Duluth resident Ignacio Montoya was three months away from commissioning with the United States Air Force when a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed. He is currently not eligible for VA benefits and is struggling to make ends meet. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
DULUTH — He knew it the second he boarded that flight from Cuba to Miami, a 6-year-old boy with his visa lottery-winning father and not much else. He knew it, in a way, when he rode his first motorcycle at an even earlier age, before his mother died of leukemia. But it was the flight that did it.
On Oct. 6, 1997, Ignacio Montoya knew what he wanted to do.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to do this,’” Montoya says now, nearly 17 years later, his dreams destroyed. “‘I gotta fly these things.’”
He and his father moved to the Atlanta area after a few days in Miami, and Montoya learned English, became a U.S. citizen and graduated from Brookwood High School in 2008. Somewhere along the line his desire to fly transitioned from commercial planes to “something fast.”
Montoya attended Georgia State University, joined the United States Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and cross enrolled at Georgia Tech, where he threw himself into aerospace studies. He was named cadet of the month and honor guard captain. He was on track to become a second-lieutenant but had one thing — flying — in mind.
When he enrolled, officials warned Montoya that only about 1 percent of Air Force members actually become pilots. They stressed the need for a backup plan, but he didn’t need one.
“I said, ‘No, I’m going for that pilot slot,’” Montoya says, “‘and there’s nothing stopping me.’”
He was nominated for the coveted spot and, on Dec. 4, 2012, was about three months from commissioning and heading to Colorado.
On Pleasant Hill Road that night, some 700 feet from the safety of his sister’s home, a minivan tried to turn left into a supermarket parking lot. The driver later told Gwinnett County police that she had seen Montoya’s oncoming motorcycle but it had “appeared far away.”
Montoya, a day removed from his 22nd birthday, struck the side of the car. He died for 15 minutes and hasn’t walked since. He does not qualify for military benefits and does not have other insurance to even approach covering his bills. He only recently started receiving minimal assistance from Medicaid.
Money is short and life is hard. The future is full of questions.
Ignacio Montoya lives alone in a Duluth apartment two miles from the place where his life changed forever.
Since the start of 2014, a Medicaid-funded nurse comes most days to get him out of bed, washed and dressed. Before that — and after spending six months in the hospital, the first three in a coma — he relied on his family to help out the best they could.
The accident severed Montoya’s spinal cord, caused a traumatic brain injury and damaged his right brachial plexus, a network of nerves running from the spine to the arm. He’s paralyzed from his middle back down and has very little function in his right arm.
For months he got no therapy of any kind. Even now he doesn’t get what he should.
“Overall his treatments are very limited because of his Medicaid status,” said Dr. J. Tobias Musser, one of Montoya’s physicians at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
Medicaid doesn’t generally approve the medications Montoya needs, Musser said, because they’re not generic. Getting procedures like physical therapy, surgeries and psychological counseling approved involves a labyrinth of paperwork that often results in a dead end. Finding local physicians to perform procedures for a Medicaid patient can be just as hard.
Because he had put in more than four years with the Air Force and was on his way back from a mandatory event, Montoya believes he should be eligible for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA did not respond to multiple inquiries regarding Montoya’s case, but a representative from Paralyzed Veterans of America said it did not appear that Montoya would be eligible.
Given the VA’s current nationwide controversy, the quality of help it could provide Montoya even if he were able to draw benefits is questionable.
“He’s very involved in what his diagnosis is, very involved with looking for solutions,” Musser said. “He’s motivated and driven, and he’s very curious overall which is good.”
“But he’s also very anxious and distressed,” the doctor added, “and has a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that likely aren’t being managed very well.”
Montoya’s likely ill-fated quest for VA benefits, ironically, seems to have rejuvenated him.
Over the last three or four months, the 23-year-old has started a fundraising website (fundly.com/from-flying-to-walking-again) and begun contacting the media in hopes of getting his story out. His plan to put together a 5K to raise awareness and money for spinal cord injury research is in its infancy.
He wants to be an advocate, but his own situation is dire.
“I need some help,” Montoya said, the line between thinking out loud and genuine desperation blurring. “I need some help, I need some help, I need some help.”
On the day of the accident, Montoya was leaving Georgia Tech following a change of command ceremony, a sort of end-of-semester wrap-up representing the transition of authority from one leading ROTC cadet to another. He, like his comrades, was decked out in full service dress uniform, a crisp blue ensemble befitting the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony.
Later, as he lay bleeding on the ground, paramedics cut the uniform’s coat off Montoya with smooth scissor strokes up one arm, across the lapels and down the other. Police later returned the remnants to Montoya and his family.
Montoya’s grandmother, known simply by the Spanish moniker “Abuela,” offered to sew it up with blue thread, to make it look like nothing ever happened.
He told her to do it in white instead.
“I want it to signify something,” Montoya said. “I’m not putting that thing back on. If I’m putting it on again I’m getting a whole other one.”
And putting a new uniform on is still a possibility, albeit one with incredible odds.
Musser said it’s “very unlikely” that Montoya will ever be able to walk again, but the latter is hopeful that progress with stem cell research or an experimental spinal cord stimulator could help in the future. Montoya said the Air Force told him he’d be welcomed back if he’s able to re-pass their physical and medical assessments before he turns 30 years old.
For now, the original coat and its jagged white stitching are stored in a closet in Montoya’s apartment, not far from some pilot’s gear and a motorcycle helmet that’s been scraped to hell.