He jumped off a rooftop and landed on a 30-pound bomb.
"I heard a pin drop type of sound," Marine Lance Corporal Matias Ferreira said.
The next thing Ferreira remembers seeing were the tears in the eyes of his fellow marines as his brothers in arms rushed toward him, putting tourniquets on him while shouting words of encouragement. He was going to be OK, they told him. "You're a champ," a corpsman said.
It was January 21, 2011. Ferreira was an eager 21-year-old machine gunner with the 1st Battalion 8th marines and had just lost both legs below the knee, broke his pelvis, and shattered his femur after stepping on an improvised explosive device three times more powerful than the average IED.
The bomb could have killed Ferreira. It didn’t, and like many before and after him, his story would come to be defined by the arduous path to recovery in the days and years after that night in Afghanistan. The 6-foot-3, 225 pound athlete, a one-time semi-pro football player, has since rebounded from his injuries and become a voice and an example for younger veterans everywhere.
Now 26, Ferreira is serving as an example for young veterans, who are forced to battle through a flawed Veteran Affairs system as they work to recover from their physical and mental wounds. He has come to embody that staying active and redefining yourself can be the best medicine on the road to recovery.
Ferreira is part of the Wounded Warrior amputee softball team, which works with other disabled veterans and brings children with amputations together. He is a member of SUDS, Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, where he is helping other wounded veterans improve their lives through diving while also actively participating in Achilles International, which empowers all people with disabilities to be physically active.
"I think it’s important for veterans coming back to have a mentor," said Ferreira, who believes the military should do a better job of taking care of their veterans. "Sometimes you are scared and you are alone. No one is going to take better care of you than somebody who has been there and is going through this."
It's a role fitting for Ferreira, an immigrant from Uruguay whose family came to the United States when he was just 7 years old. His father had just moved the family to Atlanta, Georgia and the city was hosting the 1996 Olympics. It's where Matias had his first good look at a United States Marine dressed in his formal blue uniform.
"He takes care of America," his dad told him.
There was just something about the uniform that said hero.
"It was the way he carried himself," Ferreira said. "From that point on, I knew I was going to be in the Marines or a police officer."
In that time, Ferreira has come to embody that it’s not the uniform that makes someone a hero.
Less than a month ago, a week before getting married, he again put his life in danger – he saved a baby from a smoking car in New York City. He and his fiancee were leaving their wedding rehearsal when the crash happened behind them.
There was smoke coming from the engine, and he tore the front seat out to save the baby, while his wife's father and his brother got the mother and father out.
“You don’t have to be Marine or a firefighter to be a hero, you just have to be someone with a good heart,” Ferreira, a father of a 1-year-old girl, said. “Anyone on any day can make a decision and make a big difference.”
Ferreira had dreams of either finishing his career in the Marine Corps or becoming a police officer but now has embraced a new career path as a local 638 Steamfitter, a construction apprenticeship he received through the veteran organization, Helmets to Hardhats, where he works to install heating and air-conditioning into residential and commercial buildings.
While he works on constructing buildings, Homes for Our Troops, a non-profit who builds free homes for Veterans, will build a brand new home in Long Island for Ferreira and his family in Long Island. The specially adapted home should be completed in 2016.
"Matias is an amazing role model for everyone that he meets," said Kristi Galanek, spokesperson for HFOT. "He is inspiring and continues to push forward even after the adversity that he has faced."