By Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
“You have to live in the now,” said retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Justin Wildhalm. He was addressing a crowd of Schriever members during a resiliency briefing Oct. 12 in the multipurpose building.
Wildhalm practiced what he preached. He graduated top of his class, became a national champion wrestler as well as qualifier for the U.S. Olympic trials.
“For everything I did, I always held myself to a higher standard,” he said. “Eventually, that led me to join the armed service.”
Wildhalm entered active-duty service in 1998, then was stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., and served for the Army’s World-Class Athlete Program, which provides support and training to outstanding Soldier-athletes and helps them succeed in national and international competitions as well as the Olympic and Paralympic games.
He got out and attended the University of Nebraska to pursue a degree in elementary special education. In 2003, he returned to active service. After just 10 days at Fort Carson, he was deployed to Iraq. His first day in Iraq, he was out on patrol when his team got ambushed. He ended up flipping his first sergeant’s vehicle. He took out two threats with his M-16 rifle, which paved the way for his entrance into the rifle school after deployment.
In 2006, Wildhalm was leading his team on a night sniper mission aboard a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq on another deployment. The helicopter tilted suddenly in a windstorm causing Wildhalm to fall out of the aircraft from approximately 30 feet in the air and land in a concrete irrigation canal. He broke both of his feet, dislocated his knees, broke his back and suffered a concussion.
Later, he was medically evacuated from Iraq to the United States to undergo numerous surgeries and rehabilitation therapy.
“The hardest part for me was coming back because my guys were still there,” Wildhalm said. “The first night I was back in the U.S., I was watching the news when I saw my sniper buddy from the sniper school, my best friend, had been killed in the exact spot that I was supposed to be on that night.”
It was difficult for Wildhalm and his family. While the physical aspect of recovery was daunting, the mental part was nearly more than the sergeant could bear.
“When I shower, I can’t remember if I washed my hair so I keep washing it,” he said.
It came to a head in 2007 when his doctors told him his brain injury was not going to get better and his military career was done.
“At that time, I couldn’t take it,” Wildhalm said. “I tried to take my life.”
Wildhalm said the biggest regret was what his family went through.
“I didn’t realize I was looking for an easy way out for me and my family,” he said. “They don’t have to take care of me. They can move on. I am not much of a burden for them.”
It took a meeting with a Vietnam veteran who was a helicopter pilot to change his life’s perspective and give him inspiration.
“He said, ‘You know how lucky you are to be alive,’” Wildhalm said. “At that moment, my whole life took a complete metamorphosis, a total change of thinking. From ‘woe is me’ and ‘why is this happening?’ to being ‘I’m a survivor.’ I need to get my life back.”
Wildhalm tried different sports including cycling, biathlons and more; he also joined the U.S. Paralympics. He works with the USO Warrior and Family Care program in Colorado Springs, Colo. He is also a Wounded Warrior advocate, telling his story to various groups and organizations.
“If you’re not happy with who you are while looking at yourself in a mirror at this exact moment, then you need to be doing something that is going to change that,” he said. “That’s the only thing you can do. You cannot live in the past, you have to live in the now.”
Chaplain (Capt.) Amber Kiesel, 50th Space Wing, said she was inspired by Wildhalm’s life story.
“I thought it was great, especially considering his traumatic brain injury, his memory loss issues and that he was able to articulate his story that held our attention,” Kiesel said. “He wasn’t looking for sympathy; he was trying to help encourage us. He helps us get through the mundane and educate us to try to live life to the fullest.”