Decorated Special Forces Officer Romulo Camargo
Even a Paralyzing Bullet Can’t Keep This Decorated Military Couple from Staying In Step
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Growing up, Chief Warrant Officer Romulo “Romy” Camargo went to Venezuela every summer. His dad is a native of the country, and his mom a native of Colombia. On one of his trips at the age 12, he met his future wife Gaby. In fact, at 14 years old he gave Gaby her first kiss. But it wasn’t until a lot of life had been lived, and more than a decade later, when the two would get together and marry in September of 2006. Little did they know that same month, just two years later there would be an injury forever altering their lives. On that fateful day in 2008, during a firefight in southern Afghanistan, a bullet tore through the neck of Camargo damaging his spinal cord and leaving this U.S. Army Ranger and Chief Warrant Officer with Special Forces paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Amazingly still in active duty, Camargo has almost 20 years in the Army and will retire this spring. Risen talked with the Camargo’s to learn more about the sacrifice and constant care needed, and the many hours required to get ready on what they call “long days.” Their story shows how God has been with them and continues to go before them every step of the way, and their determination to help others through the opening of their own spinal cord injury recovery center in Tampa, Florida.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Take me back to your early military days. Had you always wanted to be in the Army and what did the first decade of your career look like?
Romulo Camargo: I always wanted to be in the military since I saw my brothers graduate U.S. Army Airborne School when I was in about sixth or seventh grade. So as I graduated high school I tried to do the college thing, but my heart was set on being in the military. On April 6th of 1995, I entered the Army as a Communications Specialist, and then went on to Airborne School and the Ranger Indoctrination Program. After I graduated I was stationed in Savannah at Hunter Army airfield at the 1st Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment. From there I was groomed as a young Ranger and leader. In 2000, I was stationed at 1st Battalion 7th Special Forces Group where I was a Communication Sergeant. As the war started, my career began to peak upwards and I took my first trip to Afghanistan in 2005 for eight months. I was then selected to be a Special Forces Warrant Officer, and on September 16, 2008, I got injured.
Risen Magazine: Talk to me about that deployment to Afghanistan when you were wounded. What type of mission were you doing when your detachment was ambushed?
Romulo Camargo: We were doing a humanitarian mission. Our mission was in support of a much larger mission that my unit was doing farther north of us. We were helping a village so we had a doctor with us, two nurses, a female interpreter, and a veterinarian tech as well as a bucket loader that would help rebuild a road for them [villagers] to be able to go on the main route to Qalat City so they could travel without IEDs [improvised explosive devices] or the Afghan forces trying to get to them. When the bucket loader flipped over, we had to change the mission, and then we were ambushed. While the ambush was going on I received a bullet wound to the back of the head that paralyzed me instantly. My medic came and did an emergency tracheotomy, stabilized me, and got me out of the battlefield.
Risen Magazine: You take a bullet to the neck. In the time your team was assisting you and you flew to get medical attention in Washington, DC, what were you thinking? Or was it all a blur until you heard what had happened?
Romulo Camargo: That three-day period for me was a blur. The only thing I remember was that I woke up in the plane flying from Germany to Washington, D.C., and I really didn’t know where I was or what was going on, but I remember seeing my brother next to me in the plane. I thought, “Whoa. My brother is supposed to be in Denmark.” And here I am lying in a bed and I’m seeing him next to me. So I really thought I had died and I was making the trip to Heaven. I didn’t see any lights, I just saw my brother and I thought, “Man, something is going on here.” Then I arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington, D.C., and I landed on my wife’s birthday. For me it was touch-and-go as far as what was going on.
Risen Magazine: Gaby, how did you hear the news of what had happened to your husband and how did you initially handle it?
Gaby Camargo: One of Romy’s friends [who was asked by Romulo to be in charge should anything happen to him] called me and asked, “Gaby, where are you at?” I was out doing something and I said, “I’m not at home but what happened?” And he said, “I need to talk to you.” Immediately I felt something weird in my body and asked if everything was oaky. He said, “Yea, yea, everything is okay. I just need to give you a package.” And I remember telling him, “I will be there in 25 minutes.” Then he came to my door with two more military people and immediately I knew something had happened. They said, “Gaby we need to talk to you.” And I remember saying, “Is Romy okay? Just tell me he is okay.” And then they explained what happened and that Romulo got shot. And I remember asking them if he was stable. And they told me, “We don’t know yet and we will call you as soon as we have any news about it.” So of course I was crying and was in shock. Then about 45 minutes later, they called me and said, “Romy is stable and on his way to another hospital.”
I remember telling them when they were at my house, “Look at me. I believe in God. And I know that he is going to be okay and he is going to be my best gift because my birthday is in three days and he will be here.” And thank God, Romulo arrived on my birthday.
We are not just providing a service, we are healing people that are living in a horrible situation and in need of hope and faith.
Risen Magazine: Romy, the doctors said you were lucky to be alive and that you would never walk again, but you didn’t just accept that news. Talk me about the road to physical and mental recovery?
Romulo Camargo: I don’t remember the exact date they told me I was paralyzed. I just took it day by day as to what was going on and I was trying to learn to breathe again. We left Walter Reed on October 23 and we came here to Tampa to James A. Haley VA Hospital and that’s when I began my rigorous physical rehabilitation, and entered my new style of living – which basically included a lot of physical therapy and stretching to stay limber and mobile. As a young Ranger we are always told that surrender is not a Ranger word and we are taught always to be motivated and proactive in all we did. So I took that into consideration in what I was going to be living. Before I was working out to look good, feel good and be strong, but now I am working out for my body to feel good as far as no pain, no pneumonia, and to stay very healthy. Once I started to stabilize in the hospital, that is when I took control of my care. I started doing research on my injury, I started finding out what was happening with the paralysis – took charge of my respiratory gene, took charge of my nursing care, and motivated myself to wake up every day to do physical therapy and this will be my lifestyle for as long as it takes me. That’s when I found our Lord Jesus Christ and I started believing in the promises that He gave us. Through my injury I asked my wife to pray for me, and asked her to sing me songs that she sang to my son.
Risen Magazine: Talk to me more about finding faith, and Gaby, I’d love to hear from you on this as well. What role have your relationships with God played in this journey?
Gaby Camargo: The Lord has always been the key to everything. I am not a new Christian; I’ve been one since I can remember. Now that it has been more than six years since Romulo’s injury, I can tell you that He was preparing me to live this. I remember being with Romulo at the hospital and telling him, “Let’s read the Bible.” And at the beginning he would say, “Ah, Gaby, maybe later.” And I was praying for him every single day, “God show him. Show him why he isn’t, because I believe in You and Your power. Show him this God that is powerful.” It’s not on me to change his mind and the way that he sees life, but I know that God can do it. And HE did it. Since then we are a very strong family and I always say that our relationship is better now than before. We have been married for 14 years, but even under the circumstances of living with this situation every day, I can tell you we have better communication and are better human beings; both of us. I know God is using us to help others that don’t have the same blessing that we have.
We created Stay in Step, a spinal cord injury recovery center in Tampa, Florida, and I see this as the way that God is using us to help others. We are not just providing a service, we are healing people that are living in a horrible situation and in need hope and faith. It’s more than just the rehabilitation aspect.
Risen Magazine: Gaby, you had said that you believe Romy’s injury was part of a bigger plan to make a bigger impact. Were you able to have this faith and optimism right from the start or did it take a bit to see it unfold?
Gaby Camargo: It’s unbelievable. I can talk to you for hours about this. My husband may look the same, but he is not, he is a new man. Let me say just a little bit about Romulo’s personality before the accident. I’m not going to say he was hyper, but he was energetic all the time. He was always doing something all day long. It was very hard for him to concentrate just to watch a movie. He was very active. So to see my husband after the accident, just sitting, paralyzed from his shoulders down, and each day he is not depressed, or desperate; he’s telling me with his eyes that he is not afraid. I see God every day inside of him. Because this not Romulo. Now he is learning to wait, and he is calm. It is something more powerful than us. I am never going to take credit, this is the Lord Jesus Christ using us for His purpose. We are His instruments.
When the idea came with this spinal cord injury recovery center, I told Romulo, “We can’t be selfish.” If we have the opportunity to help others, then why not? In our programs at the center we are integrating the family. In this center that will open in spring, we will be providing physical therapy but at the same time we are integrating the family to our programs. We are creating valuable support because we know this is about family. Paralysis is a family issue. Yes, the person is living with the spinal cord injury, but we have to take care of the caregiver as well. There will be family group support for all the members – spouse, parents, sibling – they will have a place at the center to talk and share and there will be a separate kid’s room for the kids.
It is something more powerful than us. I am never going to take credit, this is the Lord Jesus Christ using us for His purpose. We are His instruments.
Risen Magazine: The center sounds amazing. A number of people have good intentions but fail when it comes to execution, so how did Stay in Step transition from a dream to a reality?
Romulo Camargo: Let me step back to 2011. I was the first active duty service member to travel overseas to receive nerve regeneration stem-cell surgery in Lisbon, Portugal. It’s called Olfactory Mucosa Autografts surgery and was done by Dr. Carlos Lima, who passed away in 2012. I was able to brief this sixteen-man panel that the Surgeon General of the Army put together for me to state my case and tell them why I wanted to have the surgery. So I came back from the surgery, and the key to the surgery is the intense rehabilitation you have to do after the surgery. I had to rehab five days a week, two to three hours a day. About two months after going for rehab, Gaby came to me one night in our room and we were talking and she said, “You know what Romulo? We can do this. We can set up our own center here in Tampa.” I thought it was a crazy idea and I told her she was nuts. I told her it was too much to take on but she was adamant about it. We talked to a couple of people that we thought were key to its success and they backed us. We came up with the name, Stay in Step, which is a military term when you are marching. Once we made the announcement, the past year has been a lot of growth and learning as we are integrating our vision for this rehabilitation center with a recreational room and kid’s room [set to open this spring].
The kid’s room is important because when we were in the hospital we had an 18-month-old son who didn’t have anywhere to go, or anywhere to play. He was always stuck in my room, and we had a big bathroom in the room so he would play there with all of his toys. Gaby knew this and wanted to integrate the kid’s room into this rehabilitation center. This isn’t just my injury, this is a family injury; this affects everybody. So we are going to provide excellent activity-based, exercise-based physical therapy and we are going to integrate everybody. It’s been more than six years since my injury and we are better off now – spiritually, physically, and mentally.
Risen Magazine: What advice would you give to someone who seems to be in an impossible situation, where they are having difficulty seeing the good or bigger picture? What have you found keeps you encouraged through the overwhelming times?
Romulo Camargo: To stay strong and stay committed – committed to yourself, committed to your family and committed faithfully. Because if you are mentally weak and you can’t handle this, the body is going to follow. You have to stay mentally strong and keep working on getting better because if you are not healthy, then your family and relationships will not be healthy. The biggest thing we have is God, the next thing we have is commitment to each other, and you need to have a strong commitment to yourself because I need to be healthy to be a good father, husband, and brother. There is always someone out there to help and you are not alone in this process.
For more information go to www.StayInStep.org
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2015
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