- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

PRETORIA, South Africa — Pvt. Andries Nhlengethwa jumps from planes and lifts 100-pound weights. He also happens to have HIV.The 31-year-old parachutist and bodybuilder is one of the few South African soldiers living openly with the deadly virus, presenting a new face of the pandemic on a continent where AIDS drugs are rare and infection often means a death sentence.

Many of his fellow soldiers would rather die silently than “face reality and go and be tested,” Pvt. Nhlengethwa said in the tiny office at 1 Military Hospital, where he counsels patients about coping with the illness. “If they see a person like me, who looks so fit and healthy, who does bodybuilding, then maybe they will do something about it.”

Pvt. Nhlengethwa joined the South African National Defense Force in 1997, as the country was emerging from white-racist rule. He has taken more than 360 jumps and wears his parachutist wings with pride.

Pvt. Nhlengethwa tested positive for HIV after serving in the South African force that helped put down fighting in neighboring Lesotho in 1998.

The news was a shock, but he found out as much as he could about the virus, which has infected an estimated 23 percent of South Africa’s armed forces. He now shares that information with everyone he can.

At first, some reacted with fear. Fellow soldiers stopped dropping by to see him. His relatives refused to let their children play with his 7-year-old son, who is not infected. But his openness encouraged others to be tested and seek treatment, which now is available free to military staff through a U.S.-funded research program.

Pvt. Nhlengethwa insists he can do anything his fellow soldiers can do, but has had to make adjustments; South Africa won’t deploy him abroad again.

He took up bodybuilding when doctors advised him to quit boxing lest he infect others. He is now one of the most popular people at the gym, puffing out his chest and flexing his muscles for his admirers.

Last year, as South Africa celebrated 10 years of all-race democracy, Pvt. Nhlengethwa threw a party to mark six years of living with HIV.

Some who attended that party are no longer here, he said.

He credits his continued good health to careful medical attention, good food, lots of exercise and a positive attitude.

“I think there will be sufferers from HIV/AIDS, and there will be survivors,” he said. “I strongly believe that I am one of those survivors.”

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