“I didn’t even know the word ‘amputation,’ ” Ortiz recalled, remembering too how she thought life from then on would be one of limited possibilities — particularly for a girl missing a leg.
On Saturday, however, Ortiz, 33, was prepping for the 44th annual Marine Corps Marathon. With the aid of a prosthetic leg, she planned to join more than a dozen Colombian military and law enforcement veterans who suffered similar injuries in Colombia’s conflicts with rebels and narcotics cartels. The run is a victory lap of sorts for people who rebuilt their lives after suffering catastrophic injuries.
“It’s something that’s helping us to go forward,” said Jefrey Cardenas, 35, a former commander of a special forces unit in the Colombian Army, who lost a leg after stepping on a land mine.
The group of disabled athletes met at the Washington Monument with other Colombian members of the military and law enforcement for some last-minute training and socializing on the eve of the marathon, a 26.2-mile race expected to draw about 30,000 people. The race starts Sunday in Arlington and leads runners over the Potomac River, through Georgetown, Rock Creek Park and around the Mall. Members of the Colombian group plan to use hand-pedaled bicycles or prostheses that allow them to walk or run.
The event was pulled together by the Colombian Embassy, with assistance from United for Colombia, a nonprofit foundation with offices in the District and Bogota that provides medical and rehabilitative services for people who have been injured during Colombia’s internal strife.
Gabriella Febres-Cordero, its founder, said the organization helps obtain prosthetics for civilians, military personnel and even injured guerrillas who have renounced conflict. Bringing them to Washington for the marathon is a way to celebrate their recovery.
“Look at the faces — you don’t need words. It’s absolutely heartfelt,” she said.
Marcial Calderon, 45, of Bogota, was commanding a special forces unit against rebel forces in Cañon de la Llorona in August 2005 when an improvised explosive device exploded in his face, blinding him and inflicting severe burns. Now a law student, he intends to run while tethered to his guide, Catalina Alvarez, a Medellin-based employee of United for Colombia.
Pierry Ramirez, 43, a former police officer from Bogota, lost one leg and the use of the other when an improvised explosive device exploded while he was driving behind a military convoy in Sibate about 25 years ago.
Ramirez, who was off-duty at the time, remembers only a flash of light that changed his life forever. Thoughts of family — particularly his parents, who relied on him — helped him go on. Now, Ramirez heads the Achilles International chapter in Bogota, a group that offers support to athletes with disabilities and also made the marathon trip possible. “My mission is to do this sport in my country,” he said.
Cardenas was leading an effort to eradicate coca in the mountains near Tumaco in August 2018 when he stepped on the land mine, presumably planted by narcotics traffickers. The explosion threw him into the air, and he landed in its crater.
“When I tried to stand up, I saw I didn’t have a leg,” Cardenas said, speaking through an interpreter.
In the hospital afterward, he sometimes felt despair.
“You think your life is over. You don’t want to be here on this earth,” Cardenas said. But that passed when he saw how happy his family was to find him alive. Religious faith helped, as did sports. “It lifted me up.”
Ortiz had always been sporty, playing basketball and participating in gymnastics until the Christmas Eve attack. She went without medication and only primitive medical attention for at least 24 hours after the ambush because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas who hit her father’s police station also raided the town’s hospital and took its medicine.
When she awoke, she realized life would never be the same.
“The most difficult thing was finding the right prosthesis because the ones they gave me were so basic,” Ortiz said. In 2017, through United for Colombia, she received a prosthetic leg that made it easier for her to go up and down the many stairs at her university. She also resumed participating in sports, training for 5Ks and Sunday’s marathon.
“Sports, in general, helped me to build more confidence in myself,” said Ortiz, 33, who now works as legal counsel for McDonald’s there.
“I used to cover up my prosthetic leg before,” Ortiz said. “Being a woman, it was a very hard thing to accept. I was ashamed. Through sports, I don’t mind showing that I have a prosthetic. Now I’m proud of showing people my prosthetic.”