Injured Soldier reclaims his passion for life through Federal internship

A young Soldier dressed in fatigues and leaning on a cane, holds his young son, also dressed in fatigues.

Justin Widhalm greets his son after returning injured from a deployment in 2006. Through Operation Warfighter, Justin found a new passion for life after his injury. Photo courtesy of Justin Widhalm.

With the example of a veteran father who spent 27 years in the Army to follow, Justin Widhalm didn’t have much trouble selecting his own life path.

“I wanted to play Soldier for the rest of my life,” Justin said. “I didn’t have a back-up plan.”

Nor did he think he would ever need one. Justin joined the Army National Guard while he was still in high school and spent three years there before going on active duty as a field artilleryman. After a short break to attend college, Justin re-enlisted in 2003 and deployed to Iraq shortly thereafter.

After completing sniper school, Justin returned to Iraq a second time as a Task Force Sniper Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge. He was exposed to multiple blasts and explosions during this second deployment, and the responsibility for making life-and-death decisions on a daily basis started to weigh on him as well.

But it was a bad landing jumping out of a helicopter that sent him home in 2006 with a broken back and shattered knees and feet that had to be completely reconstructed. Once he returned to Fort Carson, Colorado, to begin his medical treatment and recovery, Justin was also diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

His recovery was slow and hard. Once active and athletic, Justin had difficulty walking even short distances and rode everywhere on a Segway. Now nervous and overwhelmed in crowds and group environments, his degree in early childhood education seemed useless. In 2007 he hit rock bottom and made a suicide attempt just before Christmas.

“I just couldn’t handle the new norm when they were telling me that my athletic career, my Army career were all over,” Justin said. “I was so sure there was nothing out there that I could do.”

For the next year, Justin hardly left his house. His phobia of crowds intensified. He had difficulty recalling the words he needed to express himself. He suffered seizures and mood swings. He even stopped caring about the threat of disciplinary action from his military chain of command. Despite a strong network of support, including his wife and young children and an AW2 Advocate, he was depressed and despondent.  

But then, toward the beginning of 2009, Justin had what he calls “the pop.”

“Basically I was talking to an old Vietnam veteran and he told me straight that I was lucky to be alive,” Justin recalled. “That day I went from feeling like I was a victim to feeling like I was a survivor.”

And so the process of building a new life plan began. First, Justin got involved with the U.S. Paralympic Committee through their military program and became an avid cyclist and racer.

“That got me a lot of confidence back,” Justin said. “It was in my comfort zone and it taught me that there truly is no limit to the adaptation you can make to live your life. I mean, the doctors told me I would never use my legs again, but there you go.”

A man wearing a baseball cap and down vest stands in front of an Olympic torch display.

Internships through Operation Warfighter and with the Paralympic Division of the U.S.Olympic Committee helped Justin Widhalm realize there was no limit to what he could do, despite being a wounded warrior. Photo courtesy of Justin Widhalm.

Justin’s next step was to examine what career he really wanted. After some contemplation, Justin decided he’d like to try his hand at public affairs, and started an Operation Warfighter internship with the Army public affairs office at Fort Carson. It was all new territory, but he took to the work easily.

“Through that internship I learned that I could still contribute something. There was still something I could do and I still had a passion in life,” Justin said.

After another six months of interning with the U.S. Olympic Committee in the Paralympic Division, Justin retired from the Army on October 14, 2010 and immediately started a full-time position with the USO as a program manager for warrior and family care. His OWF internship experience was the perfect preparation, Justin said, and to him, it’s nothing short of the perfect job.

“When my boss asks me, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ I say, ‘Right here.’ I want to be in the position I’m in,” Justin said.

In addition to his success in the job market, Justin has continued his success in the athletic arena as well. A competitor in the 2010 Warrior Games, he now has his eye on a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team headed for London this year.

The greatest lesson from his road to recovery, Justin said, has been the realization that there is no limit to what wounded warriors can do. For any roadblock, there is an adaptation, and a way to overcome.

“You can overcome anything,” Justin said. “But I don’t want to be remembered for what I’ve overcome. I want to choose what I’m defined by.”