'I wasn't supposed to wake up, but I did'
CHICAGO -- Hall D at McCormick Place, one of the sites of the Warrior Games, stretches hundreds of yards end to end, big enough to contain multiple basketball and volleyball courts without seeming the slightest bit cramped. On Saturday morning, Air Force Staff Sgt. Matt Cable climbed onto the main court's end bleachers to watch his fellow Wounded Warriors take on Navy in sitting volleyball.
Any athletic event between these two branches of the service is a show in itself. The play was intense. Navy fans hung a "Don't Give Up The Ship" banner on a back wall, and about 100 blue-shirted Air Force family members cheered so loudly that they drowned out the public-address system. Cable happily joined the commotion.
"When I went to my first camp, met all these Wounded Warriors, airmen and retirees, veterans, it brought a whole new perspective of life," Cable said. "It was actually quite humbling to see all these individuals and see what they've been through, their progress, where there are now, watch them grow and compete here at the Warrior Games. It's pretty awesome."
Here's the thing with the Wounded Warriors program: Some of these warriors don't appear wounded. Take Cable, 26. All his limbs are intact. He walks without a limp. And at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, he's built like a small college running back, his muscular arms and chest nearly bursting through a gray Wounded Warriors T-shirt.
In short, Cable could pass for a bouncer at a Rush Street club. Yet, he's entered in four Warrior Games track events slated for Sunday. How can that be?
A little-known fact, even among active servicemen, is that not all Wounded Warriors are wounded in combat. Many returned unhurt from overseas deployments but developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others sustained debilitating non-combat injuries. A few survived cancer. That's where Cable's Warrior Games story begins.
About 2½ years ago, Cable was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare, fast-moving cancer with a cure rate of less than 50 percent. After a round of chemotherapy, Cable developed a blood infection so severe that all his vital organs failed. Doctors induced a coma in a last-ditch effort to fight the infection and save his life. They weren't optimistic.
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"They told my mom, 'There's nothing we can do, pretty much say your goodbyes,'" Cable said. "Two days later, I started peeing four gallons a day. They're like, 'That's a good sign.' After two days, I woke up. I wasn't supposed to wake up, but I did."
Then Cable said, the real fight began.
"That first night was the roughest night of my life," he said. "I got through that night, thank God. I spent two, three weeks in the hospital recovering. I had to learn how to walk again, how to eat again. I had no balance. My legs were mush. I lost 60 pounds in 18 days. It was pretty crazy."
Especially for someone from an athletic and military background.
Both of Cable's parents and one of his grandfathers served in the Navy. Growing up in Great Falls, Montana, Cable was an All-State wrestler and a standout in football at Great Falls High School who also ran track, played baseball and powerlifted. He wrestled at the University of Great Falls, an NAIA school, before joining the Montana Air National Guard. He transitioned to active duty Air Force about 3½ years ago, stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.
"Best decision of my life," he said. "I had a lot of friends that were in the Air Force and the Guard back home that helped recruit me. The Air Force has been like family for me. My chain of command, they've all been there for me through all this."
Six months after he left the hospital and feeling depressed, Cable said his care coordinator introduced him to the Air Force Wounded Warrior program. He had no idea he was eligible.
"This whole program shows you what we've come through to adapt and overcome, mentally and physically," he said. "It's helped me meet new brothers and sisters. They're like my family now. We stay in touch through Facebook and social media, almost a daily basis. We keep each other grounded and our heads straight. Sometimes, we just need to talk it out."
Unlike the Olympics or the Paralympics, the Warrior Games jam all the track events into one day -- taking place on Sunday -- at a high school on Chicago's North Side. Cable is scheduled to run the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes, in addition to the 4x100 relay.
His leukemia has been in remission for two years, and he recently deadlifted 635 pounds in a CrossFit competition back home.
"A lot of people see me and they want to know what actually happened," he said. "The Games isn't just about competing. It's about being there for your brothers, watching their progress through their battle, as well, being there for them. It's great to see all of that."