SONOMA, Calif. — Graham Rahal wanted to meet the guy in a wheelchair.
U.S. Army Sgt. Dan Rose couldn’t help but be surprised as Rahal approached during a vineyard party the night before the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver had anticipated the moment they would meet, how they could enjoy sharing some stories and become friends. It was an imperative for Rahal, one of the most patriotic Americans you will ever meet, to thank the paralyzed veteran for his service and sacrifice.
But it was more than that. Rose isn’t just that guy in a wheelchair. The 31-year-old serviceman from Denver is an inspiration to many, including Rahal. That guy in a wheelchair can use an exoskeleton to walk, and his list of interests includes downhill skiing.
“Graham walked up and was saying how he had heard so much about me and looked forward to meeting me,” Rose said. “It was like he sought me out. He actually came over to talk to me. I couldn’t believe it. It was awesome. He was super cool.”
A few hours before they met, Rahal had said in anticipation, “It’s pretty powerful to have Dan here.” The driver whose sponsors once included the Army National Guard is never shy about love of country and those who serve.
“I don’t know why, but I’ve always been an overly patriotic person,” Rahal said. “I think a lot of us are proud to be Americans, but even back when I was a kid, people were always like, ‘Man, you’re kind of obnoxious about that.’
“I have a lot of appreciation for what they do and what they have done. I can almost guarantee you that if I didn’t do what I’m doing now, I probably would have gone into the military of some sort. Racing was always my love, but as a kid, I wanted to be a fighter pilot more than almost anything else.”
Rahal wasn’t the only one to rub elbows with Rose. Bobby Rahal and David Letterman soon joined the conversation. Rose soon learned that Letterman sure is funny, and what a quick wit.
“It was just like a normal conversation,” Rose said. “Too cool.”
The memorable weekend continued Sunday for Rose, who mingled with other drivers and celebrities including NBA star Steph Curry before the race. Rose received the royal treatment as part of a joint venture involving Soldier Strong, United Rentals and Turns4Troops. They’ve teamed to provide him with an exoskeleton designed by Ekso Bionics in nearby Richmond, Calif. Five years after an improvised explosive device (IED) had deprived him of the use of his legs in Afghanistan, the exoskeleton accomplished what once seemed impossible by giving back some function. He used the exoskeleton to stand on the grid before the race with the Rahal team (and is shown above with team co-owner Letterman).
“It’s not so much for mobility. I’m not going to wear it to go to a store,” Rose said. “It’s more for the health benefits of walking, increased range of motion, bone density, not to mention the psychological benefit, which is immeasurable.
“The first time I stood up, I’m only 5-7 but I felt like I was standing on top of a mountain looking out.”
In addition to downhill skiing, Rose’s can-do attitude applies to wheelchair racing, sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, hand cycling and mountain biking. One of his more recent interests has been riding a longboard skateboard from his chair.
“No matter what you’re faced with in life, there’s always a way out, you can always better your circumstance,” Rose said. “There’s always hope. As dark as it is, there’s always that light at the end.”
When rolling through the Sonoma Raceway garage area Sunday morning, Rose’s head snapped around at the thunderous, ground-shaking sound of a team firing a race engine.
“Like the little boy in everybody, I start smiling,” Rose said. “I want that job, to just sit there and throttle that car.”
Maybe Rahal can hook him up. His patriotism knows no bounds.
“It doesn’t matter what branch of service it is, it’s something that’s very important,” Rahal said. “It’s something that needs to be appreciated and respected. I was thinking about this the other day, how grateful all of us should be. If you live in Indy, hey, you can go to Cafe Patachou for breakfast or you can have St. Elmo’s for dinner and hang out. You can do that without the fear of a bomb dropping on your head, without the fear of a guy driving by with a car full of explosives. This country is a great place that provides us a lifestyle.”
He mentions how he was recently watching the movie “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” then the “60 Minutes” story on some of the American soldiers who were in Libya when Islamic militants attacked an American diplomatic compound in 2012.
“One of the things they talked about is in that country, you can’t tell a good guy from a bad guy, you can’t tell if you’re going to run into a roadside explosive device,” Rahal said. “You don’t know the difference between life and death because you can’t see it coming.
“Here, we have the freedoms to do these things and we get to come to racetracks and have fun and race cars for a living. It comes down to something as simple as just going out to dinner with friends. That’s something in a lot of countries, in a lot of places, you can’t necessarily do that without fear. Why we have that is because of the military. If those men and women don’t go out there and keep that away from us, we wouldn’t have the lifestyle that we do.”