Ten months ago, Capt. Justin Decker did something he never thought his injuries would allow: he got back on his bike, a two-wheeled recumbent that for the past five years had been collecting dust.
It was a move, the Fort Hood Warrior Transition Unit soldier said, that would change his life because it not only recharged him mentally and physically, but it also championed his competitive spirt.
Last week, thanks to the members of Fort Hood’s Project Hero cycling group, who encouraged him to give cycling another chance, Decker was at Fort Bliss competing with 125 other wounded, ill and injured soldiers and Army veterans from across the county in the 2016 Army Trials.
Hosted by the Warrior Transition Command, the Army Trials help determine which athletes get selected to represent Team Army at the DOD Warrior Games. Training and practice sessions began Feb. 27 with competition running March 6-10 at the El Paso base.
During the Army Trials, Decker won nine medals: Gold in cycling recumbent, discus seated and shotput seated; Silver in 200-meter wheelchair, 400 wheelchair, 800 wheelchair and 1500 wheelchair; and Bronze in air rifle prone and 100 wheelchair.
The Army Trials include soldier and veteran athletes who will face off in archery, basketball, cycling, track and field, swimming, shooting, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball. Participants include athletes with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, visual impairment, serious illnesses and amputations.
“I really am surprised at the impact cycling has had on my life,” said Decker, 32, a signal officer. He said he was in a mental slump when he returned to the WTU April of last year, five years after he left the WTU and returned to duty.
“I believed I was broken, and I couldn’t do any of the things I used to do. Once I started cycling with the group, the light bulb turned on. I was hooked. The more I cycled, the more competitive I became,” adding that switching to a three-wheeled bike improved his riding technique because it help resolved some of the balance issues he was having with his two-wheeled recumbent.
“I wasn’t very good,” he said on the first time he took a lap around the track on the three-wheeled, wheelchair-racing bike powered by his arms and not his legs. “I was winded, and my arms were sore. It was grueling,” adding that with encouragement and help from coaches, he became better.
Joining him on the field last week was other Fort hood WTU athletes, including Spc. Nathan Butler, who competed in seated discus and shot put, swimming, wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball.
“It’s definitely exciting to get picked up for the Trials,” said the 24-year-old Butler. He said he never thought he would be able to play competitive sports after hurting his back during his 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. “Getting back to competition is a big deal for me.”
Instrumental to rekindling that competitive spirit is his 3-year-old son, Cameron.
“I wanted to let him know that even if you are hurt, you can still get out. That it’s all mental,” said the single parent and former cavalry scout, adding how WTU’s adaptive sports program has cultivated a positive mindset for him.
One of Butler’s favorite competitions is wheelchair basketball, which led him to join the Harker Heights Hustlers, a local team that competes in tournaments.
“Playing around older veterans has definitely improved my morale,” said Butler, who arrived at the WTU last April. “I hurt my back, but I have all my limbs, so when you see these guys out there with no arms or legs playing basketball, it is a huge inspiration. They also have really helped me integrate back into the community.”
Decker said competing alongside amputees and paralyzed athletes also was a big factor in his motivation.
“I was like, ‘wow’ the first time I saw their athleticism,” he said. “If they can do it, I can do it, so they are the ones who actually motivated me to push harder.“
Besides Decker and Butler, other Fort Hood WTU warrior athletes who competed in the trials are: 1st Lt. Christopher Parks, Maj. Janet Rose, Spc. Tyniki Thomas and Spc. Claire Usanase, as well as a handful of Central Texas Army veterans and WTU alums.
Approximately 45 athletes will be chosen for Team Army, who will then compete with the other military services during the 2016 The DOD-sponsored games, which will be held June 14-22 at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.