JUNE 21, 2016, WEST POINT, N.Y. – While attending Airborne School, U.S. Army Capt. Justin Decker knew instantly that something felt different during his third of five jumps required to earn the coveted airborne “Jump” wings. At first he adopted the ‘ignore it and it’ll go away strategy,’ until the pain eventually became too great. It wasn’t until sometime later that an MRI revealed one of his vertebrae had slipped out of position. “I simply did not think it was as bad as it turned out to be,” said Decker.
Immediately after surgery Decker stated that he felt better, but soon thereafter the pain returned. It turned out that the vertebrae itself was continuing to grow and was pressing into a nerve. A second surgery ensued, attempting to arrest the bone growth. It was unsuccessful. Today, Decker and his doctors are foregoing, for as long as possible, the undertaking of yet another surgery.
Having twice been assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, Warrior Transition Unit, Decker has witnessed tremendous growth in WTU adaptive sports opportunities. During his first WTU assignment, in 2008, he was forced to go out on his own in acquiring a recumbent bicycle. By the time of his second assignment to the WTU, a full-fledged cycling group had been established. “So I joined up with the group, pulled my bike out of storage and got back on it after a five-year hiatus,” Decker said. “On that very first day it all came back to me. That’s really what spring-boarded me into adaptive reconditioning.”
After advancing through Army Trials Decker, is competing in his first Warrior Games, being held at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, June 15-21.
Decker says that he had always been an avid cyclist but, at the WTU, he was also introduced to wheelchair racing, though, after having tried it for the first time he swore he’d never do so again. “I only went around the track twice and every part of my body hurt, especially my arms,” said Decker. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all.”
Cycling remains his favorite sport but Decker said that wheelchair racing is now a close second.
Other than cycling and baseball, sports did not figure prominently in Decker’s childhood.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Decker’s father served in the Air Force while his mother is a pastor, specializing in ministering to the military. She is present at West Point cheering on her son as he competes in cycling, track, field, shooting and sitting volleyball.
Decker claims that he is in the best shape of his life. “When I got hurt all I wanted to do was sit around the house and wallow in pity,” said Decker. “Then I got into cycling and my world changed.”
Like many wounded, ill and injured, Decker contends with chronic pain. “Adaptive sports helped me reduce my pain level,” said Decker. “Plus I’m on one third of the drugs that I was taking before. When I’m stressed out, it doesn’t matter what activity, even if it’s shooting it (adaptive sports) calms me down, relaxes me far better than any pain medication I’ve ever taken.”
“Adaptive sports has shown me so many things that I can do,” he said. “I never in a hundred years thought I would be good at wheelchair racing. So, to hear the coaches say that I need to start training at the Paralympic-level… it’s like hey, I can do this! So now when I return to Fort Hood WTU I want to learn archery, and I want to learn swimming.”
Decker and his wife have two boys, ages six and eight. He views each new sporting activity as yet another thing that he can do with them as they grow up.
Skydiving likely won’t be added to this list, though Decker admits it remains in the back of his mind. , “I actually miss skydiving and think to myself… well maybe on down the line I can do it again. But convincing my wife will be another thing,” Decker added.