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Connecticut Marine Joins IMSA Racing Circuit After Losing Leg In Combat

Sgt. Dwyer

U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant Liam Dwyer grew up in Western Connecticut, living in various locales throughout that light-blue zone where Red Sox Nation fades into the first northeast precincts in what Larry Lucchino christened "The Evil Empire."

Dwyer is clear where his allegiances stand. "I’m a New York fan," he told The OBF Blog this week. "But with with everything that’s been going on with the Yankees, especially with Michael Pineda and the pine tar, it's making not like the Yankees more and more. I'm not too happy right now. But I'm not going to say I’m going to swing and be a Boston fan."

Like millions of native Nutmeggers who swear fidelity to Yankee Pinstripes, Dwyer was horrified by the World Series' outcome last October.

"Worst-to-first" was his worst sports nightmare.

"No, I was not celebrating. That was a hard pill to swallow."

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Dwyer, 32, was born in Waterbury. "The Brass City" stands like post-Cold War Berlin as a crossroads where two different sports cultures merge. New York and Boston fans intermingle along family lines, unite through marriage and manage to find sports harmony amongst themselves, most of the time. The Waterbury Republican-American, where I once served as sports editor, tilts slightly toward New York in its pro-sports leanings but does its best to keep pace with the goings on in the Hub.

Like any sizable New England city, Waterbury boasts its share of notable natives. They include Colonel Hogan himself, Bob Crane, 19th century baseball star and Hall of Famer Roger Connor, mercurial 1950s Red Sox phenom Jimmy Piersall and one-time Celtics draft pick Ryan Gomes. It was also my son's birthplace, but he's not one for notoriety.

Perhaps Dwyer will someday add his list to those local sports legends. He will formally begin his IMSA racing career Saturday in the Continental Tire Challenge on the Laguna Seca track in Monterey, Calif., driving the No. 27 Mazda MX-5 for Freedom Autosport.

And he will be doing it with only one leg.

LiamDwyer_FreedomAutosport2

Dwyer stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in May 2011 while searching a compound in Afghanistan. The blast sheared off his left leg. Dwyer had severe injuries to his other limbs, as well as shrapnel in his abdomen and torso. Four other Marines were also injured in the explosion.

His daily anything-but-routine consists of four to five hours of physical rehab at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center Dwyer in Bethesda, Md. When he's not going through the physical challenges of his own rehabilitation, he works as a mentor of sorts to help the newly-injured soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at Walter Reed deal with the emotional and physical challenges of losing a limb, or two, in combat.

Dwyer is two years further along in his recovery than Celeste Corcoran, Roseann Sdoia, Mery Daniel, Heather Abbott, J.P and Paul Norden, Erika Brannock, Jane Richard, Marc Fucarile, Jeff Baumann, Adrianne Haslet-Davis and the other survivors who lost limbs in last year's Boston Marathon bombings.

His advice to them, and the other amputees he works with, comes with all the candor and veracity befitting his rank and branch of the military. "Some of them came down to the hospital a year ago when they first started rehab," he said of the Marathon bombing survivors. "This whole thing of becoming an amputee and rehabbing, it's a mental game. You need to keep your mindset about you that time moves forward and the harder you work, the better it's going to go and the better recovery you're going to have. Not everything is easy. But you have to keep your head down, and keep pushing and keep going at it. The more positive attitude you have, the greater the better chance you have of making a solid recovery."

Today's amputees have benefitted tremendously from the sacrifice of Dwyer and so many others wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because of what doctors learned treating the military amputees Multiple surgeries, painful skin grafts, infections, hearing loss and even brain damage are all common among these wounded warriors, as well. The Defense Department has put close to $100 million into research on trauma related to extremities in the past decade alone, according to the Washington Post.

Many people believe “everything is fine, they’ll just get a prosthesis. It’s not that simple,”
David Crandell, medical director of the amputee program at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, told the Post.

Dwyer, who is still on active duty, uses the physical training, conditioning and discipline he's gained as a Marine as tools every day during his rehabilitation. "This has given me a new outlook on like that as difficult as things are, there's always things that are more difficult for other people. Even for me as an amputee. I'm around guys who are doubles, triples and quadruples all the time. I look at them as my inspiration."

On the weekends, when he was not undergoing rehab, Dwyer tried to race as much as possible, starting with go-karts six months after losing his leg. He's competed in SCCA, NASA and vintage racing. "I've always wanted to do racing, even before my injuries. When I got the call [in January] I immediately jumped on it. It was like getting my dream job."

Dwyer drives without any "hand" controls or other modifications to his car. He uses a medal rod and hind joint attached to what's left of his left leg, which is then attached to the clutch.

Dwyer bristles at the suggestion that this device somehow provides an advantage, although he admits his friends joked that he had an "illegal weight modification" when he was racing motorcross stock class. The contraption that allows Dywer to use the clutch with his "feet" offers many challenges for him during his turn in the driver's seat.

"I don't want anybody giving me anything," he said. "But when I race, I'm at a complete disadvantage. My foot is always on the clutch. The weight of my leg is always on the clutch even though I can't feel it, so have a good chance of burning out the clutch. I have to hold my leg up, On top of that – I’m not able to put my left leg and brace myself."

Waterbury's history of political corruption would make Sal DiMasi blush. The Brass City has seen four mayors arrested while in office since since the 1940s. Three ended up in prison, including one on federal charges that he had lured a child for sex. Another favorite son went from Congress, to the governor's mansion and to federal prison before eventually landing a $95,000 a year job as the city's economic development coordinator. Billy Bulger, you have nothing on John Rowland.

But for each politician of question repute, the Brass City and the adjoining region produces thousands of blue collar, hard-working Americans of diverse backgrounds, many of whom see service to their country in the military as an obligation, if not a birthright. Waterbury was one of four American towns featured in Ken Burns' "The War," a PBS mini-series about World War II. The city lost 282 residents in that conflict.

Dwyer went to elementary school in Southbury, just west of Waterbury, and graduated from Litchfield High School, about 20 miles north of his birthplace. He joined the Marines in 2000, inspired to serve following the terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen. Eventually, he would be deployed to Iraq. His body was laced with shrapnel when an IED exploded while he was the turret gunner on a Humvee. He recovered from those injuries and returned to civilian life. The lure of joining a special team for Afghanistan was too much and Dwyer re-enlisted.

He will enjoy a racing homecoming of sorts on Memorial Day weekend when he drives at Lime Rock Park in Salisbury, Conn., about a 35 minute drive from where he graduated from high school. It is the second of his three scheduled IMSA races this season. His third race is scheduled for Virginia in August. He will be alternating driving time in his Mazda MX-5 with Tom Long in Saturday's race, which will be televised on FOX Sports1 starting at 1 p.m.

"Lime Rock is going to be the race where I'll have the biggest amount of pressure on me. I'm extremely excited about it but a lot of my friends will be there. I have to make sure I keep a cool head about me. We have a good team around me, who will make sure I do the right thing, and a good car. I hope we put on a good show."

The OBF Blog is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Got a news tip, want to let him know directly what you think, have a complaint or compliment about his "aggressively relevant" content or hate people who speak about themselves in the third person, hit him up on his Obnoxious Boston Fan Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or hit him on at his
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