When double amputee Stefan Leroy competes at Prince Harry’s Invictus Games in Toronto later this month, he won’t just be trying for a repeat of the medal-winning success he had last year. The former army sergeant, 26 — who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan in 2012 — wants to continue the inspiration and education that Invictus has brought in years past.
“Prince Harry has created more than a regular Paralympic-style competition,” Leroy tells PEOPLE of Invictus. “You are competing for your country and your team but you’re also there for everybody else. Most of the sports I’m doing, I’ve seen others doing them. I think that’s part of Invictus. You see people and they are doing awesome and you think ‘I can give that a try.'”
He tries to encourage others to think the same way.
“If someone needs help I will still encourage them like saying ‘maybe try this out’ or if someone has a better idea I’ll ask ‘how are you overcoming that?'”
A sergeant in the 82nd airborne, on June 7, 2012, in Kandahar province in Afghanistan, Leroy was on a patrol when his friend stepped on an improvised explosive device bomb. As Leroy and a colleague carried the injured man away on a stretcher, Leroy himself stepped on another explosive. The friend Leroy was carrying died, and he himself almost instantly knew that he had lost his legs.
“I remember my ears ringing, dirt in my mouth and trying to stand back up,” Leroy, a Jupiter, Florida native, remembers. “I knew right away that I didn’t have my legs, my bones were in the ground, both my feet were missing.”
Leroy’s long recovery began in Landstuhl, Germany and then back home in the United States for rehab. It was a hard start as he wasn’t able to stay in prosthetics for very long: It ended up taking revision surgeries in September 2014 to make it easier.
But by January 2015, the budding athlete had his first running legs and the next month, he ran his first 5k. Nine months later, he ran a half marathon, and six months following, he completed the Boston Marathon.
RELATED: Prince Harry Kicks Off Invictus Games
Helping him along the way, Leroy has different prosthetics for different sports but mainly uses an X3 from Ottobock for walking, hiking and backpacking. He says that’s the prosthetic that “makes me feel as if I’m not missing my leg.” He adds: “I have control with it.”
Leroy, who is a student and hopes to earn a degree in biomedical engineering, took part in 2016’s Invictus Games in Orlando, winning bronze in the 400m dash and gold in the team sitting volleyball. This year he will be one of 550 competitors taking part in eight days of competition from September 23-30 in Toronto, Canada.
“Adaptive sports are a huge part of how I stay positive,” he says.
He lauds Invictus for bringing people together to overcome their doubts and serve as a reminder that they’re not alone.
“In a lot of situations, you don’t have that companionship,” he says. “I live in Florida. I see other amputees very rarely, and when I’m running I’m the only amputee running in my town. To bring us all together again at Invictus is great to encourage that growth and that recovery.”
The competition, Leroy says, is eliminating a void that was felt in the veteran community: “There was a need for this all along. And it wasn’t being filled. Harry filled that need, by stepping up to the plate and brought Invictus forward.”