One morning in 2016, Jason Mercado got an ominous message from one of his buddies, a San Antonio gym owner. “I don’t know if this is good news or bad news,” the friend’s message said.
A couple of days earlier the gym had posted a video of Mercado’s 10-year-old son, Diego, and it had unexpectedly garnered 200,000 views on social media. By late afternoon, the tally had shot past 500,000; by late evening it exceeded 2 million. “The last time we looked, it was over 19 million views worldwide,” Mercado says.
The clip shows Diego, a congenital above-knee amputee, flipping tractor tires with Marine Staff Sgt. Jose Luis Sanchez, who lost his left leg during combat in Afghanistan. But the video wasn’t meant to draw viral clicks. It was intended to support Diego’s quest to become an Army officer like his dad, who’s now a major.
“That’s always been my dream since I can remember,” says Diego, now 16. “As soon as I started seeing my dad put on his boots and leave the house to go defend our country, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
If he succeeds, he’ll be the first American to enter any branch of the military as an amputee.
Although today’s US forces include hundreds of active-duty amputees, all were inducted as able-bodied personnel and redeployed after losing limbs in combat. For incoming recruits, limb loss is a disqualifying condition under the Department of Defense’s Medical Standards for Military Service.
“There’s a Medical Evaluation Board that can grant waivers for certain conditions,” Maj. Mercado explains, “but limb difference isn’t a waiverable condition. [Changing] that would probably take an act of Congress.”
Ironically, Diego is probably better prepared for boot camp than most able-bodied candidates. He already can complete most elements of the Army’s Combat Fitness Test, and he’s been in Junior ROTC since middle school. And because of his Army upbringing, he’s steeped in the values of the 21st-century military.
“All my life, I’ve had a military mentality that you’ve got to overcome obstacles,” Diego says. “So if I can become the first amputee to join the Army [with a pre-existing limb difference], it will set an example for everybody who has a disability. And it will open the eyes of people who are ‘normal.’”
If the whole military thing doesn’t work out, Diego has a pretty good backup plan: acting. He made his screen debut last year in Mixtape, a Netflix feature film, and is now represented by the high-powered MMG talent agency. He’s also appeared in a couple of shorts and is fielding inquiries from Disney and Nickelodeon.
“My main dream is to become a soldier in the US Army,” Diego says. “But acting is another way to open people’s eyes. If I make it as an actor, I can still help disabled veterans and people with disabilities. I can still show that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it.”