The days following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks left Army veteran Edward Afanador with not only life-changing injuries, but perhaps an even more devastating loss – a loss of hope.
Edward entered the Marine Corps in 1989 and transitioned his military career from there to the Air Force and later to the Army National Guard. But on Sept. 11, 2001, while serving as an 11 Bravo infantryman in New Jersey, Edward’s unit was immediately activated to respond.
9/11 responder faces life-changing injuries
Just a few weeks into the response efforts, on Sept. 26, 2001, Edward suffered a number of life-changing injuries, from knee and hip injuries to severe respiratory disease. His courage and perseverance fueled his desire to continue serving his country in the Army until he was medically discharged in 2004. “I stayed on; I refused to go to the hospital until I was ordered to go to the hospital,” he says.
Forced to cope with the new phase of his life as a disabled person, Edward admits he was instantly overwhelmed. While he went on to work in systems management at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, it was only a period of time before his injuries made full-time work more challenging.
The years following were dark for Edward, who in 2008, discovered he also was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I had no idea what was going on with me,” he says.
The doctors told me I had PTSD, but I didn’t want to hear it, and in 2008, it almost cost me my life.
“I had made the decision that I didn’t want to live anymore,” Afanador says. Luckily for Edward, his family and all of the lives he has touched, inpatient treatment for his PTSD through the Department of Veterans Affairs changed that mindset. It also fueled his desire to give back to his fellow injured soldiers.
“I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t do anything else again, but then I decided to fight,” he says. “I decided I wanted to do something not only for myself but also to give back to my fellow veterans.”
Paying it forward
Above all, it was sports that helped Edward not only make that transition but find the hope he had long lost. In 2014, he was encouraged to attend the 2014 National Veterans Wheelchair Games @#NVWG in Philadelphia. With his family, most notably his 7-year-old son, watching and cheering him on, he won the gold medal in archery at the Games. Says Afanador, “ I still get broken up when I talk about it."
What an incredible moment to have my 7-year-old son have utmost confidence in me and tell me I was going to win.
“It’s all about just trying," he says. "I can’t look my children in their faces and tell them that I expect anything from them if I am unwilling to put the effort in myself.” Opened to the world of adaptive sports, Edward became involved with Disabled Sports USA and quickly discovered the therapeutic benefits the game of golf could have on his leg injuries and balance. In August 2014, he decided to pay that experience forward by launching his own Disabled Sports USA chapter in New Jersey to train others with severe disabilities in golf and archery.
The power of giving back
Still, sports are not the only outlet Edward has used to give back. He serves as a peer mentor alumnus with the Wounded Warrior Project, serves on the board of directors for Canine Partners for Life and is a committee member for New Jersey Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
Each Christmas, in collaboration with Goldman Sachs, Edward and his family also log roughly 2,000 miles in his truck delivering Christmas presents to families of injured soldiers. “It’s not about me; it’s about what we need to do for each other,” he says. “The VA isn’t going to do everything for us; we have to take accountability and take care of our own.”
Edward’s giving spirit in 2013 earned him the New Jersey Governor’s Jefferson Award for Volunteer Leadership, an award founded in 1972 by Sam Beard, Jacqueline Kennedy and Sen. Robert Taft to honor people who perform outstanding community service.
Above all of his achievements, Edward contends his ultimate goal is simply to serve his fellow veterans and have an impact on par with what others have had on his life. He remains thankful for the support of his family, most notably his wife, Jennifer, his son and daughter, as well as his beloved service dog, Arnie.
I would encourage my fellow injured veterans to embrace everything; the hardest part is getting out of your own head after you’re injured.
“Step out of your shell and talk to other veterans," he says. "It’s real hard for men and women to make those connections, but when they do, it changes a lot of things.”