Wounded while serving his adopted country 25 years to the day Saturday, Carlos Moleda has never let paralysis slow him down.
Moleda -- a U.S. Navy SEAL veteran and a native of Brazil who became an American citizen in 1980 -- was shot near the spine during a firefight in Panama on Dec. 20, 1989. The injury paralyzed him from the waist down, but the Bluffton resident has won two national handcycling championships, four Ironman challenges, and rode from California to Maryland in 2009. He also is a motivational speaker.
But the one thing Moleda hasn't been able to do is restore the 1952 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon he purchased five years ago. Even with Moleda's resolve, the monumental task required many resources, and even more time.
That's where Skoti Collins and "Wheels for Warriors" came in.
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Moleda and his Buick are the focus of the pilot episode of the TV show, which helps veterans like Moleda restore and repair their cars. Actor Dean Cain, a friend of Collins and a supporter of many military causes, will host the show. Film crews came to Bluffton and Hilton Head Island twice this year, in September and December, to document the car's restoration.
Attempts Friday to reach Moleda for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
The restoration was originally expected to be done this month, but substantially more work was needed. The engine needs to be rebuilt, and the car's interior needs to be refinished.
Parts for the car, such as the iconic wood panels on the car's exterior, are hard to come by, requiring them to be custom built. The restoration will cost nearly $100,000, but some supplies were donated by Hilton Head resident Bill Head, who owns several garages on the island, Collins said.
"He bought the car when he was 47 and wanted to have it finished by the time he was 50," Collins said. "He'll turn 52 on Monday. We have 10 guys working on it now. He never would have gotten the car finished."
Collins has worked on 200 to 300 projects during his career, from Rihanna's music videos to the "Transformers" films. He said Friday "Wheels for Warriors" was the most rewarding work.
"It's the best idea I've ever come up with," he said. "We're taking a chance on it and financing it ourselves, but it's an amazing idea. These aren't just cars for the veterans; it's therapy."
Collins first heard of Moleda and his story more than a year ago through Rich Evans, a Huntington Beach, Calif., car designer who leads the restoration effort in the pilot. Evans had designed a car for a California Highway Patrol officer paralyzed in a shooting, who like Moleda became a handcycler.
He initially contacted Moleda to have him work as a mentor on the show, but Collins soon realized Moleda would be a perfect centerpiece for the pilot. In September, after speaking to friends and family about the idea, they surprised Moleda with the news that his car would be the show's first restoration.
Evans' team came to Hilton Head Island earlier this month, staying 11 days to begin the work. Moleda's two-car garage was too small to handle the work, but the show found a new site in Bob Gregory's "man cave" on Hilton Head, saving the team thousands in location fees.
The Hilton Head resident regularly hosts fundraising events for local causes at the converted warehouse, formerly owned by a roofing company. The building stores his large classic car collection; his most recent addition is a 1982 DMC DeLorean.
"This is the best feel-good project we've done," Gregory said. "I liked the idea. We're helping a Navy SEAL. Who wouldn't do that?"
Collins has regularly updated the progress they make on Moleda's Buick on the show's Facebook page, and word about the show has led to a groundswell among veterans and their families. More than 100 people have contacted them asking to help out on similar car restorations, but Collins doesn't have a research team to look into each story yet.
The finished pilot will be completed in time for airing in February, when networks often shop for new shows to pick up.
Collins said the completed car will be unveiled by Cain in January, possibly with a parade on Hilton Head or in Old Town Bluffton. Several local veterans groups and classic car clubs have already expressed interest in the parade. Gregory said Moleda and his restored Buick might also be involved in next year's Concours d'Elegance Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival.
"When I heard his story, I felt sorry for him," Gregory said. "Once I met him, I quit feeling sorry for him. He's an amazing guy."