ATLANTIC CITY — One of Rafael Paniagua’s surgical scars runs from his left ear to the middle of his forehead. Another starts at the top of his head and ends near his right ear.
They are reminders of a terrible day in Iraq in 2004 when Paniagua, an Army sergeant, and his convoy were attacked by insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades.
One powerful blast threw Paniagua against his Humvee so hard that his helmet cracked. Later, after suffering severe headaches, he was diagnosed with brain aneurysms that would require surgeries in 2010 and 2012.
“They said I had a 50-50 chance of making it,” Paniagua said.
Paniagua, 54, of Tarrytown, New York, recalled his ordeal during a day when he and other members of the Wounded Warrior Project were recognized for their sacrifices. Often, military veterans are honored with pomp and ceremony, but on Saturday, they were treated with the simple pleasure of free boat rides at the Jersey Shore.
About 60 from Wounded Warrior families jumped aboard powerboats at the Frank S. Farley State Marina for sightseeing trips along the bay and ocean. The event was sponsored by the New Jersey Performance Powerboat Club, in partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project, as part of the 2014 Atlantic City Offshore Grand Prix race weekend.
“It’s awesome,” Paniagua shouted as he prepared to take off on a roaring powerboat. He was accompanied by his 11-year-old daughter, Nikki, and his fiancee, Ildiko Kovacs, 41, also of Tarrytown.
Dave Patnaude, president of the New Jersey Performance Powerboat Club, described the event as a way for the community to “give back” to the military veterans. The club’s annual Shore Dreams for Kids event in Seaside Heights, Ocean County, served as the inspiration for the Wounded Warriors boat rides.
“We have about 900 kids who are autistic, terminally ill, have special needs or are part of the Special Olympics,” Patnaude said. “They are all given boat rides. We’ve been doing it for 11 years.”
Also benefiting Wounded Warrior was a classic car show Saturday at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City casino hotel, next to the Farley marina. Patnaude said show proceeds would go to the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that helps U.S. veterans who were wounded in wars or military conflicts following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
James O’Leary, 30, of Hauppauge, New York, who became an outreach coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project in 2007, credits the organization for saving his life.
“If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.
O’Leary was serving as an Army specialist in Iraq when his base came under mortar attack for about 20 minutes on July 19, 2004. Two members of his squad were killed. O’Leary lost part of his left lung, and his ribs and shoulder were shattered. His wounds came perilously close to his spine, he said.
“I didn’t think I was going to live, honestly. I don’t think anybody thought I would live,” he recalled.
A massive blood clot nearly killed him again when he was being treated for his wounds at an Army hospital. He medically retired from the Army in 2006, going through a series of ups and downs before he joined the Wounded Warrior Project, he said.
On Saturday, while waiting for a boat ride at the Farley marina, O’Leary reflected on what the day meant to him and other members of Wounded Warrior.
“It’s great to see other people come out and want to give back to the wounded warriors, who have given so much already,” he said. “It’s a chance to see how much the community appreciates their sacrifices.”
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