United States Marine Sergeant Aaron Alonso longs for the day when he'll have a softball catch with his daughter, retrieving stray balls with ease. He imagines spending time outside in his wooded New Jersey yard supporting 9-year-old Riley's dream of playing collegiate softball.
That scene has been challenging to produce; Alonso lost both of his legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device while patrolling in Afghanistan when Riley was just 5 months old.
But soon, the day he's pictured will come to fruition.
During the Eagles' Salute to Service game on Monday night against the Washington Commanders, Alonso will be honored through the gift of an iBot wheelchair that possesses functions that can drastically improve his mobility. The device will grant him the ability to travel over harsh terrain, elevate his body to eye level, and even climb stairs.
"Anytime that we even play catch in the yard and she has a bad throw, instead of me trying to push the wheelchair to go get the ball, it's kind of like she's playing fetch with herself," Alonso said. "I showed her videos of the iBot and she thought that it was really cool, she got extremely excited about it.
"That's probably the most exciting part for me – the extra freedom that it'll give me, and the ability to be a better father," Alonso said.
Alonso enlisted in the Marines in 2006 shortly after he graduated from Jefferson Township High School in Jefferson, New Jersey, influenced by both the 9/11 attacks and his family; his brother Devon was also a Marine and their father was in the Navy.
He honorably served for 11 and a half years – tirelessly volunteering for duty throughout his tenure. He was deployed six times within his first eight years in the service, serving in Cuba, the Philippines, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
"I always enjoyed it. There was always a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie when we were overseas," Alonso said.
Alonso embarked on his third deployment to Afghanistan 13 days after his daughter was born. During a sweep in Nad Ali on February 8, 2014, he unknowingly stepped on a 20-pound IED, triggering a blast that caused injuries that took both of his legs. He was hospitalized for three and a half years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, undergoing relentless surgeries and rehabilitation.
"It was a very, very long recovery process," he said. "Throughout that whole process, I had a massive family and friend support system behind me as well as the other amputees and injured service members there at Walter Reed; we formed unbreakable bonds while we were there," Alonso said.
Since he's returned home to Hampton Township, New Jersey, Alonso has maintained his contagiously positive disposition persevering and adapting through his injury. But during that time, he's also learned of the mounting challenges presented to amputees each day.
That's why Robert Irvine created his foundation – to use his platform as a renowned chef to help support the lives of service members, veterans, first responders, and their families. Irvine learned the trade that brought him bountiful success as a cook in the Royal Navy at just 15 years old. Now, he dedicates 150 days a year to traveling with the military around the globe, using his resources to serve the people who passionately serve their countries.
"I think first and foremost our foundation is all about the men and women that wear the colors of our nation and our first responders that put their life on the line every day so we can watch football games, go to football games. It's called freedom," Irvine said.
"Imagine this. Sgt. Alonso is one of many, many, many folks who have served their country, but lost his legs or limbs. This Mobius device, the iBot, allows him to stand up at eye height like he would have when he had his legs. It gives him back his purpose and his freedom," Irvine said.
The iBot can function as a bridge over many barriers amputees face – it can move through any terrain, including snow, ice, sand, and grass. Its capabilities are optimal for an outdoorsman like Alonso, who will soon be able to more comfortably enjoy his hobbies of hunting, fishing, photography – and most importantly – spending time with his daughter.
"I think it's absolutely crazy, and it'll help. No matter what people say, we do not live in an accessible world. That's one of the big things that I've been noticing. And it gets frustrating," Alonso said.
"Having that ability to be almost hands-free, to traverse difficult terrain is going to be quite, quite freeing."
While Alonso awaits priceless moments with his daughter and adventures to places that may have been difficult to visit before, he hopes his story will reach other service members. Alonso wants his experience to remind them that there is hope and their sacrifices are not in vain.
"They're helping us to regain our independence and to live a much more fulfilled and happy life. And if I can share my story, and another amputee or another veteran that might be struggling or first responder that's struggling and sees it and realizes that there are these devices out there, if my story can help one other person, then I'm happy," Alonso said.
"Life is worth it; just keep pushing."