U.S. Army Veteran Justin Bawcum, 29, of Charleston was just a teenager when his reconnaissance unit was deployed to Afghanistan in June 2008. As an Infantryman, he ran 20-mile missions every day, with 70 pounds of gear on his back. He was in phenomenal physical and mental shape.
The U.S. Army describes the Infantry as “the backbone of the Army.” Justin thinks of it this way: “In the Infantry, you don’t give up. Your brain tells you that you’re done when you’ve expended about 40 percent of your energy, but you still have 60 percent left. Your body can do way more than your brain says it can.”
That philosophy remains crucial to Justin’s survival, particularly as he copes daily with a debilitating back injury sustained at war.
Just one month prior to the end of Justin’s one-year tour, the Taliban overran Justin’s unit at an out post on a mountaintop. It was on May 1, 2009. In all, three Americans, two Latvians and three Afghan National Army (ANA) troops were killed. Twelve ANA were taken hostage. Justin was shot seven times in the protective vest that covered his chest, and the force of those rounds knocked him off a cliff. He lay unconscious on rocks 50 feet below. Once they were able, fellow soldiers came for Justin and took him down the mountain.
While the soldiers regrouped at the bottom of the mountain, they heard through their radio that the battle continued. Pumped with adrenaline and feeling no pain, Justin hiked back up the mountain. “Everyone going up the mountain knew we were dead, but it didn’t matter. We don’t leave our buddies behind,” he said.
A few days later, the pain from the fall hit him. U.S. medics provided Justin with Tylenol during the last month his was in Afghanistan, and he pushed through. “Pain is weakness leaving the body. You just suck it up and move on,” he said of his injury.
Yet, the injury was severe. That fall from the cliff damaged Justin’s spine from L-1 through L-5 and caused bulging discs from T-7 through T-11. He has since developed a rare nerve disorder from the injuries.
Though Justin remains in constant pain, he plans to run in Sarah Bush Lincoln’s Races for All Paces on Saturday, May 13, at Eastern Illinois University. This will be his second year participating.
“Last year, I started preparing for it a couple weeks in advance. I developed shin splints but was committed to run the half marathon. I just wanted to see if I could still do it. After mile three, my body was numb. I couldn’t feel the pain,” Justin recalled. He ran all 13.1 miles of the race, while carrying an American flag over his shoulder. The names of his fallen buddies were inscribed on the flagpole.
This year, Justin is training further in advance, and while he is not sure which event he will run (the half marathon, 10K, 5K or 1-mile fun run/walk), he knows he will be there. “For me, I’m doing this for myself . . . to prove to myself that I can still do things, that I’m normal-- or better than normal. I’m still that guy that can run 12 miles in under three hours.”
Justin invites other veterans to join Races for All Paces to get moving again and to set their own personal bests. When registering for Races for All Paces, veterans are encouraged to check the “Veterans” box and then select a race event.
For more information about Races for All Paces, go to www.sarahbush.org or call Race Director Laura Bollan at 217 345-6828.