Disabled American Vets commander offers inspiration in Glenwood Springs
Glenwood Springs High School students Kirsten Wilson and Cole Williams will have a hard time giving up on anything in life after listening to David Riley’s story of overcoming some of the toughest obstacles one could ever face.
“Just the way he was able to come back from such a traumatic experience, I mean, can you imagine waking up one day with no arms or legs?” Williams said of Riley, a U.S. Army and Coast Guard veteran and the first quadruple amputee to serve as commander of the Disabled American Veterans.
Riley, who is in the area for the 31st annual DAV Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, spoke at GSHS Thursday evening as part of a special event sponsored by the Western Slope Veterans Coalition.
“Looking at him I know that if I ever find myself in a situation like that, it is possible to lift myself up and it’s not the end,” Williams said.
Wilson, who along with Williams is a cadet in Glenwood High’s Air Force Junior ROTC program, said she has some pretty ambitious goals that will pose some challenges.
“Whenever I’m feeling that I can’t do something, I can look to [Riley’s] determination and his belief in himself to be able to push through something that was really difficult, and that not a lot of people could do,” she said.
Fellow Cadet Nolan Akins agreed.
“What inspired me was how he was able to overcome what happened to him, and that he wasn’t going to let it stop him from enjoying life and what it has to offer,” Akins said.
Riley spoke to about 100 people in the Jeanne Miller Theater, including several military veterans and many of the 80 cadets in the JrROTC program.
Coming from a long line of military veterans dating back to World War II, including his father who served in Vietnam, Riley joined the Army in 1976 and served for six years before training to become one of the first of the Coast Guard’s elite helicopter rescue swimmers.
“To me, there are few higher callings in this world than dedicating yourself to saving lives, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Riley said.
“I was used to dealing with helo crashes or being on the wrong side of a great white shark,” he said. But he faced his own mortality when, while on active duty at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama, he was swimming off the coast near Dolphin Island when he contracted a deadly bacteria.
Early in his military service, an injury had ruptured his spleen, which made him susceptible to a rare form of ocean bacteria. He ended up contracting septic shock that turned into gangrene, which ultimately led to the amputation of all his limbs in order to save his life.
“Just like many of you here, I had goals and dreams and ambitions both professionally and personally,” Riley said. “One day I woke up to discover I had no arms and no legs. I was devastated, and I imagined spending the rest of my life in bed having others feed me and essentially do everything for me, and that’s just not who I was.”
Through the DAV and Veterans Affairs he was able to get benefits and the support he needed to adjust to his new life. He went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer sciences and started his own business, retiring as an analyst for Gulf Coast Technical Services.
It was by attending the Winter Sports Clinic, where disabled veterans have the opportunity to participate in adaptive sports and activities, that he said he earned a new lease on life from a physical standpoint.
“It taught me that the only limits we have are the ones we place on ourselves,” Riley said.
He offered a special message to the students gathered in the auditorium to take what they have learned and determine their own fate.
“You can use what you’ve gained through your studies here and make the world and your own future a brighter place, or you can rest on your laurels and think the world owes you something,” Riley said. “I’ve learned through personal experience the world is as wonderful or is as cruel as you choose it to be.”
Riley also encouraged attendees to give back to the community through volunteering, and urged the cadets in attendance to strongly consider enlisting for military service.
U.S. Navy veteran Dan Glidden, who served in Vietnam, said he met Riley two years ago and was immediately inspired by his life story.
“You might complain about your day, and then you look at this gentleman and life goes on for him,” Glidden said. “He’s a real role model for me, and I admire him immensely.”
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