When Justin Widhalm was struck by his first IED, he was knocked unconscious. He eventually came to with a deafening ringing in his ears.
“I thought that all of my teeth had been knocked out,” the veteran sniper recalls. He struggled to get his bearings in the burning Humvee.
“You’re trying to think of what you need to do next to ensure that the guys you brought into combat make it home.”
That was in January of 2006. Widhalm, now one of 21 American military veterans competing at the 2015 Parapan Am Games, would go on to be hit by a staggering 12 IEDs while travelling in armoured convoys in Iraq. The constant concussions were taking a toll on him. But it was an incident in a howling night sandstorm night in September of 2006 that forced Widhalm to end his military career.
“We were on a night insertion out of a Blackhawk helicopter,” the track cyclist says. “We just got sideswept by a gust of wind. The pilot pulled up on the stick of the controls and took us up. At an estimated 25 to 35 feet, I was thrown out and landed in a concrete irrigation canal.”
Widhalm broke his back in three places, as well as both feet in the fall. His knees also had to be reconstructed. Severe enough, those wounds paled in comparison to the traumatic brain injury he suffered. With his short-term memory erased, Widhalm would be unable to speak clearly for the next three years.
In 2004, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) created the USOC Paralympic Military Program.
“Sports is a tool — a platform to get them back in life,” John Register, of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), said of the program he helped found.
“I call it post-traumatic growth.”
The program has seen dozens of wounded military veterans compete in the Paralympic Games. A veteran of the first Gulf War who was on his way to become an Olympic hurdler, Register lost his left leg during a training accident in 1994.
“The value of the program is that it shows these service members life does move forward.”
Widhalm is soft-spoken, yet earnest. He has a tattoo on his right forearm of a memorial to American troops that was constructed from the melted bronze of a statue of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The image is surrounded by the words “Some gave all” and “All gave some.”
Widhalm also wears a bullet as a necklace.
“I took it out of the rifle of an enemy sniper that was trying to ambush us,” the 37-year-old said. “I’ve got my life around my neck.”
After placing third in the Men’s 1-km Time Trial in track cycling on Monday, Widhalm now has a bronze medal to add to his collection.
“I was forced off the field of battle — I didn’t leave it the way I wanted to go out,” Widhalm says. “To be able to represent and have the USA on my chest again is an indescribable feeling of pride.”
Widhalm’s journey to the Parapan Am Games — one of his first major international competitions — was beset with difficulties. His short-term memory was so bad after his accident that he’d wash his hair again and again while showering, going through entire bottles of shampoo. Labels had to be left around his house to help him remember everyday tasks, such as brushing his teeth. For years, he also walked with double forearm crutches. Doctors told him that he’d never be able to get around without them. Racked by PTSD and depression, Widhalm attempted to take his own life.
His breakthrough came when his platoon sergeant introduced him to the hand cycle. But the soldier decided he could do better, so he began practising on a stationary bike in his Colorado Springs basement. At first, he was so prone to falling that his wife of 12 years made him wear a helmet. Soon after, he was introduced to track cycling.
“I just fell in love with the velodrome.”
In 2014, Widhalm made the American national team. Since then, he’s competed in several para-cycling world championships. At one race, Widhalm laments, he finished towards the end of the pack after leading a race — he had forgotten there was another lap to go.
“I don’t think people ever fall short of their dreams and potential because they aim too high,” Widhalm says. “I want to be the best in the world and that’s what I’m training to do.”
Widhalm, who followed his father’s footsteps by joining the army, says he has no regrets about joining the family business.
“Every single person that goes to war comes back different,” the father of two young children says. “Some come back better than before — some need that as a reality check and they grow up and appreciate life. Others come back and they’re never the same again. The only thing that’s constant is change.”