An athlete out of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland will represent the United States in an international warrior competition later this month. The Invictus Games is an adaptive sports competition for wounded service members from around the world.
Master Sgt. Brian Williams emerges from the locker room dressed for battle. He’s a young guy, in his mid-thirties, and he looks more comfortable in athletic clothes than in the Air Force fatigues he’s just changed out of.
The basketball court in the gym at Lackland Air Force Base is mostly empty.
Williams wheelchair is just a disembodied blue frame and two wheels before he starts putting it together.
“This is a Per4Max brand, which is like the Nike of basketball wheelchairs,” he says.
The wheels are angled in, and the frame is shaped like a horseshoe. Williams explains that this design helps him maneuver better when he’s on the court.
“With a standard wheelchair, you’re not able to make those quick cuts to the basket."
Williams is ready to go. He leans his prosthetic leg against the wall, straps himself into the chair and rolls out onto the court.
Before Williams started competing in wheelchair basketball, he’d gotten used to other battlegrounds.
In April of 2012 Williams was in Afghanistan, midway through his sixth deployment with the U.S. Air Force. He was working as a military dog handler. Missions ‘outside the wire' -- those areas not controlled by the American military -- had become routine.
One day, Williams was performing a village sweep and was asked to search an upstairs room in an enemy compound. His dog, Carly, disappeared inside and didn’t come out.
“It was a beautiful day. The skies were blue and everything. And then when it went off, everything was just brown. Everything was just slow. I felt like I was in the air for a very long time. I landed. "
His footsteps had triggered an IED in the stairwell. Williams was medevac’d out and taken to Kandahar.
"My leg was gone below the knee at that point. Compound fractures. Missing teeth. Lacerations to all four limbs," Williams says. "I was tired. I wanted to go to sleep. I was told not to. And I kept my eyes open as long as I could.”
Recovery took months, but he didn’t lose sight of how lucky he was to be alive.
“I know it could be worse. I know it could be worse. That’s really what’s kept me afloat.”
Williams was nearly pushed into retirement by the Air Force, but he successfully appealed the decision. He’s now able to get from point A to point B with a prosthetic leg. He’s also in the middle of a stint as an instructor with Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where he teaches new recruits how to become Security Forces Defenders.
When he’s not working, he’s training. Williams first heard about the Invictus Games while recovering.
“All I asked while I was in Walter Reed was, ‘How do I do that?’ ” he remembers.
In the Games at the end of the month, he’ll compete in wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, archery and rowing. Basketball is by far his favorite. The other sports took some convincing.
“They don’t have to twist my leg off to play wheelchair basketball," Williams says. "I’ll be out there. That was a given.”
Wheelchair basketball is similar to the stand-up version with a few exceptions. Competitors have to throw or bounce the ball after every two pushes of the wheels on the chair, otherwise they’ll be penalized for traveling.
“I mean, there’s really not a lot of difference other than the fact that you’re not going to see people dunking and stuff like that. But some of these guys have been playing for so long, they’ll get you excited. When you see somebody flip out of a chair, it’s crazy.”
This year marks Williams’ second Invictus Games. He says he’s looking forward to reuniting with his coach and a few teammates from last year.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be selected last year and this year. Two for two.”
He hopes to keep it up for years to come. In Toronto, he’ll compete alongside more than 550 wounded active duty and veteran athletes from 17 countries.