War­rior Spirit

Hor­rific in­juries sus­tained as a Marine didn’t pre­vent Liam Dwyer from be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional racer— some­thing he in­sists saved his life

Automobile - - Contents - By Arthur St. An­toine

Los­ing a leg in Afghanistan couldn’t keep Liam Dwyer from his dream of com­pet­ing on the race­track.

THE FIRST TIME Liam Dwyer lost his left leg, he stepped on an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice while on pa­trol with fel­low Marines in Afghanistan. Four years later, he lost the leg again—while at the wheel of a race car.

“I was at Cir­cuit of the Amer­i­cas [in Austin, Texas] in 2015,” re­tired Staff Sgt. Dwyer, now 36, says. “And it’s so hot I’m al­most see­ing spots. I’m sweat­ing like crazy, los­ing weight. So about 25 min­utes into my driv­ing stint, sud­denly my leg falls off. Lit­er­ally. My pros­the­sis just fell right off at the suc­tion cup. But, hey, I think we still ran 14th place.”

We’re at the Lime Rock Park cir­cuit in leafy Con­necti­cut on a warm July af­ter­noon, sit­ting in the team mo­tor home of Free­dom Au­tosport, for which Dwyer just com­pleted a qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion as part of the pro­fes­sional IMSA Con­ti­nen­tal Tire Sport­sCar Chal­lenge series. Dwyer and his ex­pe­ri­enced team­mate An­drew Car­bonell, 28, a for­mer kart­ing cham­pion, have put their Mazda MX-5 sixth on the ST-class grid for to­mor­row’s two-hour race. And now Dwyer is go­ing through the la­bo­ri­ous, vis­i­bly un­com­fort­able process of re­mov­ing his pros­thetic leg so the stump of his real leg can re­cover from the pun­ish­ment of 30-plus min­utes op­er­at­ing a clutch pedal that, mo­ments ago, was clipped to a heim joint at the bot­tom of his ar­ti­fi­cial limb. “This whole rit­ual right here, this is a daily oc­cur­rence,” Dwyer says. “Daily! I live in Florida, and any time I want to go out, any­where—to CVS, the hobby shop, out to a restau­rant with friends—this is what I gotta go through. When the pros­the­sis’ socket liner slips, my leg starts ‘pis­ton­ing’—the skin is be­ing pulled up and down, and my leg be­comes en­gorged with blood. If that hap­pens and the skin breaks, that’s an im­me­di­ate in­fec­tion and can mean fur­ther am­pu­ta­tion. No rac­ing. Prob­a­bly not even walk­ing. That’s why I’m hav­ing the big surgery. Then I won’t have to worry about the socket any­more. My ar­ti­fi­cial leg will just lock right on.”

Dwyer ar­tic­u­lates th­ese grim re­al­i­ties with­out a gram of self-pity. In fact, he’s ab­so­lutely guile­less about his in­juries. Right now he’s sit­ting next to me, stripped down to his tighty whities, invit­ing me to ex­am­ine up close the ruin that is his body post-IED. Both of his arms are scarred and mis­shapen. His right leg, while still “there,” is a bat­tered husk of rifts and lac­er­a­tions. Dwyer pulls the suc­tion cup off his left leg, re­veal­ing the ragged shank of thigh that re­mains. Then with his free hand he reaches for a bucket and, hold­ing the suc­tion cup above it, slowly turns the cup up­side down. What seems like a quart of sweat pours out. I’m speech­less. But Dwyer is grin­ning, rolling his eyes. “Isn’t that a won­der­ful sight?”

LIAM DWYER JOINED the Marine Corps twice. His first stint took him to Iraq, where in Jan­uary 2007 he was lucky to sur­vive an IED ex­plo­sion just yards away from the Humvee he’d only re­cently up­graded with ar­mor plat­ing. “I was tur­ret gun­ner,” Dwyer says. “Got pep­pered with shrap­nel, knocked un­con­scious. Stayed in Iraq, bed rest­ing ’cause my brain got re­ally rat­tled. Two weeks later I was back out do­ing mis­sions.”

His tour com­plete and his body in­tact, Dwyer re­tired from the Marines, re­turned to his home­town of South­bury, Con­necti­cut, and “started a daily life.” Home-school at night. A 40- to 50-hour a week job. And on week­ends … car rac­ing. “I was do­ing au­tocross stuff,” Dwyer says. “At first I had a Mit­subishi Evo 8. Then I got my Nis­san Z. I ran that stock—just added a sway bar and bet­ter brake pads. It was stupid fast. I’d out­run Z06s, M3s.”

Then fate played an un­ex­pected hand. “So I’m at work one day in July 2010,” he re­calls, “and this ma­jor I de­ployed with in Iraq rings me and says, ‘Hey, Liam! We’ve got a team go­ing to Afghanistan. I want you on it.’ At the time I had long hair, a goa­tee.” It had been one of Dwyer’s boy­hood dreams to be a Marine. The of­fer to re­turn proved too tempt­ing to re­sist.

“Some waivers got me back in the Corps,” he says. “Two weeks later I start train­ing. By De­cem­ber 3 I’m in Afghanistan. And then … ” Dwyer pauses a mo­ment to col­lect his thoughts. “My first pa­trol was De­cem­ber 28. I make friends with our squad leader, Cpl. Te­van Nguyen. Then five hours later, I watched him get blown up by an IED and die right in front of me.” Dwyer pulls up his shirt. Nguyen’s name is tat­tooed on the left side of his chest.

Dwyer had a pre­mo­ni­tion about his own fate. “When I got to Afghanistan, the joke was, I just knew I was gonna get blown up,” he says. “Just knew it. So I said to my corps­man, ‘When I get blown up, the only leg I can lose is my left leg. Be­cause I can still op­er­ate a clutch pedal with a pros­the­sis.’”

Fast-for­ward five months to May 22, 2011. “We’re do­ing this big op­er­a­tion,” Dwyer says. “Five or six days. We know we’re gonna get in the shit. Su­per early in the morn­ing, we went to our first com­pound. And one of the things I see is a chai set, ster­ling sil­ver, and the teapot is still warm. But there’s no one around. The Tal­iban was just here, and they’re watch­ing us.

“We go into the last room, then on the way out ev­ery­one in front of me steps over this log. Fi­nally I get up to it, and … boom! I re­mem­ber wak­ing up a few sec­onds after the blast. Dust fall­ing. Marines laid out nearby. Bones are stick­ing out of me, tis­sues hold­ing my arm on. I’m go­ing to die. I reach for my tourni­quets. And pass out.”

Staff Sgt. Aaron Den­ning, now serv­ing in the Marine re­serves and a po­lice of­fi­cer in Bur­bank, Cal­i­for­nia, was the first to reach Dwyer.

“In­side that room was like a hor­ror movie,” Den­ning re­mem­bers. “Blood all over the walls. A few guys par­tially dis­em­bow­eled. The corps­man is work­ing on them be­cause Liam looks hope­less. There’s blood pour­ing out of both

femoral ar­ter­ies in his legs and the ar­ter­ies in his arms. I ap­ply tourni­quets to all four limbs, but I’m prob­a­bly work­ing on a dead man. Then sud­denly Liam wakes up. I couldn’t be­lieve it. Now, we’re trained that one of the most im­por­tant things is to pre­vent shock. Shock can kill you be­fore the mede­vac even ar­rives. So I start talk­ing to Liam, try­ing to dis­tract him. We talk foot­ball. He likes the New York Gi­ants. Then Liam says to me, ‘I’ll be go­ing home now. And when I get there, I’m gonna start rac­ing cars.’ He’s ly­ing there with his leg blown off—though I didn’t tell him that at the time—and he’s talk­ing about rac­ing cars!”

After an ex­cru­ci­at­ing 20 min­utes wait­ing for a he­li­copter to ar­rive, Den­ning and a few other Marines scram­bled through en­emy fire to get Dwyer on it. “When we picked Liam up,” Den­ning says, “he let out a scream that … well, I never want to hear a scream like that again. Ever.”

The prog­no­sis was dire. Some­time dur­ing the flight, in fact, Dwyer’s heart stopped. But the medics brought him back. (Ev­ery­one else in­jured in the blast also sur­vived.) When he fi­nally re­gained con­scious­ness, he was in in­ten­sive care at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bethesda, Mary­land. “I was in ICU for two weeks,” Dwyer says. “Tubes ev­ery­where. Then the surg­eries started, one al­most ev­ery other day. I stopped count­ing at 50. Even­tu­ally, I got to this men­tal state, like, I’m never get­ting out of here.”

Fi­nally came some much-needed, though brief, R&R. And from that mo­ment on Dwyer’s life changed for­ever. Again.

“In 2012 my buddy took me to a car race at Day­tona,” Dwyer says. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I love cars. I wanna get back in cars.’”

Purely by chance, Dwyer met Derek Whi­tis, owner of Free­dom Au­tosport, a race team devoted to the mil­i­tary (at each race, a few veter­ans are in­vited to as­sist in the garage and the pits) and backed by Mazda. “Liam told me, ‘I used to do some au­tocross­ing, and I’d love to race one of your cars some­day,’” Whi­tis re­mem­bers. “Now, you hear that all the time. But Liam meant it.”

Hours later, at that evening’s end-of-sea­son ban­quet, another bolt of light­ning: Dwyer ended up seated next to Mazda Mo­tor­sports di­rec­tor John Doo­nan. “I’d heard about Liam’s story,” Doo­nan says, “so I asked him, ‘You’ve been through a lot. What are your dreams in life?’ And Liam just looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I want to be a race car driver.’”

Doo­nan didn’t scoff at Dwyer’s am­bi­tions. “At the time Free­dom still had some Spec Mi­atas,” he says. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we put this guy into one of those and see what he’s all about?’ Sure enough, Liam ran a club race at Se­bring, and by the fi­nal laps he was lead­ing. He ended up fin­ish­ing sec­ond, but he proved he’s got tal­ent in a race car—and the mind­set to win.”

With Dwyer mak­ing re­mark­able progress in his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram, Doo­nan phoned him prior to the 2014 sea­son and asked, “How ’bout we put you in a two-race deal for next sea­son in an ST car? Mazda Race­way Laguna Seca and your home track at Lime Rock. You’ll join our ex­pe­ri­enced hot shoe and Spec Mi­ata champ Tom Long.” Suf­fice it to say, Dwyer’s re­ac­tion could only be mea­sured by the Richter scale.

Yet Dwyer’s dream deal started off like a night­mare. At Mazda Race­way Laguna Seca, in the first turn of his first race, his MX-5 suf­fered pad knock­back in the brakes, and he bar­reled through the turn and straight into a com­peti­tor’s BMW, de­stroy­ing both cars. “He came back to the pits in tears,” Doo­nan re­mem­bers. “But I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re not quit­ting.’”

De­spite his de­spair, Dwyer man­aged to scrounge up some black hu­mor. “They made me go to the med­i­cal tent,” he says, “and as I walk in, I’ve got my arms around a cou­ple cor­ner work­ers—they’re car­ry­ing me in ’cause I don’t have my pros­the­sis on, and they know that. But the nurses in­side don’t. So I start yelling, ‘My leg! Oh my God, I lost my leg!’ Well, the IMSA guys al­most dropped me they were laugh­ing so hard. The nurses … not so much.”

If race one was rock bot­tom, Dwyer’s sec­ond race, at his home track of Lime Rock, played out as if penned by a Hol­ly­wood screen­writer. Start­ing dead last, Dwyer moved up in po­si­tion over 22 laps be­fore swap­ping with co-driver Long. Mere laps from the check­ered flag, Long swooped into first place to take the win. It was Me­mo­rial Day week­end. Al­most three years to the day since Dwyer had lost his leg in Afghanistan. The story made ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Week and the na­tional news. The Marine who’d nearly been blown to pieces was now a win­ning pro­fes­sional race car driver.

The fol­low­ing sea­son at Laguna Seca, Dwyer served up more fairy-tale fare: He and buddy Car­bonell claimed vic­tory not just at the cir­cuit where Dwyer’s bid had ended in tears only a year ear­lier but also in front of Dwyer’s mother and Staff Sgt. Den­ning, the man who saved his life. “Liam’s mom and Sgt. Den­ning had never met be­fore,” Doo­nan re­calls. “Need­less to say, even be­fore the check­ered flag came down, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

After rac­ing full sea­sons along­side Car­bonell in 2016 and 2017, Dwyer’s fu­ture is now on hold. As this story goes to press, he’ll be un­der­go­ing the sec­ond phase of a rad­i­cal pro­ce­dure known as an “os­seoin­te­gra­tion.” In essence, in­stead of us­ing that nasty and un­re­li­able suc­tion cup to af­fix his pros­thetic leg to his left thigh, Dwyer is hav­ing a ti­ta­nium rod in­serted deep into his left fe­mur and out through his skin. Once the so-called “abut­ment” has fused with the sur­round­ing bone (about three months), from then on Dwyer will sim­ply be able to lock his pros­the­sis di­rectly onto the pro­trud­ing rod. The goal: ef­fort­less at­tach­ment and re­moval of his ar­ti­fi­cial limb. And no more midrace ru­n­away legs.

The os­seoin­te­gra­tion surgery is pi­o­neer­ing— and risky. But Dwyer in­sisted on hav­ing it. “After I did a few pro­ce­dures on Liam, I got a call from his case man­ager,” says his sur­geon, Dr. Jonathan Fors­berg, an or­tho­pe­dic on­col­o­gist at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and, as a com­man­der in the Navy, an M.D. at Wal­ter Reed Na­tional Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Cen­ter. “She was fu­ri­ous. She said, ‘Sgt. Dwyer wants to race au­to­mo­biles! This is in­her­ently dan­ger­ous! You need to tell him he needs to rec­og­nize his lim­i­ta­tions!’ Well, I must’ve been in a mood, be­cause I replied, ‘Sgt. Dwyer is an adult, he’s a Marine, and he un­der­stands that rac­ing cars is dan­ger­ous. And from my per­spec­tive there’s no rea­son he can’t do this.’”

Lit­er­ally at her son’s side for month after ag­o­niz­ing month, Dwyer’s mother, Laurie, re­mains re­mark­ably san­guine after their mu­tual ride through hell and back. “After Liam got that call from John Doo­nan in 2014, he phoned me and said, ‘Mom, what’s my other dream?’ And I said, ‘To race?’ Well, when he told me about the deal with Mazda, the two of us got so choked up.” Laurie pauses to look across the garage as her son zips into his Nomex suit for another lap­ping ses­sion. “I’m such a firm believer in ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing for a rea­son. And re­ally, when you think about it, Liam prob­a­bly never would’ve be­come a pro­fes­sional race car driver with­out be­ing in­jured. Both of us re­ally do be­lieve rac­ing saved his life.”

As for Dwyer him­self, nat­u­rally he’s itch­ing for the day when he can get back into a race car. Yet amid his painful re­cov­ery from near death and the new­found joys of ful­fill­ing one of his en­dur­ing dreams, Dwyer’s core—Sem­per Fi— has never wa­vered. “Rac­ing is awe­some, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But be­ing a Marine is the most re­ward­ing thing I’ve done in my life. If I could, I’d give all this up in a heart­beat to go back over there.” AM

FULL CIR­CLE A chance trip with a friend to a 2012 race at Day­tona fu­eled Liam Dwyer’s drive to re­cov­ery. Three years later, he was speed­ing across the high banks him­self. Right: A brand am­bas­sador for Mazda, Dwyer draws throngs of en­thu­si­as­tic fans at...

Liam Dwyer and An­drew Car­bonell (left) be­came fast friends. “We’ve made ev­ery pun about the leg,” Dwyer laughs. Says Car­bonell: “Liam al­ways races first. It’s a lot eas­ier to yank him out than to wrench him in!”

HOL­LY­WOOD FIN­ISH Mazda’s John Doo­nan (top), team­mate An­drew Car­bonell, life­saver Aaron Den­ning, and mom Laurie (bot­tom) were on hand for Liam Dwyer’s 2015 win.

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