Dave Riley has always been an adrenaline-chaser — and he probably always will be.
His love for adventure started with his life in the military, which was nothing short of thrilling. With a father in the Army, the military was always in Dave’s blood. So he joined the Army himself, and then transferred to the Coast Guard, where he took on one of the most difficult, high-stakes jobs available — that of a search-and-rescue swimmer.
“It’s still the best job I ever had,” he says. “At any moment, an alarm could go off, and you would go and do whatever needed to be done. Anything from cliff rescues to surf rescues, boats going down to sailboats, you know, there’s a lot of high adrenaline. It’s a high-energy type job.”
After he was transferred to Mobile, Alabama, Dave contracted an infection from bacteria in the water that made him gravely ill. He became septic and fell into a coma.
When he awoke, all four of his limbs had been removed in order to help him survive.
At first, Dave felt that his life was over. He couldn’t see a way forward for himself in his new body.
After the sepsis was eliminated, Dave recovered gradually and went back to school to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. But depression plagued him, caused both by his disability and uncertainty over what do with his life. He opened his own IT company in Alabama, but it just wasn’t fulfilling to him in the same way his life in the military had been.
“I’d turned my hobby into a job, and then I hated it,” he says.
It was his caregiver and his community that helped Dave chart a new path forward.
Yvonne, Dave’s wife, has been with him every step of the way. In fact, it had fallen to Yvonne to make the decision to amputate his limbs — a choice that saved his life but also altered it forever.
“Yvonne has been my caregiver for 30 years, really,” Dave laughs. “20 years disabled, but she’s been taking care of me for much longer than that.”
Dave also became involved with DAV (Disabled American Veterans), a non-profit charity that helps veterans get the benefits they earned, like health care, education, and disability, and overcome challenges like finding meaningful employment. Through them, Dave found a community, he learned ways to be active and play sports, and he met people who helped him learn how he could live the life he wanted.
As DAV began helping Dave heal, he decided that he wanted to help others do the same thing.
He became a volunteer with the organization, taking on more and more responsibility and working his way up through the ranks. He retired from his job as a computer analyst and turned to working with DAV full time, ultimately becoming DAV national commander.
Throughout the year, Dave and Yvonne travel all around the country to attend conferences and events, to visit with the military, and to speak to veterans with disabilities and their families.
Under Dave’s leadership, DAV continues to do the work of identifying and reaching out to struggling veterans with disabilities and helping them see a way forward in life.
He’s also made it his mission to help not just veterans, but also their caregivers get the benefits that they need. Right now, only caregivers of veterans injured after 9/11 receive the comprehensive caregiver benefits the VA offers — including respite care, financial assistance, training, and health and education benefits. In February 2017, Dave testified in front of Congress about the depth of service caregivers provide severely disabled veterans and how we should thank and honour them properly by giving them the support they need to carry out the selfless work they have dedicated themselves to:
“Family caregivers are critical members of a veteran’s health care team — they are unsung American heroes who often sacrifice their own health, well-being, employment, educational and other life goals and opportunities—to care for their loved ones.”
Many of the obstacles veterans with disabilities face when they return home are physical, but many are not. The caregivers and community members that surround returning military personnel with love and support are an essential part of veterans’ healing.
When a veteran is first injured, there can often be a period of darkness and uncertainty, and we don’t always get to see the beautiful stories unfold of people like Dave and Yvonne who have found great meaning in their work post-service. Under Dave’s leadership, DAV will continue to help provide the support that veterans need to write those stories of success.