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A 10-year-old boy with dreams of being a soldier, just like his dad, is now inspiring veterans across the country.
Diego Mercado, 10, who was born without a right leg and with only two fingers on his right hand, has his own Army fatigues, regularly pals around with veterans and even trains like a soldier — doing push-ups, lifting weights, flipping tires and more.
It’s all thanks to the nonprofit he and his father started in March, Team Diego, to help provide financial support to wounded veterans and also children with disabilities.
“A lot of times vets come back and feel like they don’t have any self-worth,” Diego’s dad, Captain Jason Mercado, 34, told TODAY. “So if they can inspire kids like Diego, it helps. And Diego doesn’t see that they’re injured. He sees, hey, they have a leg like mine!”
His son, one of four children, was born as an amputee as a result of amniotic band syndrome, he said. But it wasn’t until Diego was in kindergarten that he started to resent his limb difference.
“He started to realize, hey, I’m a little different from the other kids,” Mercado, who’s currently stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, said. “It broke our hearts because he would come home and say, ‘The kids said I’m a robot.’ Or, ‘Dad, how come I don’t have a leg or a hand like the other kids?’”
Now Diego sees his differences as an advantage: A way to help other young people with disabilities and wounded veterans — and show them anything is possible.
He and his dad post inspirational videos on social media and participate in races, with Diego riding a custom bike and Mercado running alongside him, to earn money for their cause.
“My favorite part is the 5Ks,” Diego, who's in the fourth grade, told TODAY. “A lot of them are fun and a lot of them are hard. The hardest part is going up hill.”
And of course, he gets to meet veterans like Jose Sanchez, a Marine who lost his leg when he stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan, and who’s seen working out alongside Diego in many viral Instagram videos, showing off their matching prostheses.
Diego’s dreams of being in the military started early.
“As long as I can remember, he wanted to be a soldier,” Mercado said. “He saw me doing it — it was the norm for him.”
And when Diego witnessed his first Ride 2 Recovery race, a cycling event for wounded warriors, something clicked in the then 6-year-old.
“He was absolutely inspired,” Mercado said. “He was floored. He was like, ‘I can do this, too.’ That was his mentality.” Diego remembers the moment, too.
“That’s when I said, ‘Dad, get me my own uniform,’ and I started being a little soldier,” he said.
Of course, like any smart kid, Diego has a backup plan: To be a break-dancer. Diego said he’s a huge fan of the Jabbawockeez, a dance crew, and still tries to copy their moves: “I pop and lock and stuff like that,” he said.
Whichever career path he chooses, we’re betting that Diego, already a force at such a young age, will continue to inspire.