Published: May 5, 2013
aj. Scott Bullis planned to coach the Air Force's shooters and cyclists in the 2011 Warrior Games, an annual competition for wounded and seriously ill troops held in Colorado Springs.
Last-minute orders to Afghanistan derailed those plans.
The Peterson Air Force Base airman returned from the deployment qualified to compete next to the athletes he coached.
As an Air Force Space Command human resources officer, Bullis didn't expect to see combat during his time in Afghanistan.
He was wrong.
Bullis was attached to an Army infantry division and assigned to serve as an adviser to an Afghan general.
Several times a day, Bullis and his comrades headed out to the countryside on combat missions.
Bullis remained unscathed until Dec. 13, 2011, when insurgents attacked with a rocket propelled grenade and small-arms fire just outside the relative safety of Kabul's green zone.
'We were semi-trapped in no man's land, ' Bullis said. 'We got back to the Afghan compound with some help from the Afghan commander's security detachment. We couldn't get U.S. forces to assist us.
'It was a rough day. '
For Bullis, who received a Purple Heart, external wounds weren't the issue.
Invisible wounds, on the other hand, were.
Almost immediately after the attack, Bullis noticed that 'things just didn't seem quite right, but I couldn't put a finger on it. '
Bullis felt mentally 'fuzzy ' and found concentrating difficult. The college engineering major found himself struggling to complete basic math problems.
Eventually, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury stemming from the attack.
Testing discovered that his IQ, once well above average, had dropped.
His demeanor changed, too. The once laid-back, easy-going Bullis found that his 'level of tolerance for frustration dropped dramatically. '
The attack left Bullis a changed man with altered goals. He no longer feels as capable of completing the doctoral program he'd hoped to finish.
One goal didn't change: returning to coaching at the 2012 Warrior Games.
Once back on U.S. soil, Bullis resumed his work with the Air Force's shooting and cycling competitors.
Some of his comrades asked if he'd compete in the games.
Always one to shun the spotlight, Bullis responded 'no ' - until a coach told him he would compete alongside the men and women on his team.
'He had access to my files and was like, 'You're fully qualified, and I know you can ride because you already beat all the athletes you're training,'? ' Bullis said. 'He didn't really give me a choice. '
Though he didn't place in shooting in 2012, he finished second in recumbent cycling with fellow airman Senior Master Sgt. Mike Sanders, a cancer survivor.
In what has become an iconic Warrior Games picture, the two held hands as they crossed the finish line.
As the two rounded the race's final bend, 'We looked at each other and said, 'We're not going to beat each other up. We're not going to do this to each other,'? ' Bullis said.
For Bullis - and for many Warrior Games competitors, he said - the games are about working together toward physical and emotional recovery.
'That's exactly how they do it day to day in the military - it's not about self-glory, ' he said.
At this year's games, which start Saturday, Bullis will coach cycling and compete in shooting and cycling.
Bullis hopes to fare better in shooting than he did last year. And he thinks he and teammate Air Force retired Chief Master Sgt. Damian Orslene have a good chance of taking gold in recumbent cycling.
If Bullis fails, defeat won't be crushing. It's hard to be upset when you're surrounded by brothers and sisters competing against their wounds, hidden and visible.
'It doesn't matter if you bring something back around your neck, ' he said. 'The ability to be here is winning. It's about showing folks you're still alive, still in it. Still in the game of life. '
Contact Erin Prater: 636-0304