Long before “Dancing With the Stars” shined a bright light on Noah Galloway, the wounded Iraq war veteran was alone in a dark place.
Galloway doesn't blame anyone for the IED explosion that took his left arm and leg and landed him in a depressive state. He voluntarily joined the Army. He re-enlisted. He signed up for a second deployment. He told his commanding officer he would drive the lead truck in the Triangle of Death the night of Dec. 19, 2005.
Wearing his night-vision goggles, Galloway did not see the tripwire strewn across the road as the three-truck convoy headed out to pick up other platoon members. The blast flipped his armored Humvee into a ditch and turned Galloway's life upside down.
“I never saw it,” recalls Galloway, who served in the 101st Airborne Division. “Lt. (Jerry) Eidson said that right before it went off he saw a bush that was out of place for a split second, then boom. It went off. It hit my door, threw this 9,000-pound Humvee flying through the air and landing in a canal adjacent to the road. The water was up to my chest. I had a huge hole in my jaw. They thought I was already dead.”
Galloway shielded Eidson and gunner Ryan Davis, who each suffered minor injuries. Eidson surveyed the scene, saw that Galloway was still breathing and scrambled back up the 15-foot slippery slope to the road for help. The accompanying Humvees had sped past the kill zone, following protocol to leave the scene after an IED explosion.
“They blew through the smoke and didn’t see our truck and assumed that we did the same and hauled butt,” Eidson remembers. “They didn’t know that we were stuck down in the canal, so I got out and didn’t see anybody.”
After checking on Galloway again and getting Davis out, Eidson returned to the lonely road. His commander denied a request to send out a rescue convoy. Their only hope was for the other two Humvees to return.
“Essentially we were just kind of just waiting for the moment for somebody to open fire since an ambush is usually associated with those types of explosions, but it didn’t happen,” Eidson says. “Honestly, I prayed. I prayed that God would send somebody to come and help us. I don’t believe it was a coincidence, but after I said that prayer those guys came back in the trucks and were able to get us out.”
Once they returned to safety, Eidson asked a doctor about Galloway’s prognosis. “He just didn’t have any hope at all. The look on his face told me that Noah was probably not going to make it.”
Galloway does not remember the blast nor the scramble to rescue him. The last thing he recalls is listening to the “Dukes of Hazzard” theme song on his iPod (“Just the good ol’ boys / Never meanin’ no harm ...”) as he scanned the seemingly empty nighttime desert.
He awoke on Christmas, six days after the blast. Two limbs were gone, his jaw was wired shut and bruises pocked his body. “When I first woke up in the hospital and learned that I was missing two limbs, my first thought was that I would never be physical again.”
But Galloway’s attention quickly turned elsewhere. He wanted to know what happened to Eidson, Davis and other soldiers in the convoy. “The second deployment I was on was horrible,” he recalls. “We lost a lot of guys. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know who was in the vehicle. So I kept asking, ‘Who died?’ Nobody could give me the answers.”
Later, Galloway would learn that nobody died and that he had taken 95 percent of the blast. It was as if he had fulfilled his oft-stated promise to Eidson: “I would take a bullet for you.”
A MENTOR Putting the needs of others first is common for Galloway, who is a member of American Legion Post 911 in Alabama.
Eric Eisenberg recalls how Galloway helped “Q,” a 13-year-old cancer patient undergoing treatment in Birmingham, Ala., a short drive from Galloway's home in Alabaster.
Cancer was ravaging Q’s body, and he was facing the prospect of having a leg amputated. He was angry at the world. “He didn’t want to participate in physical therapy,” recalls Eisenberg, who has worked with both Galloway and Q as the owner/founder of BioTech Limb and Brace. “He didn’t want to deal with chemotherapy. He didn’t want to face the reality of having an amputation.”
After Eisenberg’s initial consultation with Q, he called Noah and asked him for a favor: visit the youth in the hospital. “And the next day Noah was there,” Eisenberg says. “One of the things Q asked Noah was to take his leg off and stand on one leg. So Noah did it. He took his leg off. That right there changed that boy’s complete outlook. Noah inspired him so much.”
Galloway approached his friendship with Q the same way he does everything: relentless dedication. Galloway kept in touch with Q, and visited and played video games with him when he returned to Birmingham every couple of weeks for chemo.
“That kid is doing great now,” says Eisenberg, who notes that Q is playing baseball. “In fact, we’re making him a running leg now. That’s a testimony to who Noah is and how he has a big heart and how he helps people. I think he figures there’s a reason he lost his arm and leg in combat, and that’s to help other people. That’s what he’s here to do.”
Simply put, Q lost his leg to cancer but gained a mentor for life. “Q aspires to be like Noah,” Eisenberg says.
THE MAN IN THE MIRROR But before he could inspire children, other veterans and “Dancing with the Stars” fans, Galloway had to look in the mirror and at his kids’ faces for his own motivation. After returning home from Walter Reed, Galloway battled depression, hitting the booze daily, smoking cigarettes and eating junk food. “I ate salt and vinegar chips until my mouth was numb.”
Galloway hid his depression from friends and family. He would go drinking with a group of friends one night, then another group the next night, and so on. When he got depressed, he would drink alone at home. “I was miserable and unhappy, and I wasn’t Noah Galloway,” he recalls. “My friends saw me as the Noah they used to know. But man, I got good at faking it (happiness). Really good at faking it.”
The love of his three children helped persuade Galloway to trade late nights at bars for early mornings in the gym.
“I am the first thing my two boys see as a man and that’s who they are going to become when they grow up, whether they like it or not. I have to remind myself of that, and if I am not being a good person they won’t grow up to be good men. And my little girl: I am what she sees in what a man should be. If I am not being a good man, that’s who she is going to find one day, so I have to be constantly showing her what a good man does so she can find that one day, herself.”
As he wrestled with his demons and strived to be a better father, he took a long look at himself in a full-length mirror. “Every time I looked in the mirror, all I would see was my injuries. And it bothered me. One day I looked at the rest of my body and I thought, ‘Oh crap. What have I done?’ I decided to quit focusing on what I had lost, and started focusing on what I had left.”
Once Galloway found his motivation, he instituted changes. He improved his diet, quit the frequent drinking and embraced fitness once again. “It was a progression. It was like I was telling myself, ‘I have to do more. I need to do more with my kids.’ The first step I made was changing my diet. Then I eased into the gym. Small, attainable goals.”
Before his injuries, Galloway prided himself on being in top physical condition. His renewed interest and commitment to fitness would be his salvation. The depression, however, was hard to shake.
Galloway went to the gym at 2 or 3 in the morning, trying to figure out how a one-armed, one-legged man could regain the fitness he had enjoyed since he was a teenager. “I would get so upset and bothered. Some days, I would be so excited and figure things out. Other days, I would think, ‘What am I doing? This isn’t going to work. I am so out of shape.’ And just get mad.”
But it did work. Galloway taught himself exercises he could do. He gained confidence and fitness, which propelled him to go to the gym midday when others were around. And his depression melted away. “Physical fitness is better than any drug on the market,” he says. “You get in there and you start seeing those improvements and you feel better. Anything is possible from there.”
His commitment to fitness was featured in Men’s Health when the magazine selected Galloway as its Ultimate Health Guy last year. Galloway recognizes the importance of his message and how it can relate to other injured veterans. That was a watershed moment. He says that that was when veterans started reaching out to him and he began spreading his message.
“If there is a veteran out there who is struggling, and all he hears on the news is about veterans going off the deep end, then he’s going to figure that’s just what we do,” Galloway says. “There’s no hope. We’ve gone to hell and back. But these stories about guys, even with physical injuries or with PTSD, who are out there (succeeding), that should be enough to motivate these guys to do something else.”
EXTREME ATHLETE Even highly motivated people like Galloway need help from others.
Shortly after he came home from Walter Reed in 2006, he met Eisenberg, who soon challenged Galloway to run on a prosthesis for the first time. He remembers being amazed by Galloway’s speed, form and mechanics on an indoor track. “He was unbelievable. I remember him running down the track and coming back. ‘How did I do? How did I do?’ There are people with two arms and two legs who can’t do what he did. Right then and there I recognized how special he was and what a gifted athlete he was.”
As Galloway’s dedication to fitness grew once again, Eisenberg pushed him, sponsoring him in his first local 5k road race. “I didn’t know if he was necessarily ready for it, but I knew that through athletics is how we could get him to heal. I don’t mean physically – but mentally, emotionally.”
Community support lit a fire under Galloway. He loved the public attention and the athletic competition. “He didn’t want to compete against other amputees,” Eisenberg says. “He wanted to compete with able-bodied people and potentially beat them. And, honestly, he can beat most able-bodied people.”
Around the same time, Eidson called up Galloway and invited him to compete in a 5k Warrior Dash obstacle course race in Georgia. “I needed to get back into being competitive again, and I knew Noah was going through a tough time and was struggling with how he was going to try to get back into shape and what he was going to do,” Eidson says. “He just said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s grow our beards out and wear kilts.’ So we grew our beards out and wore kilts, and we did the race. It was an awesome, awesome time.”
Other contestants noticed the guy who climbed the wall with only two limbs and sought him out afterward to learn his story. That launched a wave of people – civilians testing themselves on obstacle course races, those with disabilities and veterans – reaching out to him. “They feel like if I can do it, why can’t they?”
Galloway wasn’t satisfied with 5ks. Instead, he sought out the most grueling, challenging events. He has completed marathons, a dozen Tough Mudder contests, Spartan races – including the 58-hour Spartan Death Race in Vermont, where he was among only 20 finishers – and CrossFit competitions. And not just any marathons – he completed the Marine Corps Marathon and twice finished the Bataan Death March Memorial, a 26.2-mile trek through the high desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
At the Marine Corps Marathon, a veteran approached Galloway and thanked him for writing about his depression on his website. “He said, ‘You’re Noah Galloway. I read your blog post. I’m an alcoholic, and your stages of grief were the same stages I went through. It was so powerful to read.’ I realized then that I was connecting with other people, who may not be missing an arm and a leg, but we’re all dealing with our own issues.”
Galloway’s participation in extreme endurance events “doesn’t surprise me at all,” Eisenberg says. “The thing that made him an incredible soldier and the thing that makes him an incredible figure to help people with disabilities is that Noah does not know the words ‘no’ or ‘quit.’ Noah would literally die before he would quit or give up on something.”
In fact, he almost did.
During the Bataan marathon, Galloway used his prosthetic running leg and carried a 35-pound backpack. He also wore a gas mask, which impeded his ability to consume oxygen.
Halfway through the event, he threw up in his gas mask. He swallowed it and continued to push forward. After he finished, he started vomiting again.
“The medical staff figures he’s dehydrated and took him to the emergency room,” Eisenberg says. “The doctor in the emergency room said he pushed his heart muscle to the point that he actually damaged his heart, similar to someone having a heart attack. That is a testament to Noah. He would sooner die out there in the desert than having not completed the task at hand. That makes him an excellent solider and amazing human being. It shows the fortitude and that you can persevere through anything. That’s the most amazing thing about him. That and I don’t think he’s afraid of anything.”
DANCE MACHINE Although Galloway’s success does not surprise his fianceé, Jamie Boyd, she was shocked by his decision to appear on “Dancing With The Stars.” Galloway, after all, had never danced before joining the hit television show.
“It shows his determination and willingness to take on a challenge,” Boyd says. “He told me he was going to be super uncomfortable, but it was something that was going to push him because it is way out of his comfort zone. I could see him doing ‘Survivor’ but ‘Dancing’ was way out in left field, in true Galloway fashion. Then he turned out to be a beautiful dancer. And every week you could see how hard he was working.”
Galloway’s goal was to get through the first couple of weeks, but he made it all the way to the finals, finishing in third place. “In my opinion, Noah did win because of the number of people he touched and inspired every week,” Boyd says.
Whether it’s learning to dance or completing a difficult endurance event, Galloway goes into it with a full heart, open mind and relentless energy.
“Whatever it is, you have got to do it, and you have got to do it strong,” he advises veterans and others battling disabilities. “I don’t care if you get into quilting, but you be the best quilter out there. That’s what you have to do. You have to take on something and let it consume you because if you don’t let that hobby in a positive way consume you, there’s going to be a negative thing that’s going to take that spot.”
It took Galloway time to climb out of the funk that began in darkness on Dec. 19, 2005. In time, he turned negative feelings into positive energy and rebuilt his life. Still, his friends notice a change in Galloway’s demeanor when the calendar turns to December.
“It’s this constant reminder of what happened to me,” he says. “December was just a bad month in general for our company. We lost a lot of guys in that month. It wasn’t until the past two years that Dec. 19 wasn’t a date that was pulling me down, but it’s a date that I am starting to feel like that’s where everything changed. I went through a lot of depression, and it was something that hurt to think about, but now I am doing something with it. I am connecting with veterans. I am doing all of these different things, and for that I am proud of it.
“If I could go back in time, would I stop it from happening? Probably not. I would love to have my arm and leg back, but I probably wouldn’t change it. Where I am at now is where I need to be.”
Thanks to appearances on “Dancing” and in Men’s Health, Galloway now chats with Demi Moore (daughter Rumer was also on “Dancing’”) and hobnnobs with actors like David Spade. “You could say that my life is a mixture of Forrest Gump and Joe Dirt.”
Galloway is easily recognized whether he is dining at a favorite restaurant in his rural Alabama community or walking the busy streets of New York City. Older veterans stop him and thank him for his sacrifice. Middle-aged women gravitate toward him, asking for an autograph or selfie.
Galloway reveres the veterans and chats up his adoring fans with ease. These conversations help him continue to share his message and inspire those he meets. That comes as no surprise to those who know him best.
“I’ve learned a lot from Noah,” Eisenberg says. “I have a lot of respect for Noah. When he came back from Iraq, he put on an air that things were good. But things were not good. In his darkest moments, he still wanted to inspire others.
“What you see today is 10 years of very hard work. He put in the hours, he put in the work. I never dreamed that he would carry it this far. Never did I dream that he would run the Marine Corps Marathon or Bataan Death March. Now, nothing he does surprises me. Noah has no limitations.”
Henry Howard is deputy director of media and communications for The American Legion.