Friday, May 23, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Before he rediscovered sports, Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera thought his life was over.
Nearly four years ago, the helicopter he was on as a combat gunner was shot down in Afghanistan while he and his crewmates were rescuing an injured soldier. Four men died on impact, and Aguilera was trapped underneath the flaming remains of what used to be the aircraft.
He survived with a laundry list of injuries, both visible and not readily apparent to the naked eye. His back was broken in four spots; he broke his ankle, jaw, femur and ribs; a part of his left leg was burned off. His brain suffered trauma, altering his balance and coordination.
After 30-plus surgeries to repair broken bones and patch burned skin, he was a shell of his former self, both physically and mentally.
Then he discovered adaptive sports. They gave him new goals and the camaraderie he missed in the aftermath of his injuries.
Today, Aguilera, first sergeant in the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, is the image of an athlete. While the running blade on his left leg creaks, there isn’t much Aguilera can’t do on the field. In the most recent Wounded Warrior Games, he won 11 medals, including gold in the shotput, discuss, volleyball and a fourth sport he couldn’t recall.
This fall, Aguilera will be one of 40 participants selected to represent the United States in the Invictus Games in London. Invictus is Latin for unconquered.
According to the games’ website, “400 competitors from 14 nations will take part in the Invictus Games, an international sporting event for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women. The Invictus Games will use the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation, and generate a wider understanding and respect of those who serve their country.”
The Sun caught up with Aguilera to discuss his recovery and the inaugural Invictus Games.
What was your recovery process like after the crash?
Because of my broken back, I couldn’t move past the 45-degree position in the bed for two months. My first exercise was trying to be able to sit up a minute without passing out, and I wasn’t even able to do that. It wasn’t until month five that I was able to do some walking, and it was very limited.
With so many injuries, what impact has sports had on you and your recovery?
Sports is what’s keeping me healthy, keeping me active. There was a pretty dark time where I wished my next surgery was the last one. I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to live, I didn’t want to accept that my brothers were dead, and I didn’t want to accept that my whole life had changed. If it wasn’t for my recovery care coordinator pushing me to go to adaptive sports camps, who knows where I would’ve been? Sports saved my life and showed me that no matter what happens, I can find my way through it.
At what point did you begin participating in sports and the Wounded Warrior Games?
I started volunteering to do the Wounded Warriors Games because I was running out of goals. At first I didn’t want to do it because I thought it was demeaning. After my first camp, I realized the purpose is to just get better. It’s about camaraderie.
Did you participate in sports before the injuries?
Before being shot down, I was very active. I loved running; I was into everything. I was one of those natural athletes — guys who can go out there and just pick up any sport.
What did it mean for you to qualify for the Invictus Games?
It’s a huge honor. Whereas before you’re representing the Air Force at the U.S. level, now you’re representing the whole country. That’s a huge thing. It’s a tremendous honor to be part of the first one ever.
What do you hope to accomplish out there?
First thing I want to do is make sure we form a close bond and work together. The second thing is, I want to find out who needs the most help and help them so they can get reach their goals. I wouldn’t mind medaling, but I just want to be able to participate and be in the best shape possible. Even if I don’t medal, I want to break my own personal records.