It was a simple enough work out video that tugged on people’s heartstrings, but the story behind it is even better.
The video, which has more than 15 million hits worldwide by Company Commander Jason Mercado’s count, shows 10-year-old Diego Mercado doing push ups, running and pushing a large tire with retired Marine Staff Sgt. Jose Sanchez. Both the child and adult are amputees, one born with the disability and another injured in combat.
When the video was posted to Imgur, an image-sharing website, a user said in the caption that the man was showing Diego that he didn’t need to be held back by his missing limb. But Jason Mercado, Diego’s father, said he has known that for a while.
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It started when Diego was in first grade. His father has been in the Army for 16 years, and Diego decided from a young age that he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Diego was born with amniotic band syndrome, which caused him to lose his right leg and three fingers on his right hand.
“He tells me, ‘Dad, I want to be in the Army,’” Mercado said. “And he’s specific about it, too. He says, ‘I want to be an officer or a commander.’”
A Ride 2 Recovery race to help wounded veterans was happening just outside Diego’s school in Fort Hood when he was in first grade, and the students were called outside to cheer the bikers on. His teacher, Mary Beth Moreau, knew about Diego’s aspirations and told him to go to the front.
One of the participating veterans, who was an amputee, went up to Diego on the sidelines and said, “You’re an inspiration,” then turned to his father and said, “I really appreciate your son being here,” before riding off.
Mercado said that was one of the more important moments in Diego’s life, but they don’t even know the man’s name.
Diego’s parents bought him an Army uniform made for his size, and Diego started wearing it everywhere. The next year, in 2013, Diego stood on the sidelines of the same race in his uniform and temporarily stopped the race as several participants stopped to come shake his hand.
Mercado has since tried to tell Diego that he will have to be a soldier in a different way, because under current provisions in the military you can’t enter with a prosthetic. Amputees can only be in the military if they were injured in combat.
So in March the Mercado family started Team Diego, a nonprofit that raises money to buy mobility devices for both children amputees and veterans. Mobility devices can include different types of prosthetics and vehicles like recumbent bikes, which can cost $700 or more.
“What we’ve found having Diego, is insurance does not cover those needs,” Mercado said.
But Diego still insists he’ll be a soldier like his dad, and works for it even as a fourth grader. Videos show Diego beating adults in push up contests (Mercado says Diego can knock out 50 in a row), break dancing and riding his recumbent bike. Mercado said he runs 5Ks while Diego rides the bike next to him, and they just got Diego his first running blade prosthetic so he can join without the bike.
Through a San Antonio amputee association, Mercado and Diego met two veterans who were running a small gym out of their home. Those veterans knew Jose Sanchez, a Purple Heart recipient whose Instagram is full of intense fitness photos and videos, and they told him about Diego.
“Jose was like, ‘I’ve got to meet this kid,’” Mercado said.
Diego was equally excited to meet Sanchez, who he would refer to as “the Big Dude.”
The viral video captures Diego and the Big Dude meeting for the first time in June, and Mercado said Diego thinks of Sanchez as one of his heroes. They hosted a fundraiser together for Team Diego in August.
“He sees him as the guy who got injured in combat, who fought in the military and is like him,” Mercado said. “It’s the epitome of what Diego wants to be.”
You can donate to Team Diego here.