David Garza has a lot of fight in him.
He fought his way out of a coma in 2012 after a devastating car accident left the then 19-year-old California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) freshman with a traumatic brain injury.
“I was in a coma for about five weeks in the hospital after the car accident. I broke my jaw—I have a metal plate in there—and my left knee was cut wide open [by a metal fuse box under his steering wheel],” said Garza, who also had his left eyebrow completely torn off, and had to breathe and eat through a tube in his neck while in the hospital.
After six operations and ongoing rehabilitation, Garza was back at CSUDH fighting through his injuries for four years to become an U.S. Army officer through the university’s ROTC program—he was commissioned the rank of 2nd lieutenant on May 14—and to earn a degree in criminal justice.
He will be recognized for the latter victory on Friday, May 20 when he is conferred his bachelor’s degree during the College of Business Administration and Public Policy’s 2016 commencement ceremony in the StubHub Center Tennis Stadium.
This summer, Garza will likely be fighting again, this time on the U.S. Paralympic National Soccer team competing in the Rio 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this September following the Rio Summer Olympics. He earned the opportunity to compete in June 2015 when the veteran soccer player scored two critical goals during the Cerebral Palsy Football World Championships in Staffordshire, England, clinching a 4-1 win over Argentina.
“Going to the world championships was amazing. England was a dream come true. It was the best summer of my life,” said Garza, who plays either center midfielder or center defender on the Paralympics team. “I’ve always been blessed with composure when dealing with highly stressful situations, which includes taking penalty kicks.
“With five minutes left in the first half, there was a foul inside the box and I was able to put away the first goal of the game. Then, with about two minutes left, there was another foul right outside the box,” added Garza. “So I was able to score the best goal I have ever shot while representing my country by putting the free kick in an upper 90 degree angle of the goal.”
The win made him and his teammates eligible to be selected for the Paralympic national soccer team and the summer games. Unfortunately, only 14 players from his team will be selected to represent team USA in Rio this summer. However, as the team’s co-captain and having been on the team since Stuart Sharp became head coach, and with his continued hard work, Garza is confident he will make the team.
“Ironically, I used to train with the Paralympic national team all four years of high school, even before I was considered eligible to play for the team. I lived 10 minutes away from the Olympic training center in Chula Vista [California] and the prior national team coach [Jay Hoffman] would always invite me to go practice with the team. He thought I was a good enough player to go train with the Olympic Development Team of Southern California,” said Garza.
‘Army of One’
Garza, who has been playing soccer since he was 7, came to CSUDH to play soccer on the men’s team, which he did as a freshman. After his car accident, his father, a military veteran, recommended he consider the military as a backup option if playing soccer wasn’t a “realistic possibility” anymore.
He took his advice back then, but today he is “living his dream” playing both soccer and will take advantage of being an Army officer with the “ultimate goal” to one day working for the CIA or FBI. To get in, he hopes to start learning the ropes as an Army intelligence officer in San Diego where he will be stationed, and then work in law enforcement, possibly as a probation officer. Or, Garza may pursue a law degree.
“I’ve wanted to go to law school all my life and help change the justice system in a positive way, but there is just so much going on right now in my life with the military and with U.S. soccer,” he said. “I just want to see how long I can continue to live my childhood dream, which has always been representing my country by playing the game I love.”
Unfortunately, Garza had to endure another setback recently—an operation in late December 2015 on the talus bone in his ankle, which takes six to eight months to heal.
“A piece of the bone was missing, which caused me to not be able to run properly, and major pain whenever I kicked the ball,” said Garza. “So I’ve been going through physical therapy four days a week. It has been a struggle to stay motivated, but it’s something I’ve almost grown accustomed to. I’m trying to stay positive. I tell myself that if I work hard enough—God willing—I’ll be back on the field for the summer games.”
One thing that helped him recover from his latest surgery and turn his full attention to soccer and Rio de Janeiro was the officer commissioning process, particularly the Army physical fitness test.
“I recently finished my last physical fitness test as a cadet through my ROTC program, which had me running two miles, doing two minutes of pushups, sit-ups, and other things,” Garza said. “When I ran the two miles I gave it everything that I had. It was the first time since my last surgery that I was able to do something like that. It gave me confidence, and getting it all done also took a lot of mental weight off my shoulders.”
Being an officer also gives Garza pride for two other reasons. One is that only 10 percent of those in the Army are officers, but even more meaningful to him is that less than one percent of Army officers are Hispanic.
“I take great pride in that. It really motivated me every day at Cal State Dominguez Hills; when I had to wake up at five in the morning, and then run around the track or campus with 40 to 50 pounds on my back. And when I would run mile after mile nonstop,” he said. “It’s wonderful that my sacrifice and hard work has paid off. But I would not be in the position I’m in today without the continuous love and support by my amazing parents, Israel and Nancy Garza, and my younger brother Robert.”