CHICAGO -- One of the most poignant moments of last year's Warrior Games, the Paralympics-style event for injured servicemen and veterans from the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia, happened during the gold medal ceremony for sitting volleyball.
Then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James was presenting gold medals to the victorious Air Force team at West Point when Brian Williams, a master sergeant who lost his left leg to an IED in Afghanistan, gave his medal right back to her. More than a year earlier James approved Williams' application to remain in the Air Force, overturning an appeals board that felt Williams' injuries -- and there were many -- were too severe for him to remain on active duty. Williams said he was simply trying to show his gratitude.
"I was on a natural high and I just wanted to extend the same thing to her because I don't know if she's ever going to get a gold medal," Williams said. "So here. Here's mine. Take it. "She was taken aback at first. She said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'I'm serious. I've won golds before and I know how it makes me feel.'"
Adaptive athletics helps Williams, 35, cope with his injuries. Born into a military family -- his father, Lionel, and mother, Katherine, are both retired U.S. Army -- a young Williams moved around the country with them until his father retired in 1992. They settled in Arizona, where in 2000 Williams enlisted in the Air Force. Older and younger brothers served in the Marines and the Air Force, respectively.
A military working dog handler, Williams was on his sixth overseas deployment and second to Afghanistan when a bomb nearly tore him apart.
In April 2012, Williams and his German Shepherd, Carly, were asked to help clear an enemy compound in Helmond province. Once they secured the first floor, Williams took Carly off his leash to search a room on the second floor.
"He went directly in the room and never came out," Williams said. "I called for him, he didn't come back. That's when I said, I don't know what he's doing, let me go get him. I went up the steps.
"That's when it went off."
The dog was fine, but Williams' injuries were extensive. Left leg amputated above the knee. Injuries to all four limbs. Soft tissue damage. A compound fracture of left wrist. Several lost teeth. Ringing in the ears. "Stuff like that," he said. A doctor told him the watch on his left wrist likely kept his hand from being blown off.
Recovery took months. "I can only recall one day in particular where I had an emotional breakdown, crying on my girlfriend's shoulder," he said. "It was two weeks after I got back to the States. I just realized how drastically things were going to change for me forever. Just that one time. Other than that, I wake up and conduct business as I need to."
Williams loved the military and still felt he had something to offer, so he appealed to the Air Force Medical Evaluation Board to remain in the service. They turned him down, recommending that he retire. The Air Force allowed him to adopt Carly about a year after he returned, but Williams wanted more.
His superiors valued him as a potential instructor and urged him to appeal. A friend injured the year before already held a similar job, and the holdup frustrated Williams. Eventually the appeal reached James, who reversed the board's decision.
"There were a lot of people in my corner when it came to returning me to service," he said. "But ultimately it was her and her office that made that final decision when it came to the appeals process."
Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, said the Air Force is trying to keep more wounded airmen like Williams on active duty. Hearing stories from Warrior Games participants, he said, reminds him of that task. "It's really inspiring," Goldfein said earlier this week. "These young men and women, they've got challenges they're working through. Perhaps the most powerful thing that goes on here at the Warrior Games, they get to talk about and compare their experiences with others who are going through similar experiences. They're not all alone. They talk about the different struggles they're going through and the success they have, and it becomes one big family. For us, as leaders of a service, it's an opportunity to really focus our efforts on this network and this family to make sure we're doing all we can for them."
In February 2015 Williams began a four-year stint as an instructor at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. Never athletically minded as a kid, Williams signed up for the Air Force Wounded Warrior program (known as AFW2) and Warrior Games training. This will be his third Warrior Games. He won a silver in sitting volleyball and a bronze in wheelchair basketball in 2015, and bronzes last year in basketball in cycling in addition to volleyball gold.
He prefers the teamwork of volleyball and basketball to individual events. That's why the volleyball gold inspired his gesture to James.
"It was rough start that day," he said. "We weren't clicking as a team. The pool-play matches, we were at each other's throats. I guess everyone thought we weren't going to do anything because we didn't do anything in pool play.
"She sat there, she watched us come together as a team, as a collective, and beat these other branches in sitting volleyball. To my understanding, the Air Force never won gold in sitting volleyball until last year. We didn't have anybody on that team from the Paralympics or a farm team. The other branches did. The fact we were able to do that with the Bad News Bears, or the Cleveland Indians from Major League, that was a great feeling."