Against the Odds

One day, Diego Mercado hopes to stand in a formation and recite the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Creed with his fellow Soldiers.

Although some may see the aspiring 15-year-old middle school student from San Antonio, Texas, as a dreamer, people who know this future history maker can attest that he’s already spent a lifetime exemplifying the beginning of that creed, “With the help and guidance of my faith, I will conquer my fears and succeed.”

He’s got it all planned out. Enlist as a Soldier, join the 75th Ranger Regiment, and then become a Green Beret. Sounds like a great plan, right?

He just needs the military to amend one policy.

When Diego was born doctors diagnosed him with Amniotic band syndrome. This condition caused Diego to be born without part of his right leg, a portion that would later be amputated above the knee.

“The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him,” explained his mother Jasmin, who initially placed blame on herself and wondered if his condition was due to side effects of medication she had taken or something she had eaten or drank.

“I was devastated,” remembered U.S. Army Capt. Jason Mercado while thinking back to the day Diego was born. “[The doctors] didn’t know what it was and referred us off post. We just wanted him to be okay.”

The couple, admitted they had some initial issues with the Exceptional Family Member Program but received tremendous help from Mercado’s command.

A chance encounter with a doctor at a Shriners hospital brought light to Diego’s condition and helped the Mercados learn more about the causes and how to work with Diego during his formative years.

“Diego taught us how to be parents,” added Jason. “When he was young and would fall, we’d want to rush over to him, but we realized we had to let him figure it out. I think that showed him that he could do it.”

He was also born with several of his fingers joined together. Diego confidently refers to his right hand as “my chicken wing,” – much to his mother’s jovial embarrassment.

Although Diego has a quasi-crazy sense of humor about his Amniotic band syndrome, make no mistake, this young man is very serious about working to amend the policy that prohibits amputees from joining the military.

A 2018 article from Whitney Delbridge Nichels, Soldier Amputees Have More Options for Continued Service, reflects the advances in medicine that allow amputees to continue to serve. Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Kapacziewski, a Ranger, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Josh Pitcher, and U.S. Army Capt. Daniel Luckett, are proof that setbacks are merely barriers that need to be knocked down. 

Perhaps the most well-known case is retired U.S. Army Col. Greg Gadson. The bilateral above-the-knee amputee became a reflection of perseverance, determination, and leadership following his return to duty and promotion to colonel where he served as the commander of the United States Army Garrison at Fort Belvoir, Va. He also became an actor and is featured in the 2012 movie Battleship and appeared in 10 episodes of the TV show The Inspectors from 2015-2016.

The first few years of his life, Diego was shy and reluctant to go out in public because people would look at him. He even had some bullying by kids in his prekindergarten class which did nothing to help his confidence.

But when he entered Mary Beth Moreau’s kindergarten class at Meadows Elementary School at Fort Hood, Texas, all of that changed.

“We all sat in a circle, and I snapped the leg off a G. I. Joe and said, ‘This is Diego,’” remembered Moreau, who has since retired after 30 years of teaching. “I wanted everyone to see how cool he was.”

Diego, upon hearing this story got a huge smile on his face and confessed it was the first time he saw a toy that looked like him. But the toy was secondary to what Diego felt was the biggest result.

“I remember that being so crazy, and the other kids took interest,” remembers Diego. “I thought they might like me…and because of Ms. Moreau, I was able to have friends.”

According to Marue, the kids not only embraced Diego, they called him “robot boy” and turned him into a celebrity.

From that time on, Diego’s confidence continued to grow. When the Ride 2 Recovery bicycle challenge rode by his school, Soldiers would see Diego and stop to talk to him or give him a high-five.

“I saw them, and I was inspired because I could see there were people like me,” said Diego. “I told my dad that’s what I want to be. I wanted to be a Soldier.”

Over the years, he and Jason would register for rides, runs, and walks to support other nonprofits. Diego would ride his bike, and Jason would run beside him supporting great causes while building awareness about Amniotic band syndrome.

Then in 2016, Diego received his first running prosthetic and the family increased their advocacy efforts to support EMFP-related causes and raise awareness about bullying. 

“He inspires other people,” said Jason. “Everyone just gravitates toward him. He’s taught us all so much.”

Jason admitted that over the years Diego had been working to become an actor. Although he was initially cast for some projects with Nickelodeon, Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shot’s Season 2, an ABC pilot reality show, and Disney, nothing came to fruition.

“Even though he got discouraged, he still wanted to go for it,” added Jason.

His perseverance paid off.

Although the family can’t say too much, Diego will become the first amputee teen to be cast in a Netflix film when he appears in the Netflix movie MixTape alongside Julie Bowen, Gemma Brooke Allen, Nick Thune, and Jackson Rathbone.

His mom described him as “an amputee with big dreams,” and his father said, “if he sets his mind to it, there’s nothing Diego can’t do.”

Diego, by his own admission,

“wants to improve every day and be the best version of himself that he can.” If history is any indication, the only limits this future history maker has will be the ones he places on himself.

Check out Netflix for details on the release of Mixtapeand follow Diego on Instagram @MrDiegoMercado.

Special Thanks to Stephanie Young for making this story possible.

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