The last night Noah Galloway’s body was whole, he was behind the wheel of a Humvee in Iraq. His night-vision goggles didn’t reveal the trip wire. “The roadside bomb was big enough to send our 10,000-pound Humvee flying through the air,” he says in his Alabama drawl. “We landed wheels down in a canal.”
Until that moment, Galloway had found his calling in the U.S. Army. He’d dropped out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham after the planes hit the twin towers, and went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne in 2003.
“I enjoyed every bit of it,” he says. “I spent a year in Iraq living with the locals, on patrol all the time. I was like, ‘This is it. I want to do this the rest of my life.'” He was four months into his second tour when he hit the trip wire. He woke up six days later, on Christmas Day 2005, at Walter Reed Hospital, his limbs missing and his jaw wired shut. He sums it up simply: “I was done.”
Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sent thousands of wounded soldiers into the same abyss—physical devastation leading to psychological darkness—that swallowed Galloway. He’d been a fitness fanatic and hypercompetitive athlete since age 13. He was among the fittest soldiers in the Airborne. He is a good-looking guy who now draws stares for a different reason. (“People are visual,” he says. “I grab attention wherever I go.”)
Back in the States a disabled vet, he stopped going out. “I’d sit at home and drink and smoke and sleep. That’s all I did.”
But one day in 2010, he finally saw it: what was left of him.
He remembers the night vividly. He was standing at the mirror. The remnant of a man looking back at him was dirty, flabby, sallow, beer-soaked. He’d been so consumed with what he had lost that he couldn’t see what he was doing to the remainder.
But there it was: the mirror moment of clarity.
Time to get to work.
Galloway’s first instinct was to get back into shape. But there was no way in hell this one-legged, one-armed guy was going to strut around a gym. “I was embarrassed to go in there,” he says. “I joined the 24-hour gym and went at two in the morning, when no one was there. I was starting from scratch.”
Think about it: How do you bench-press with one arm? Even if you could manage a barbell squat with a prosthetic leg, the missing arm is a problem. So Galloway started “messing with things” to see what would work. For example, he rigged a cuff on the cable station so he could work his left side; even if the arm was mostly gone, the delt, shoulder, and lat needed attention. Single-leg squats became a mainstay.
Galloway had no clue how his body would respond. “Little surprises kept me going,” he says. “A little better this day, a little stronger the next. Suddenly it was six months. I was like, ‘Man, this is pretty good.'”
Even at two in the morning, folks noticed. “You could tell he had a struggle on him,” says Douglas Grandy, the night manager at the gym Galloway joined. “He kept to himself, and that gym wasn’t set up for handicapped people. But you could see him change, his confidence growing.”
Soon he no longer cared what time he worked out. That’s when he began racing. First it was an obstacle 5K, which showed him just how awful his cardio conditioning was. His feats now read as a “what’s cool in modern fitness competitions”: three CrossFit events, three marathons, eight Tough Mudders, and a dozen Spartan races—from the Sprint all the way up to the 58-hour Death Race.
“I looked back, and my depression terrified me,” he says. “I never wanted to experience that again. That’s why I got into races. What kept me moving was never going back to where I came from. I wanted people to see more than my injury.”
Today Galloway still fears the return of those dark moments, but he has a better understanding of his entire journey. No matter what he does for the rest of his life, he still is short one arm and one leg. “Yeah, there are down days,” he says. “I don’t dwell on it, because that makes it worse. I don’t try to cover it up, because that’s something I did when I was depressed. I’ve learned that this too shall pass. A couple of days later I’ll be like, ‘Whooo, yeah, I really felt bad a couple of days ago. Now I’m good!'”
Noah Galloway is 33 now. He has three children. He still runs races, and he also does volunteer work for multiple veterans’ charities. His favorite is Operation Enduring Warrior. He has drawn a lot of positive from a giant negative.
But while Galloway’s physical transformation is impressive, the man is by no means a finished product. He knows his motivations can be laced with vanity and a need to impress. He never got that degree from Alabama. He still has a nasty dip habit. Every man is a collection of flaws and virtues, a work in progress.
Galloway looks at everything he’s been through as one long journey, and this competition is just another step.
Watch him here. His incredible journey to Dancing With the Stars: