GILLETTE, Wyo. — Diego Garcia stood at the edge of the pool at the Recreation Center trying to shake off his doubts.
He’s a bit flustered, even nervous. The 9-year-old knows how to swim, but today was going to be different.
In his arm, he held something that his dad and school counselor had worked for nearly two years to get. He was going to use it for the first time. He cradled it in his right hand. It was an inanimate object, just bits of black, lightweight metal shaped like the bend in the arm he never had.
Diego tightened the string on his dry Nike swim trunks, then put a small, slick sleeve on “Baby,” the portion of his left arm that ends just after the joint of his elbow. He attached his new arm to it and hooked it to the fin designed for swimming. All the while, he tried not to fret that he’d catch the end of his new prosthetic arm on the pseudo rocks that surround the Lazy River.
That’s when his dad saw an unexpected problem.
Diego had put the fin on backward. Instead of swimming through the water, he would have splashed himself in the face.
Some of his nervousness evaporated as they fixed the problem. Calm now, he waved to his dad as he stepped into the water.
One arm and an arm with a fin moved through the water, propelling him about 5 feet across the pool. Grasping one of those walls he’d worried about moments before, he looked back at his dad.
A smile lit both of their faces.
A FATHER’S LOVE
Ruben Garcia was just 17 and hadn’t yet graduated from Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming, when he first saw Diego just moments after his birth.
“It was kind of a euphoric moment, like seeing God’s face,” he recalled.
He and Diego’s mother had no indication from ultrasounds that their son’s left arm wasn’t whole. They discovered that when he was born in 2008. Ruben, now 26, remembers being asked how he felt about it.
“Looking at him, I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “I said I didn’t want a baby like anyone else.
“There’s no love like for a child.”
It made Ruben grow up fast.
Just two years after Diego’s birth, his mom and dad had a falling out.
That’s when Ruben traveled to New Jersey and Brooklyn. Months later, he enlisted in the Navy and ended up serving in Strike Fighter Squadron 195 in Japan. His job was to launch F-18 Super Hornets off aircraft carriers.
That’s when he first felt some regret. His son was thousands of miles away.
He often thought of home in Wyoming and the family he left behind in Gillette. He used reflective tape to decorate his helmet with the shape of Wyoming’s bucking horse. And he tried to stay in constant contact with Diego.
Among his last assignments was helping victims after the tsunami in the Philippines. For a man who loved children and people, it was difficult.
He developed some health problems as the stress took a toll and he soon left the Navy.
He returned to Gillette, rejoined Diego and gained partial custody of another son, Cortez, now 4. He regrets the time he missed with them, promising he’ll never be out of their lives for that long again.
Ruben went to work on a blasting crew in the Powder River Basin coal mines when he became a victim of the downturn in Gillette’s economy. Three days before he was to close on a new home, he was laid off.
“I just felt defeated,” Ruben said. “I had moved back home to my parents’ basement, I was divorced and then laid off.”
For someone who looks for the positive in each and every day, it was a dark time.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS
Years earlier, Ruben and Diego’s mom had agreed not to consider a prosthetic arm until Diego asked for one.
As Ruben was struggling with unemployment, Diego out of the blue announced that he was interested in getting a prosthetic for his left arm, but not just any prosthetic.
The then 8-year-old had dreamed of a bionic arm, one linked to the nerves of his arm with a movable hand. He wanted to try it.
“I know it looked pretty cool,” he said.
The lack of a full arm has never slowed Diego. For nine years, the 4-foot-1, 65-pound third-grader at Lakeview Elementary School has made his own way, learning and adapting to what he could do with just one arm.
His family encouraged him to be independent, and he is. He’s learned to write, read, eat, dress, throw a football and baseball, catch, run, play, dribble a basketball, ride a bike, crawl, swim, play soccer, climb, play computer games and other activities, just like any 9-year-old.
Money was tight, but Ruben was determined to make Diego’s dream come true.
He had enrolled at Gillette College to pursue a degree in education through the GI Bill with a goal of teaching elementary school. He has nearly finished his first year of classes.
Ruben receives some disability pay, but not enough to cover the expense of a prosthetic.
So he tried to find someone who could help him. Each request was met with little or no help: He was in the wrong office, they didn’t do that, and on and on.
He thought of taking Diego to the Social Security office in Cheyenne so workers there could see, in person, that his boy needed the help.
Then he went to a meeting earlier this school year with Diego’s counselor at Lakeview. Carrie Boedeker-Larson had almost finished their visit when she asked Ruben, whom she’s known for much of his life, if there was anything else she could help him with.
“I was frustrated,” he said. “I’d spent 1½ years trying to get it.”
So he told her about his quest. That’s when his world suddenly righted itself. He just didn’t quite know it then.
A STRONG FRIENDSHIP
Boedeker-Larson was Ruben’s counselor at Lakeview when he attended school there. She remembers his affinity and empathy for others that stood out even as a youngster.
His son has similar gifts. Diego, she said, is Ruben’s “Mini-Me.”
So when she heard about Ruben’s frustration, she jumped in to help.
“They’re such a neat family,” she said. “I decided this was going to be my project.”
She talked to U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s office, and she spoke to a co-worker whose husband has a prosthetic leg. She made phone call after phone call trying to find a solution.
“Here was a man who was in the armed forces, sacrificed time with his family and served our country and he couldn’t get any help. It just wasn’t right,” she said.
That spurred her on.
A GIFT FROM THE HEART
By then it was Christmas break and she decided to spend her time searching for an answer.
The idea came from her mother. She suggested Boedeker-Larson call the Shriners Hospital for Children in Salt Lake City to see if it could help.
It took just one call. The officials at Shriners Hospital said Diego would be “the perfect candidate.” They could make an appointment within a week. It all would cost nothing.
“Both of us, we were crying together,” Ruben said of the phone call she made to tell him the good news.
Those wouldn’t be the only tears they’d share.
Local members of the Powder River Shrine Club gave Ruben money for transportation to and from Salt Lake City with his sons. Boedeker-Larson filled a Lakeview cooler with snacks and games to keep the kids occupied on their road trip.
Then Ruben sent her video of Diego seeing the doctor at Shriners Hospital and being measured for his prosthetic. They could get him the bionic arm in a few years. First they wanted to see him adjust to a basic prosthetic to see if he liked it.
The Garcias traveled back to Gillette, and before he reached home, Diego had decided he wanted to try the prosthetic. Shriners Hospital shipped his sleeve, superficial arm and three attachments: A claw, the fin and one that helps him ride a bike.
Ruben hopes to also get a net soon so Diego can play baseball this spring and summer.
“I was so excited (over the video), my fist was pumping,” Boedeker-Larson said. “I’m not sure how much Diego wanted it, but Ruben wanted to make it happen.
“It’s one of those things that you know can make a huge difference now and will also make a huge difference years from now,” she said.
PAVING THE WAY
A few days after returning from Salt Lake City, the counselor saw that Diego didn’t bring his prosthetic and its three attachments to school.
“I asked him about it and he was worried other kids would make fun of him,” she said.
Once again, she did something about it.
She told him to bring his arm to school the next day. They went to his third-grade classroom to make a presentation to his classmates.
She talked about Diego and his new arm, how it was like having their own Iron Man or Transformer in school. Some of his classmates said they were envious and even jealous.
A few days later, she and Diego repeated their presentation to the school’s other third-grade classes.
“In my job, you don’t get to see instant results. This one meant so much,” she said. “It’s amazing how it all came into place.”
A PROMISE TO KEEP
Afterward, Diego came to visit Boedeker-Larson in her office, the one with the sign that reads, “Let your smile change the world, don’t let the world change your smile.”
He had made a deal with her months before, one that she had forgotten but he had not.
The third-grader raised his prosthetic arm and claw and gave her the sweetest high-five she’s ever received. Once again, the tears flowed.
Two weeks later, Diego dove underwater in the Lazy River at the Recreation Center, holding his breath to see how far his fin would send him.
At first, it felt different in the water. But after a while, he realized he was able to go faster than he ever had before.
For a third-grader who’d like to become a Navy SEAL, it was a moment of promise for the future.
For his father, it was a moment of promises kept.