Wounded Gill veteran considers himself one of the lucky ones this Memorial Day

  • DEMARS

  • Christopher Demars rode 90 miles down the Mid-State Trail earlier this month to celebrate his survival of a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan in 2011. Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/27/2016 11:06:24 PM

GILL — One of the few things First Sgt. Christopher Demars of Gill remembers about May 9, 2011, was the rotor wash from a military helicopter as he was hoisted inside.

That day, he and his team of U.S. Army soldiers were on a mission providing security to a local provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan’s Laghman Province. Demars was helping guide his vehicle out of the area toward the end of the mission, surrounded by heavy traffic, when a man pushing a motorcycle drew up close.

Then, the motorbike detonated.

This was Demar’s day of life or death.

But he didn’t die that day, like so many other American service members have in recent years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, his comrades in arms who are being remembered this weekend for their supreme sacrifice to our country.

He was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device. He and another soldier were grievously wounded but survived, although Afghans nearby didn’t.

The next thing he remembers, as he came to, was a military nurse saying “Welcome back, First Sergeant.”

Demars, now a Greenfield Community College Veteran’s Center counselor, spent the next nine months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where he was treated for burns, traumatic brain injury and other injuries.

He was able to make an impressive recovery, however, and he said he feels lucky to be alive.

With Memorial Day drawing near, Demars is among many other veterans — locally, across the county and around the world — who were able to make it back from the brink and have the opportunity to pay respect to their fallen brothers and sisters-in-arms — 2,215 in Afghanistan alone since 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

And this month, Demars celebrated a second, personal holiday, a sort of counterpoint to Memorial Day. Over the first weekend of May, he embarked on a 90-mile mountain bike ride down the Mid-State Trail, which runs from the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border in Ashburnham to the state’s border with Rhode Island, to celebrate his “Alive Day.”

“It’s when you get severely wounded on the battlefield and almost die, but you get a second chance at life,” said Demars of the tradition, an informal day of reflection on that second chance, remembering to live life to the fullest.

That, Demars said, is one of the best things veterans and civilians alike can do to remember those who lost their lives at war: live the life others died defending.

“The loss of our friends who we were deployed with will be on our minds this week. People wish you a happy Memorial Day, but it’s not really a happy holiday because they can’t be here — they were killed in action,” he said. “You just think about your friends and try to live the life they died to protect. Do something for yourself, because they did it for all of us.”

“I never really did (an Alive Day) before, but this year was my five-year anniversary, and I thought maybe I should do something,” he said.

Demars said the idea for a bike tour started with an e-mail from the Bush Institute. In 2014, he was chosen from a group of wounded veterans to participate in a 62-mile mountain bike ride with former U.S. President George W. Bush on his Texas ranch.

The Institute kept track of the participants, and the email was an inquiry into what he’d be doing for his Alive Day this year, so they could add the information to their website. The bike he rode on his own trip, he said, was a gift from the former president himself.

The ride was no easy feat, he said. Atrophy associated with the injuries he sustained in the bombing destroyed much of the muscle mass in his leg, and it took him about a year afterward to begin walking again.

“It just wasn’t healing; they’d do bone grafts and it would get infected again, so it was frustrating,” he said. “This is the first winter I was able to do a lot of weightlifting to try and get some leg strength back.”

He said he’s been biking more recently, since it presents far less impact and resistance than running, and his legs can handle it.

The first day was the worst, he said.

“There was a lot more hiking the bike than riding it,” he said, and the last few miles included Mount Wachusett in Princeton.

The ride doubled as a fundraiser with a goal of $5,000. Demars said that aspect of his ride was designed to expand the trip beyond his own experience and benefit groups working to support other wounded veterans

“There are men and women a lot worse off than me, struggling every day. Double, triple amputees — I always felt like what happened to me wasn’t as bad as what happened to them, and they’re still struggling.”

The effort ended up raising over $6,000, he said, which he gave to two veterans’ charities: Continue Mission, which was founded by another veteran he met on the Bush ranch ride and works to find activities and outings for veterans to do together, and Boston-based group They Fought, We Ride, which organizes motorcycle benefit rides.

Demars said he was even filmed during part of the ride and interviewed by a group of soldiers about the problems veterans have adjusting to civilian life.

“They asked me ‘What do you want to say to your guys?’ and I said, ‘Look at me, I’m here. I’m doing 30 miles and enjoying life. Don’t let what happened overseas draw you down. Enjoy life, that’s what you fought for.’”

You can reach Tom Relihan at:
trelihan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264
On Twitter, follow @RecorderTom


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