When I last saw Freddie de los Santos, his mouth had been destroyed by the same bomb that had taken his limb. His teeth had been blown out. Despite this, he constantly grinned.
It was the year 2009. I, too, had lost a leg in southern Afghanistan, and we were both being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The soldier and I had spent months together, and he would tell me about his tiredness, trauma, and nightmares.
Freddie has a new life a dozen years later. He is a Paralympian, one of numerous American servicemen who competed in the Tokyo Olympics after suffering horrific injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’ve continued my profession as a storyteller with a camera, traveling the world.
I’ve considered giving everything up, including my life’s work, awards and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize I received this year, simply to be able to walk on my own two feet again. But I’m also aware of how my impairment has influenced who I am today.
And I’m curious if disability has the potential to give us more than it has taken away.
I wanted to share these thoughts with soldiers who had been wounded in war, to talk to amputees about the abilities we’ve developed despite our limitations. As a result, I traveled across the United States to speak with five paralympians.
I wouldn’t have the private chat I wanted with triathlete Melissa Stockwell, the type shared only between two people who were both missing a leg; instead, we connected mostly as parents attempting to raise their children.
When sprinter Luis Puertas and I talked about his life before an IED in Iraq took both of his legs, he preferred to put the past behind him and focus on the challenges that lay ahead. “I like to be by myself, I want to be by myself,” he said over and over.
Cyclist Tom Davis told me that the ambush that cost him his leg altered his life and the lives of his family for the better. He’s a better person, a better husband and parent as a result of his injuries. He claimed he wouldn’t give up any of it for the chance to walk again.
Freddie De Los Santos, on the other hand, has a different perspective. He now has the physique of an athlete and moves with ease when he grins, his mouth opening up to a stunning set of artificial teeth; he has the physique of an athlete and glides with ease. However, he stated that he would destroy everything he owns, including his home, race bike, paintings, and the new Tesla he had purchased, in order to reclaim his limb and leave behind the ghosts of a war that haunt him at all hours of the day and night.
Unlike the others, and unlike me, swimmer Brad Snyder lost his eyes rather than a limb. I’d never photographed a narrative about a blind person before, so I turned off the camera’s silent mode so he was aware of each photograph I took with the click of the shutter. My lenses focus on my subjects’ retinas; because Brad lacks retinas, the camera frequently focused on his guide dog, Timber, until I switched off the feature.
Brad informed me that before he lost his sight, he wanted to be a nobody, to ride his motorcycle along the Pacific Coast, away from his experiences in Afghanistan and toward a normal life with a normal job.
I turned off the lights in the kitchen we were sitting in without him noticing and for a short few moments Brad and I were speaking together in the darkness of his world.
I said to myself, “We’re all unlucky.” But we’ve also been fortunate in that we’ve received treatments that have allowed us to resume our lives. Untold numbers of Afghans were similarly maimed and did not have the same luck.
And I thought to myself, “Yes, we would have been content to live nameless lives.” Our lives were turned upside down and we were placed on various routes to become different persons as a result of that single chance encounter. That day, we died, if only for a few seconds, and in the midst of the relentless chaos of battle, we discovered calm and perhaps even happiness in death. We were dragged back to life we didn’t want, lives in which incapacity was a daily companion.
We must each reach our own conclusions. But when I consider my life, I am content.