfighter Sports, as an advisory team member for Tee it Up for the Troops, a Warfighter Sports national partner, and as a board member for Adaptive Adventures, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. He hopes to get even more involved in adaptive sports in the coming years to help others reach their own milestones.
“[Adaptive Sport] has done so much for me, to want to continue life in a very positive way,” said Dan. “Just being the EOD guy I love helping people and love saving lives that if I can continue that in another way, I want to do so and I think it’s through adaptive sports.”
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Challenge magazine.