SALINAS, Calif. – Military veterans who suffer a serious combat injury, and survive, call the date they suffered their catastrophic injury their “alive day.”
That would be May 22, 2011, for U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Liam Dwyer, who was on a search team in Afghanistan when he stepped on an explosive. It severed his right leg above the knee, and severely damaged his right arm.
If May 22 was his “alive day,” he isn’t quite sure what to call May 2, 2015. “A miracle,” he said. “A dream come true.”
Dwyer’s longtime love has been auto racing, and he refused to give up on his dream. Fitted with a special prosthesis that replaces his leg, he returned to the track, where he adapted to the special equipment his car required. He drove hard, and fast, and it did not go unnoticed.
Last year, Dwyer joined a Mazda-backed team, Freedom Autosport, that fields Mazda MX-5 Miatas in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a tough series that holds endurance races that require at least two drivers. Dwyer and his teammate, Mazda factory driver Tom Long, won a race at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.
“It was amazing,” Dwyer said. “I didn’t think anything could top that emotion.”
Saturday, something did. On the very last lap of a two-hour, 30-minute, 84-lap race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Dwyer’s driving partner, Andrew Carbonell, passed the Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 driven by Tom Long, Dwyer’s old driving partner. Carbonell and Dwyer, who drove the first portion of the race, took the victory, defeating 27 other entries in the ST class.
The difference this year? It wasn’t so much the win, it was who came to Mazda Raceway to witness it. Dwyer very possibly would have died that day in Afghanistan had it not been for Marine sergeant, Aaron Denning, who rushed to Dwyer’s aid and performed lifesaving procedures that saved his life.
While the two sergeants – both still in the Marines, with Denning on the West Coast, Dwyer on the East Coast – stayed in touch, Denning had never seen Dwyer race. That changed Saturday when he not only attended the Continental Tire Challenge, he was an honored guest who waved the green flag to start the race. Dwyer’s mother was also at the track – she had never met the man who saved her son’s life.
And to see Dwyer not only race, but win? “It’s like a fairy tale,” said Denning, trying hard to hold back tears. “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.”
As for Dwyer, his story is even more remarkable than most of his fans know. In 2007, four years before Dwyer’s “Alive Day,” he was serving in Iran when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. He took shrapnel on the left side of his body. He left the military and returned to civilian life – and then he re-enlisted. It was on his second tour when he was almost killed in Afghanistan.
As expected, Dwyer was humble after the victory, giving credit to co-driver Carbonell, to his team, to Mazda, and of course to Marine Sgt. Aaron Denning. “I don’t have words for the emotion,” he said. “I’m just so proud to be part of this team.”