Denver Post | John Meyer | November 26, 2020 | Link to Article
A Thanksgiving with special meaning: Parker veteran marks 10-year anniversary since he lost his legs in Afghanistan
Gabe Martinez now works for Homeland Security, investigating child exploitation, “a war on our homefront that needs to be fought”
With the passage of time, the question of whether Gabe Martinez lost his legs from an IED explosion in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day of 2010 or the next day has become a matter of dark humor for him and his wife.
It was early on the morning of Friday, Nov. 26, in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah when he stepped on a buried glass jar packed with an estimated 25 pounds of explosives and was blown into the air. For his wife in Lakewood, though, it was still Thursday night.
“I tell my wife it sounds cooler to say I was hit on Thanksgiving,” said Martinez, a retired Marine who grew up in Westminster. “She’s like, ‘It was black Friday, which is equally as cool.’ ”
Today, Martinez works for Homeland Security fighting a different kind of war, using digital forensics “to combat the pandemic of child exploitation,” as he puts it. As a father of three, he takes those crimes personally.
“The whole point is to put child predators behind bars,” said Martinez, who lives near Parker. “It’s real, it’s probably worse than people realize, and it’s a war here on our homefront that needs to be fought. There’s people out there who are preying on our most vulnerable every single day.”
He traces his warrior mentality to the day of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 when he was in seventh grade. He remembers the blank look on his father’s face on the drive to school that day, and how his teachers wore the same look. It was the day he learned what terrorism was.
“It did kind of spark a fire that developed over my years as a teenager,” said Martinez, 32. He wanted to join the fight against terrorism, and he enlisted during his senior year at Faith Christian High School, leaving for boot camp two months after graduation in 2007.
Before he was deployed, knew it was going to be a dangerous one because it would be his job to sweep for buried explosives with a metal detector at a time when IEDs were filling America’s military hospitals with maimed service members. He told his family he’d rather die than come back without his legs.
That sentiment changed instantly, just 48 days into his deployment and four months after his wedding, when the IED blew him into the air so high he could look down on vehicles parked nearby.
“I remember as soon as I landed on the ground, it was like this moment of silence, and I felt like the decision was mine if I wanted to live,” Martinez said. “I heard God’s voice say, ‘Do you want to live?’ With no hesitation I said yes. As soon as I said yes, it was like, ‘Here’s your reality.’ My right leg was on my chest, my left leg was kind of dangling off to the side.”
On the Blackhawk helicopter that evacuated him, he was placed next to his best friend, who also lost both legs while attempting to come to Martinez’ aid. In the first surgery following his wounding, Martinez flatlined on the operating table.
He was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he and his wife would spend their first Christmas as a married couple. He had lost his right leg above the knee, left leg below the knee.
After a month at Walter Reed, he was transferred to the Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego on New Year’s Eve for rehabilitation. Soon into his recovery, he decided he wanted to pursue disabled sports. Eventually, he would compete in several marathons via hand-cycles. He learned to ski and rock climb, and competed in track meets as a sprinter. Today, his athletic endeavors are focused on introducing his children — ages 8, 3 and 1 — to the love of Colorado’s mountains. He wants to teach them to ski.
As the 10th anniversary of his combat injuries approached, Martinez remained effusive in thanksgiving for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance and support to Marines wounded in combat. It helped him in numerous ways through his recovery, including compensating his wife for lost income when she rushed to Walter Reed. It helped him acquire adaptive sports equipment when he was pursuing Paralympic sports and supported him during an unpaid internship he served while preparing for the job he now has. Since he was wounded, the Semper Fi Fund expanded to support members of other services under the name America’s Fund.
“I went 22 years with my natural-born legs,” Martinez said. “All of a sudden, in a millisecond, they’re gone. I thought my life was completely over. I thought I was going to be this disabled person who needed to depend on other people for anything and everything for the rest of my life. Well, besides the doctors patching me up and doing all the medically necessary stuff, I attribute most of my recovery to Semper Fi Fund. They were able to show me my conception was a misconception. I was not going to be what I thought was going to be my life.”
Thanksgiving will always have special meaning for Martinez and his wife, Kayla, but especially this one marking 10 years since he lost his legs.
“Sometimes we forget what we’ve gone through in the last 10 years, how different our Thanksgiving could be,” Kayla said. “It’s kind of an interesting holiday to all of a sudden have a completely different reason to be thankful every year, and to reflect on what that day was for us.”