The Marine sat in his wheelchair in front of students at the Pinellas school. He couldn't remember ever being so nervous.
Much of his body paralyzed, Cpl. Mike Delgado was still getting used to trips outside a Tampa veterans hospital. For the past year he had worried about the looks, the questions, the assumptions about his life and his injury.
So how would these kids, none older than 15, react when Delgado told them to ask any question?
Would they understand that a man in a wheelchair is still a man?
That a Marine is still a Marine?
• • •
The two Marines were like brothers. They roomed together at Camp Pendleton in California. And when they deployed to Iraq in 2007, they sat side by side on the long air flight to war.
It was just fate that Delgado, a Tampa native who was then 23, found himself two or three Humvees behind his best friend, Jeremy Allbaugh, when a roadside bomb exploded and shattered Allbaugh's vehicle.
Allbaugh, 21, of Oklahoma was killed.
Like fighting men across time, an uninjured Delgado wanted to deal with his grief by engaging the enemy, by throwing himself into battle to exact revenge. But a realization hit like a body blow.
This was a war of remote-control bombs. There were no front lines, no adversaries in a foxhole across a battlefield. Delgado stared at an empty landscape.
"You get blown up and there's nothing you can do," he said.
• • •
Delgado made it safely through that harrowing deployment. Maybe it was his mother's prayers. Or maybe blind luck. He couldn't know.
Weeks after his return, Delgado propelled himself from one adrenaline high to another as he coped with his return. After Iraq, a life without the rush of excitement seemed unfulfilling.
He volunteered for combat in Afghanistan and sought adventure as he awaited his next deployment.
Delgado went rock climbing. He surfed. He broke his left hand in a fight outside a bar defending another Marine. Delgado simply had the cast ripped off when he was told he couldn't go skydiving with it covering his hand.
On Jan. 28, 2008, he went snowboarding at Big Bear, Calif. It was the first time Delgado had ever tried the sport. He wore a helmet.
He wasn't moving fast when he fell awkwardly into 7 inches of fresh powder. His neck twisted. Delgado's first thought was his perfect teeth. He felt around his mouth with his tongue and was relieved he hadn't lost any.
Then he tried to stand. His arms and legs didn't respond.
Delgado had broken his neck.
• • •
The Mike Delgado who emerged from that fall, by all accounts, was much like the Mike Delgado who left for war a year earlier. Funny. Upbeat. Motivated. A flirt. He was a quadriplegic, but he refused to believe he couldn't get better.
He was transferred from California to the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and its spinal cord unit. He had surgery on his vertebrae.
On May 3, 2008, Delgado celebrated his 24th birthday at Haley. A feeding tube brought nourishment to his stomach. He looked at his birthday cake longingly. He couldn't eat a bite.
He dropped from 140 to 115 pounds.
Delgado saw his sister's graduation from Hernando High School by video link, watching from his hospital bed.
And bit by bit, Delgado's body responded to therapy.
Progress was marked by inches. Just getting out of bed to a wheelchair with the help of nurses was a victory. Delgado couldn't be moved upright without nausea after nine months confined to a bed.
"I was dealing with things I couldn't change," he said. "I wanted to get up so bad. But my body wouldn't let me."
Movement in his arms started to come back. The feeding tube was removed. Before long, Delgado could push himself along haltingly in a wheelchair.
He visited his parents' Brooksville home on weekends. It was hard for them to not try to help him. Delgado thought they often treated him like a kid. He wanted to push himself in his wheelchair. He wanted to feed himself. He might make a mess of it, but he had to be unafraid of failure to get stronger.
When Delgado took his first timorous steps out in the public, away from Haley, he worried what people thought of him. Did they see the man behind the disability?
His fears proved unfounded. Most people went out of their way to put him at ease.
Delgado still can't walk. But it's his goal. The doctors say it's possible. Delgado's father, Miguel, a truck driver, promises to get his arm tattooed just like his son's when Mike walks again.
Once he regains his legs, Delgado also promises to visit Big Bear to snowboard again.
He plans to use the same snowboard as before, if his mother, Waynette, doesn't follow through on threats to sell it on eBay.
"You got to get back on," he told her. "You've got to conquer the mountain."
• • •
Earlier this month, Delgado celebrated his 25th birthday. This time, he had a bite of his cake.
Delgado's room at Haley has become a gathering place for patients and staff who are drawn there by Delgado's unending spring of optimism and humor.
"And it's real," physical therapist Karen Noblitt said. "It's genuine. He's genuine."
Delgado shrugs when he talks about the freak accident that brought him to this wing of Haley where so many others lay wounded from battle.
"Ah, man," he said. "Maybe I should have been hurt in Iraq, not during recreation time."
Delgado and Haley staffers visited Morning Star School in Pinellas Park on April 29.
He felt out of place, nervous, afraid of saying the wrong thing.
But Delgado quickly found his voice and confidence. A minute after he started speaking, he forgot his fears about how the kids would react. He told them his story, about his goal of some day joining the FBI.
"I'm still the same person I was before," Delgado told them. "I just can't get up and walk."
The kids were enthusiastic. Delgado thought it was as if they didn't even see the wheelchair. They saw the man. The Marine.
Delgado is scheduled to be released from Haley this week. He will live with his parents. In a few months, the Marines will discharge him. Part of Delgado wishes he could stay in uniform.
Every so often, a visitor at Haley looks at the patient in the wheelchair and the small Marine flag displayed outside his door before asking, "When were you in the Marines?"
Delgado proudly corrects, "I'm still a Marine."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5306.