In December 2005, Sergeant Noah Galloway was deployed on his second tour of duty in Iraq when his life changed forever. An IED took his left arm above the elbow and his left leg above the knee. Unconscious for five days, he awoke on Christmas Eve to a sobering new reality: months of physical rehabilitation as well as emotional scars that included depression, withdrawal and self-medicating with alcohol—quite a decline from the motivated competitive athlete he’d been.

Realizing he wasn’t going to let his loss define him, Galloway turned his life around to become a competitive adventure racer in Spartan and Tough Mudder events, a personal trainer and motivational speaker. Now he’s taking his inspirational message to the unlikely—and for him, totally unfamiliar—forum of the dance floor as a contestant on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars (Mondays at 8/9c, beginning tonight).

He explains how he did it—and why he wants that cheesy mirror ball—in this candid conversation.

“I may never be rich and famous, but if I can always be giving back and doing more for my community and veterans and those that are in need, then I am doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Under the circumstances, self-pity is understandable. But how did you get out of it?
It was a slow progression. I realized that I wasn’t being a very good father and that needed to change. Every time I’d look at myself and see my injuries I got bitter and angry and I’d want to drink more. But there was one impactful moment I had in front of the mirror. I was always into fitness before I got injured and one day I decided I needed to quit looking at what I was missing and focus on what I still had left.

Because I was so into fitness before, I saw that as what I needed to do to get back to who I was. Even though there was nothing online or in books or magazines about how to get in shape with missing limbs, I started [training] and it excited me. It reminded me of when I first got into fitness when I was 12 or 13 years old. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m learning new things again.’ I started doing marathons, all sorts of races to challenge myself. I’m an adrenaline junkie. If there’s a challenge I want to go after it.

Is that why you wanted do Dancing With the Stars?
I’d never considered it. They called me because they had never had anyone missing an arm or a leg above the knee. They had Amy Purdy on, and she’s amazing, but it’s a completely different ballgame, it’s much harder. I’m getting a prosthetic arm made but I won’t wear it for every dance. This first dance is the cha-cha and I have no problem. My right arm is very strong. The prosthetic arm is going to be just for the ballroom dances where you need that frame.

Did you have any dance experience whatsoever? Had you ever watched the show?
No. They asked me what I do if I go to a bar. I said, ‘I just stand there. I’m a talker. I don’t dance.’ I watched a couple of episodes after they called me. Even though I didn’t follow the show I knew that dancers are in amazing shape and put in a lot of work and I respected that. I knew it was going to be work but I’ve really enjoyed it. Because I’m already in shape I can use that strength and conditioning to my advantage. But the downside is I’m a perfectionist and I get so mad at rehearsal. Sharna [Burgess, his partner] says, ‘What are you upset about? You just started a few days ago. It’s not going to be perfect.’ She said she would prefer I not be perfect the first week. She wants people to see the growth each week. So I just need to relax and enjoy myself.

Is it important to you to win? If so, what’s your strategy? In every event where I’ve done well, I didn’t let my mind psych me out. I just have a good time and see how far I go. When I’ve done that in the past it’s worked. Just being asked to be on the show is an honor. I could do three weeks and go home with a smile on my face. But I needed to hear from Sharna that she wanted to win. If someone is counting on me, I’m going to work that much harder. When she told me she wanted that mirror ball trophy, I told her, ‘OK, let’s go get it.’

What do you hope to get out of it?

I see it as a larger platform to share my story and to motivate others. Sometimes I’ll wonder why I’m eating such a strict diet and always working out, but then I’ll get an email or a message on Facebook from another amputee saying they were out of shape but I’ve taken their excuses away. The most incredible messages are from parents of children who are born with disabilities, missing a leg or an arm. They see me doing all that I’m doing and tell me it comforts them to know that their child can follow those footsteps.

When I first started working out and racing I was doing it for myself, but it’s become something so much bigger than that. And I want to continue doing it. I want to be able to do more to give back. Before this started, I started the No Excuses Charitable Fund. The money goes to Operation Enduring Warrior that works with injured veterans. They’ve done a lot for me. And the local YMCA [Alabaster, Alabama] and their youth programs. They’ve been good to me and my kids are involved in all their sports programs. I may never be rich and famous, but if I can always be giving back and doing more for my community and veterans and those that are in need, then I am doing what I’m supposed to do.

Why is that so important to you?

Ever since I was injured, even when I was going through my depression, and later when I started competing, people in the community and everywhere I went were so supportive of me and our military. I miss the military. I now accept my injuries and my purpose, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d give anything to be back in and deployed. I have so much respect for those that are still in, still enlisting. My girlfriend told me she always wanted to join and was afraid she’d get too old and regret it. She’s in basic training right now. She’s with a guy that’s missing two limbs from being in, and she still wanted to go in.

You’re a divorced dad, right?
I am. My oldest son is with my first wife, when I was in the military. I loved being in the military and made her second to that and it ruined the relationship. After I was injured I rushed into a second marriage that didn’t work out, but I get along with both of my ex-wives. The children understand where I stand and that I’ll always be their father. My youngest is my little girl Ryan, she’s five; my middle son Jack is seven, and my oldest son Colston is ten. Because of the depression and not being a good father in the past, I now put my kids first in everything I do. They wanted me to move out to L.A. for the show and I said I wouldn’t do that. I’ve been flying back and forth to Alabama, and we rehearse in Birmingham.

In everything I do I’m trying to show them that nothing can stop you, no matter what happens. I hope to always show them that there are no excuses, and you should always do your best. I want my kids to see that sometimes you do your best and don’t win but that’s OK.

Do you feel that your injury happened for a reason and fueled your mission in life?
Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. I know able-bodied individuals that don’t use the best of what they have. We should all use what we have and make it work. Now I’m making my injury work for me. I went back to the gym in the hopes of being what I was before, but I think I’m better now. The experiences I’ve had and the way I’ve had to adapt to everything around me, I have a better appreciation of everything.

See the full video by Hampton Road Studios at noahgalloway.com.