As U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ramesh Haytasingh speaks, his voice can be so soft that it sounds like he is sharing a secret. Perhaps that's because he has learned a few in the past four years.
As he says, looking around at his competitors at the 2017 Warrior Games in Chicago, "We all have different injuries, but we have the same suffering. We all go through this together." It's a quote he heard from another competitor, but it is a new perspective that has shaped his long path to the games.
This month, Haytasingh competed in the Warrior Games as a member of the Special Operations Command team (SOCOM). Four years ago, he lost the use of his legs after being struck by a Jet Ski while in the water with his children. The accident left him largely paralyzed and without speech for two years. He's had 12 related surgeries to salvage a career that included eight combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he specialized in explosives ordnance disposal.
Haytasingh is still on active duty, working in "SOF Warrior counter-proliferations" -- and is winning medals while participating in several events at the Warrior Games. He is also giving out hugs to anyone who will stop and accept one, shifting his emphasis in how he interacts with people. "I don't want to leave this world anymore as a handshake [person]," he says. "I don't know if you get me, but I want to leave as a hug person. I don't want to say people's names, I want to know and learn their names."
That becomes obvious watching him wade through the crowds, holding up people behind him for a hug with the most important person, the one in front of him. As a spectator observed after a ceremony in which he received the fifth gold medal for swimming, "Sir, you need to bottle that positive attitude."
It was perhaps that positive attitude that led to his carrying the torch in last year's Opening Ceremony and receiving the Heart of the Team award last year from host and emcee Jon Stewart. It also compels him to reach out to those who have served with him who have also been wounded to make use of the USSOCOM Care Coalition and its programs.
"I don't care if anyone knows my name," he says. "I don't care. The legacy I want to leave is one thing: love."
As Ramesh Haytasingh says, the SOCOM team is all about precision. "For us to get where we've gotten in the special operations community, everything is about precision," says Haytasingh, who won gold in air rifle at the Warrior Games. "It's practiced perfection, makes perfection. All that one hair to the left, one little hair to the right, it paid off."
Haytasingh calls his wife, Crystal (center) one of his rocks. "A bigger one," he says. "Since Day 1, the first combat deployment all the way from the last one, she's been there. It's been a rough road. Our family has suffered so much, but they're all so resilient, so strong."
Jon Stewart, comedian and Warrior Games emcee, presented a Heart of the Team award to Haytasingh last year. They have been friendly since.
Haytasingh says he questions his situation all of the time but knows there's a destiny for him. "I don't believe now in coincidences," says Haytasingh, who's being chased here by his 8-year-old son Elijah. "I refuse to. I refuse. There's purpose. There's a destiny."
Haytasingh made fast friends with the Warrior Games volunteers, who were adaptive sports students from the University of North Carolina. "I've met so many wonderful people that are not attached to the military that have nothing to do with the families and they're just here to volunteer, here to watch," Haytasingh says.
It was a challenge for Haytasingh to compete at the games -- and to get back into the water. "Everyone brings something to the table here," he says. "It's not just my brothers looking down at me. They're looking down at everybody. I think they're proud. I think they're proud of these games."
Haytasingh competes in the backstroke. For him, recovering his health and mobility means "trying to rehab and trying to get myself back on track so I can be a better functioning brother, family member, father, husband and friend."
The message Haytasingh wants to leave with others, including these children from a day camp, is, "I believe that life will give you things, as it has. I have the opportunity. The thing that I can control is my reaction, emotion to it."
After his accident, Haytasingh didn't get back into the water for three years. When his team faced a shortage of players, he agreed to face his fears and join the team.
Haytasingh, who's taking advantage of the physical therapy services, wears earplugs because his ears have become very sensitive since the accident. But working through pain is how he renders respect for his fallen "brothers." "That's how we do them justice: We get back out and we get up and we have to move on, take our five minutes of pain, cry for five minutes, and get the hell up and start moving on," he says.
After receiving one of his gold medals at the swimming competition, Haytasingh receives congratulations from members of the Army and Navy. "Out of almost 20 years, I've never made an insulting joke at any one military branch because I've been next to almost all of them," says Haytasingh. "I've fought with almost all of them, and I've had to bury a few of them. This is all like family."
Following the swimming competition where he received five gold medals, Haytasingh and Elijah get some father-son time. "I try to make everything family orientated," says Haytasingh. "I don't like to do anything by myself because I want them to grow up with me. I want every experience to be all of us."