Army Sergeant Stefan LeRoy is quite an athlete: He ran his first 5k in February 2015, and since then has run in many races including a Navy five-miler, an Army 10-miler, a half-marathon (October 2015 in Detroit) and the 2016 Boston Marathon.
What makes all this even more impressive is that Stefan lost both his legs on June 7, 2012, about four months into a deployment to Afghanistan. He stepped on an improvised explosive device while carrying a stretcher that held one of his friends.
“I got to Bethesda on June 15,” Stefan recalls, “and Karen, my caseworker, met my family promptly in the hospital to make sure the family was settling in, and to make sure everyone was as comfortable as possible. Karen is always there to help make sure all the guys have what they need and/or to give a listening ear about life and recovery.”
Stefan’s recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center lasted nearly three years, during which both legs were stabilized and many additional procedures were performed.
“There were initially a lot of other small things, too,” he notes. “A collapsed lung, TBI [traumatic brain injury]. I broke my left arm, lost a little bit of my right ring finger, and broke a bone or two in my face.”
As his recovery progressed, Stefan found that athletics is where he wanted to direct his energies.
“Three months after I got out of the hospital, I started hand cycling and got pretty good at it,” says Stefan, who was soon approached about being on Team America’s Fund, a recreational sports program.
“Team America’s Fund is a way to keep vets active,” he explains. “For me, it’s a way to stay connected with inspiring athletes who are performing beyond their injuries. Together, I feel like we are forging new paths forward as our community grows.”
“America’s Fund supports more than just adaptive athletics. They make sure the needs that vets have after being injured serving the country are being met, throughout the recovery phase, transitioning out of the military, and for everyday home life they’re going to support you any way they can. Team America’s Fund is there to give you community.”
Stefan started running in January 2015 after his last surgery in September 2014. He ran his first 5k only a month after he started running, and then after nine more months, ran a 1/2 marathon, and then six months later a full marathon.
Long-distance running is just one of the sports that keeps Stefan busy. In addition to hand cycling and swimming, for example, he’s very interested in mono skiing. “With a monoski, you’re in a carbon fiber bucket and there’s a single ski under you,” he explains. “We went monoskiing with the Semper Fi Fund in Colorado and Utah—I want to get good at that because it allows me to go fast and be out on the slopes with everyone else even without my legs.“
“Part of the reason I like going to these Team America’s Fund and Team Semper Fi events,” Stefan continues, “is they have these fantastic coaches there, you’re getting the best training you could possibly get helping adapt with more confidence.”
This year, Stefan competed in the 2016 Army Trials (where about 125 wounded, ill and injured active-duty service members and veterans compete for the opportunity to represent Team Army at the 2016 DoD Warrior Games) and the 2016 Invictus Games (where he competed in running, upright cycling, rowing, throwing shot put and discus, and seated volleyball; he won a bronze medal in the 400-meter run and a gold medal in volleyball).
“To come back and reconnect with all the athletes is one of the reasons I do this,” he continues. “Being able to participate in the Warrior Games has given me friends, a team and family that help me work toward my goals every day.”
Those goals were met, and then some, at the 2016 DoD Warrior Games held at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY: Stefan scored three gold medals in swimming (freestyle and backstroke events) and a half-dozen silvers in swimming, cycling and track & field (including shot put, discus and dash events).And in late-October, Stefan was in attendance at the 41st Marine Corps Marathon, completing the 10k event in one hour, 20 minutes and 41 seconds. The night before running, he was one of the featured speakers at the Semper Fi Fund’s pre-marathon pasta dinner, bringing many in the ballroom at the Crystal City Marriott to tears as he recounted his personal story of injury and recovery.
“All injured vets are people who want to strive forward and push ourselves, we’re just like everybody else,” Stefan adds. “A lot of us do it through sports, but nothing’s really changed. I just put on legs instead of putting on running shoes. It didn’t change the core of who we are.”
Looking 5 years into the future, the California native now living in Florida imagines himself married to his girlfriend, Katie, who he met through cycling. “She’s a big part of my life and Team Semper Fi has helped her, too,” he says. “She’s coached and supported me through so much. I am a better and stronger person because of her.”
He also expects to be continuing to push his physical limits by competing in various sports.
“I think I’ll either have found a sport that I’m good enough to get paid to compete in or I’ll go to school and find a job,” says Stefan, noting that just walking well is a simple but significant daily accomplishment.
“I just try to walk the best I can, or run the best I can. I strive to be more fluid and natural in every step I take. I try to push myself as far as I can with my limitations, and I wake up every day knowing that I want to do that.”
“My journey has just begun and I can’t wait to show the world.”