Veteran Finds Brotherhood in Cycling Group
As the veteran climbed the dirt hill on his mountain bike, pumping his legs and ignoring the burning in his quads, his teammates yelled words of encouragement. The heat and humidity beat down on him but he was in his homeland, Puerto Rico, and he wasn’t going to let this 50-kilometer race through mud and hills defeat him. He’d been through worse.
David Camacho, a retired Army master sergeant who served for 22 years -- from 1985 to 2007 -- says he joined the Army “because it was in my blood.”
“My grandfather served in World War II, and then my uncle served during Vietnam and Korea,” Camacho said. “My brother was a Marine, and served in the invasion of Panama in Grenada. It was something I was always attracted to, so I did it. I liked the discipline, and doing things the right way. I enjoyed the image and the purpose of a soldier.”
Camacho said many Puerto Ricans have served for generations. “We make great soldiers, and will give our lives for anyone out there,” he said. “We are good battle buddies. A Puerto Rican will not fail you. We will always be there. You will have a brother for life.”
Camacho’s first deployment was to the Gulf in 1990. He deployed to Mosul, Iraq, from 2004 to 2005 with the 1st Stryker Brigade from Fort Lewis, Washington. His mission was tactical operation communications for a field artillery battalion.
“I had to make sure the communications were clear between the battalion and the brigade, and to make sure they had the right communications security,” he said. “We also had a group of Special Forces that had to have a satellite for so they could communicate with the Pentagon. We also had to make sure the tactical operations center was running clear.”
While in Iraq, he would go out on convoys, and would worry about improvised explosive devices and snipers, but he wasn’t prepared for what happened to him.
He had gone to a nearby forward operating base to pick up some communications software and was going to lunch at the dining facility.
“I didn’t see it, but there was a guy who dressed himself up like a national guard from Iraq. We used to be at the same base together when we used to train them. At least 26 people got killed in that dining facility,” he said. “I got injured. My stomach, my head, my leg; I got shrapnel everywhere. They removed my spleen. They had to fix everything inside of me. They removed stuff in my stomach.”
He said he was conscious when he was injured outside the dining facility and thought, “God give me a chance. I don’t want to die and leave my wife alone with three kids.”
Camacho said he lost consciousness, and woke up after five surgeries at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in Texas.
Road to Recovery
Camacho said as he recovered in the hospital, he fought through a lot of nightmares. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I had a lot of nightmares, a lot of [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I would close my eyes, and I was back there. I couldn’t accept what happened to me, the way it happened,” he said. “I knew I was in the danger zone, but you forget the unexpected things.”
He said he fought through depression, and had trouble sleeping because he would constantly be back in Iraq whenever he closed his eyes. He said the hardest part for him was leaving his guys behind.
“My wife was a big supporter, and friends and people from the chain of command would come visit me, but I felt like I wasn’t good enough because my soldiers were out there. I was very protective over my guys. I enjoyed being out there with them. They were like part of my family out there, and I felt like I left them out there, and I couldn’t go back,” he said.
Camacho said before they had all deployed, many of his soldiers had been over to his house for barbecues, and some of their parents had even told him, “Hey, take care of my kids.”
“Maybe because of my culture, that’s the way I am or because I’m , that you’re responsible for your soldiers. You are there for them and they are there for you. We’ve got to look out for each other,” he said.
This mentality carried over as he left the service and found friends in a nonprofit cycling group, Warriors4Life.
Camacho said with the Warriors4Life group and cycling, he’s been able to find the brotherhood he had in the service. “It’s like being back in the armed forces, but at a different level.
We enjoy each other. I love it. We speak the same language. It doesn’t matter where we’re from. Sometimes you find somebody you have served with. Once you’re a soldier, you will always be a soldier. It’s the camaraderie we get as a soldier. We always keep it among us, and support each other.”
He said the cycling helps him physically and mentally, and he encourages any veteran or active duty member with PTSD to use any sport to get them out of the house.
“Get out of the house and find support, so the PTSD doesn’t get higher, and so you’re not alone; we can support each other. Find an activity that works for you. And surround yourself with positive people, so you cannot stay in the past with what happened. And it’s hard; it’s very hard sometimes, but there’s life out there,” he said. “You’ve just got to look and have that will to get better and live better.”
As Camacho makes it to the top of the hill, he grins and coasts down, ready to cross the finish line with his friends and fellow veterans.