Andres Lazo - Graduate
Andres Lazo climbs mountains because they are there.
Lazo, a Wounded Warrior Program graduate who works as a counselor with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, has made an art of tackling challenges and turning struggles into triumphs.
Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lazo grew up in view of a 10,000-foot-high mountain. One day, as a teenager, he decided to see what was on the other side of that mountain.
By the time Lazo and a friend had hiked 9,000 feet up, they realized they had no water left and no plan for what to do if and when they reached the peak. Still, they pushed forward. When he finally descended on the other side of the mountain, Lazo was stunned by the starkly beautiful desert landscape with yet more mountains in the distance. That night, he and his friend stayed at an acquaintance’s house in the area.
The challenge had been a revelation for Lazo. Hungry for more challenges, he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point. On the day of his interview at the famed military academy, Lazo flew into a nearby airport with no plan for how to get to his destination. He ended up walking the 18 miles to West Point, arriving close to 5 p.m. “It was a test I put for myself,” Lazo recalls. Instead of closing the office, an impressed admissions official stayed on to talk with Lazo.
Although he would eventually choose to attend the University of New Mexico, to be near his mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer, Lazo was moved by the visible sense of duty, honor and patriotism at West Point. “That made a huge impression on me.”
The impression stayed with Lazo. A year into college, he enlisted with the Army as a Special Forces recruit. After receiving Infantry, Airborne and Ranger training, Lazo deployed to Iraq in October 2006. There he worked as a scout for sniper teams south of Baghdad and in the western part of the country.
Almost his entire 13-month deployment went by without major incident. Then, weeks from returning home, Lazo was hit by a powerful explosive road-side bomb as he manned the machine gun turret of a Humvee. Shrapnel caved in his helmet and pierced both of his arms and hands.
“I didn’t register right away that the blood on my gun was mine,” Lazo says of the incident. Instead, Lazo picked up the machine gun, changed its damaged magazine, turned the turret toward the explosion’s direction and shouted out the coordinates on his GPS: Mike Bravo 403-383. ““I was just on auto pilot.”
When the reality of the situation became clear, Lazo was evacuated. In the week that followed, Lazo struggled with weakness in his arms, ringing in his ears and persistent headaches. Still, he went running every day despite being told to rest. The sweat stung his wounds, “but it made me feel alive.”
Lazo kept running when he returned stateside and even competed in the 2009 Best Ranger competition running 15 miles with 80 pounds of gear in his rucksack.
Lazo replaced running with swimming and rifle toting with book reading. While working as a Wounded Warrior Program fellow in the office of Rep. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Lazo studied for his college degree in Business Administration.
“The work I do has a larger impact than anything I could have done in Iraq, anything I could have done with a rifle,” Lazo said of his fellowship at the time. In his position, Lazo taught young veterans about the GI Bill, secured survivor benefits for veterans’ families and made deep personal connections. “It’s something that transcends, age or race or background,” he saed. “If you tell someone you’re a veteran, it’s an instant bond.”
Lazo relished his role as a voice for fellow veterans. “I’m the person who stands up for them,” he said.
He also stands up for himself. Unwilling to be impeded by his lingering injury, Lazo did something unusual during this fellowship on the anniversary of his combat wounding. Instead of bad memories, he filled the day with possibility, proposing to his fiancée in the rain. The wedding was the following. “It was a day that I had been dreading,” he said of the injury anniversary. “I turned it around.”