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OPINION

Marine Corps Marathon healing for Colombian runners

By WILSON MARCIAL CALDERON | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 1, 2019

Last Sunday, I, along with 14 of my fellow Colombians, were among the 30,000 participants racing in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. It was an honor to participate in the race and compete alongside U.S. military members and their families. Each of us has served as a member in Colombia’s armed forces and National Police Service — and each one of us was severely wounded in Colombia’s armed conflict.

We competed in the historic 26.2-mile race with artificial limbs, handcycles and in wheelchairs. And I ran alongside a guide due to my visual impairment. But ours is not a sad story. We represent the determination of my country to move to a brighter future. And just like us, Colombia is stronger thanks to the challenges it has overcome.

When I was impacted by a cylinder explosion in 2005, resulting in severe burns throughout my body and the loss of both eyes, Colombia was still in the midst of a more-than-half-century war against drugs and terrorism.

There are a growing number of victims who have been severely wounded in the fight against narcotrafficking and terrorism, losing arms and legs. Military service members represent around 60 percent of Colombian landmine victims. Those who survive endure severe and traumatic mutilation. I witnessed these tragedies, and I know the personal, human toll it took and is still taking on all Colombians — including the many who have been receiving continued rehabilitation treatment like me.

But today, I am more than grateful. During my three years and four months under medical care, I learned to read and write with the Braille system, became proficient in English, and developed skills in software and computer programs.

With the generous support of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Senate, the United for Colombia Foundation and Achilles International, as well as the physicians and staff at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., I received the best medical care in the world. The extraordinary treatment helped restore my life, where it gave me the ability to return to Colombia and continue serving in the Colombian army. I have been given the gift to live again.

During our visit to Washington, we thanked and met with some of our American friends when we were recognized by officials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Bureau of International Narcotic Law Enforcement Affairs for the U.S. and Colombia’s shared commitment in the fight against narcotrafficking. We also met with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, among other partners. These engagements also gave us a chance to discuss how our two countries can do even more together to secure our hemisphere and the world against the ravages of illegal drugs and conflicts.

Today I serve as an example to others like me who would like to improve their lives and become better human beings in the face of misfortune. Thanks to the help and the rehabilitation program that I received, I can enjoy sports and run with the assistance of a guide. I’ve been able to study languages at Javeriana University in Bogota, and I now study law at Sergio Arboleda University, also in Colombia’s capital, where I just completed my 10th semester. My goal is to build an English language institute for visually impaired children.

As all 15 of us competed together last weekend, as one team from one proud country, we walked, ran and cycled on the streets of Washington, representing the many courageous, hopeful and determined Colombians.

During those 26.2 miles, we continued to do what the nation of Colombia is doing: keep pushing forward.

Wilson Marcial Calderon is a first sergeant in the Colombian National Army.

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