In the hellacious Spartan Race at Citizens Bank Park a couple of weeks ago, motivation came from a one-armed man. Anytime I considered giving up on my fellow Daily News Muckrakers teammates, or throwing up in my hair, there he was smiling through one ridiculous obstacle after another.
He lifted a chunk of concrete that most couldn't budge with two arms. He used legs as thick as tree trunks to get across the monkey bars, which got him chastised by a race staffer until he showed him his missing arm and the staffer sheepishly apologized and waved him on.
Sitting atop my poor boss's shoulders, I wondered: What's his story?
It turns out that retired Staff Sgt. Michael Kacer has a lot of stories, including how he lost his left arm. Kacer, who is from Throop, Pa., joined the Pennsylvania National Guard when he was 17. By the time he was on patrol in Afghanistan in 2008, he'd already been deployed to Bosnia in 2001 and Iraq in 2004.
He was at the end of a shift when his unit came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades. The unit's medic and mechanic were killed. Kacer lost his left arm, suffered significant shrapnel injuries to his face and a six inch skull fracture that led to traumatic brain injury.
"I have some memory issues," he said. "I like to joke around that, you know, guys have selective memories, I actually do have selective memory. I really can't control what I can retain and what I can't."
Kacer, 31, spent two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center trying to find his "new normal." He battled anxiety and alcoholism. But he eventually found his way through sports, and in sharing his story - at schools, veteran organizations and often along the routes of extreme competitions like the Spartan Race.
"Next to my family and friends, sports is the thing that showed me the possibilities that are there, the possibilities that I never thought would ever be there," said Kacer, who is training with hopes to join the U.S. Paralympic Team in track and field in 2017.
He was participating in the Spartan Race with Operation Enduring Warrior, a veteran-operated nonprofit organization founded to create awareness and support for wounded warriors.
But even when he's not competing, Kacer manages to inspire those around him. In 2011, Kacer took his 13-year-old nephew, Isaiah, to his first major league game at Yankee Stadium when a foul ball started heading their way. He caught it with his hat, which he immediately gave to his nephew. The crowd gave him a standing ovation and the video went viral.
"My 15 minutes of fame," the Purple Heart recipient joked when I tracked him down after the race to let him know what an inspiration he was to me and my team. For the record, we all lived, and finished. No comment on our time.
"I'm just trying to pay it forward," Kacer said. "Next to my nephews and my niece, me losing my arm was the next best thing to happen to me. It really taught me to appreciate and take advantage of all the things in life that we take for granted.
"I'm not looking to become rich or famous, but as much as I could, I'd like to keep pushing people to get past the bad in life and try to find the good."
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