Your entire life can change on a dime. For Dave Riley, the culprit was much smaller than that.
As a search-and-rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard, Riley knew there were risks involved in his profession. But it wasn’t a dangerous rescue that led to tragedy. In fact, the risk was completely invisible to the eye.
While Riley was vacationing off the shores of Dauphin Island, Alabama, bacteria in the water led to an infection which eventually turned septic. His body went into shock, and he fell into a coma. When he woke up three months later, he found all four of his limbs had been amputated in order to save his life.
“The way I felt when I first woke up from the coma was, I would say, despair and anguish … my whole body was falling apart,” he says. “[There was] that initial period of not wanting to be here.”
Recovery would take time, first in a hospital and then rehab. The infection dissipated, but his body was burned as a result and he was in incredible pain. He also had to learn how to live with these disabilities that he was in no way prepared for.
Thankfully, he had people in his life who carried him through those difficult months.
His wife Yvonne was there by his side through it all. Even perfect strangers, like a woman who read scripture to him in the hospital on a difficult night, and local veterans who were similarly disabled, helped restore him little by little.
But, ultimately, it was DAV (Disabled American Veterans) that helped him turn things around.
When Riley began struggling with depression after rehab, dissatisfied with his career and feeling aimless, his local chapter sent him to the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. It was there that adaptive gear enabled him to ski downhill. The thrill reignited him in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“You get some adrenaline back,” he says. “It kinda makes you feel more alive.”
By finding a community and support system through DAV, and a newfound passion for adaptive sports, Riley started to feel like himself again.
And he wanted to find a way to give back to the organization that had given him so much, so he started volunteering for them.
As he rose through the nonprofit's leadership ranks, he had a profound impact on other disabled veterans and their families; in him, they’d found a kindred spirit and an example of resilience to follow.
That’s when Riley’s life changed again, this time, for the better. The organization that supported him in recovery wanted him to lead them.
His fellow veterans at DAV unanimously elected Riley to be their national commander, which he took on with the same enthusiasm he’d become known for. The role allowed him to travel and represent the organization at conferences and events, touching the lives of countless veterans and their families.
He testified in Congress on behalf of other veterans in February 2017, emphasizing the importance of supporting caregivers of severely disabled veterans. He even ate breakfast with the president in the White House.
And while serving his community was an incredible honor, it helped him just as much as it did them.
“When I was in my bouts of depression, it really helped me to be able to go out and help another person,” he continues. “You get a lot more back.”
It’s a calling that Riley continues to answer now that he’s a mentor to other injured veterans.
Riley is able to show struggling veterans the possibilities that exist for them, and how they might live life on their own terms. These veterans also find healing in connection and community — the same kind of community that helped Riley get through his darkest hours.
“For them to see somebody else out there, doing things, it kind of clicks in their mind, just like it did with me,” he explains. “That, ‘hey, he can do it, I can do it.’ . . . that’s my calling.” Moments like those, he says, remind him that he has something truly vital to offer others.
Riley has since taken up woodworking as well, a passion he was convinced he wouldn’t be able to return to, using equipment that is now adapted for his prosthetics. He invites other disabled veterans into his shop, and together, they construct beautiful wooden boxes to offer other veterans and their supporters.
It’s a unique gesture, but more importantly, it’s a tangible reminder that no veteran has to take on civilian life alone.
When tragedy strikes, everything can change. But it’s up to us what we do next.
When we’re staring down the impossible, we’re faced with a choice — we can sink or we can swim. Just like in his early days in the Coast Guard, when up against the unthinkable, Riley rose to the occasion.
For injured and disabled veterans facing the frightening unknowns of civilian life, Riley’s resilience offers hope. And if his story shows us anything, it’s that hope is one of the most powerful gifts we can give another person.
“It really allows me to have a sense of purpose in my life,” he says. “I think there's no greater calling.”