JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
Recovering Marines assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East detachment at San Antonio Military Medical Center, or SAMMC, participated in this year's Marine Corps Trials April 5-23.
The trials, multi-sport competitions for wounded, ill, or injured service members and veterans, aims to rehabilitate and develop camaraderie among participants. It serves as the first level of competition for participating members and selected winners can go on to compete in the Warrior Games.
“After more than six years, I continue to work with the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Battalion because I can see the positive impact that adapted sports have in recovering service members and their families,” said Nicole Neumann, Warrior Athlete Reconditioning Program manager.
One of the recovering participants from the SAMMC detachment is Lance Cpl. Austin Smith.
Smith grew up in Robson, Texas, and at a young age, he knew he wanted to join the military. Although a few of his relatives served in the Army, he had other plans.
“I decided that I wanted to do something harder than the rest of my family, so I joined the Marine Corps,” Smith said. “I was lucky enough to get a job as a heavy equipment operator, and it’s been a dream job for me.”
Smith’s boot camp and infantry school took place at Camp Pendleton, California. He was then stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for his military occupational specialty code training.
A typical day at Fort Leonard Wood for Smith consisted of physical training, a routine room inspection, and heavy equipment operator training.
“Throughout the day, I would help the instructors prep tractors and stage equipment for the new Marines in training,” Smith said.
In early March of 2019, while still at training, Smith made a life-changing discovery.
Smith woke up at his normal time of 3:30 a.m. and realized that a softball-sized lump had formed on his right testicle.
“I was completely taken by surprise,” Smith said. “I thought it was just swelling and didn’t know what to think.”
After two weeks, Smith began noticing lumps forming on his chest and decided to take action. He contacted the clinic to set up an appointment. The examining doctor performed a full-body physical and noticed the severity of the situation right away.
“When the doctor told me that I had cancer, I couldn’t believe it,” Smith said. “He told me right away that it was bad.”
Smith was diagnosed with stage 3A testicular cancer.
Smith decided not to tell his family about his condition until he knew what the next course of action was. His first sergeant put in a transfer request for him to move from Fort Leonard Wood to Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston under the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East detachment at SAMMC.
“I was excited to move to Texas, but I was also scared because I knew that was when my chemotherapy treatment would start,” Smith said. “I knew when I got there I would have to face my family, and I wasn't sure I was ready for that.”
When Smith arrived in Texas, he was immediately welcomed by other recovering Marines. He was informed about the treatment he would be receiving, and about all that is offered to service members at the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East.
“I was told about the Marine Corps Trials, and Warrior Games by two Marine recovering service members, and they both were Warrior Game gold medalists,” Smith said. “They were one of the reasons why I was looking forward to participating in the games as soon as they became available to me.”
Smith had a fellow Marine who helped him through his transfer to Texas and his treatment process.
“My good friend, Ryan Gunter, helped me a lot, both mentally and physically,” Smith said. “He forced me to go to the gym so my body would be strong enough for chemo.”
Smith said Gunter volunteered to take him to his doctor appointments and was there if he needed anything.
“I assigned Smith as my number two in the unit,” Gunter said. “At the time, he was battling cancer, stress, a full workload, and I never had any problems. Smith has an almost infallible character and mentality.”
After a few surgeries and aggressive cancer treatments, Smith is in remission but sustained some permanent damage. He said his motor skills and memory were both affected, and due to his surgeries, he is unable to have children.
Soon after his recovery, Smith was able to begin training for the Marine Corps Trials.
“These games give me a chance to show that no matter what I've been through, I'm still able to adapt,” he said. “It shows that through the struggle, I still have the heart and the will to train.”
This will likely be Smith’s last year in the Wounded Warrior program as an active-duty service member, but he still plans to compete in the trials as a veteran.
“I had to push myself to my ultimate goal to be here today,” he said at this year’s trials. “The biggest part of being a Wounded Warrior is learning how to function with your new life and learn from those experiences to make yourself better.”