FORT BELVOIR, Va. – When Staff Sgt. Matt Cable was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare, fast-moving cancer, his chances of survival were 50%. When he developed a blood infection and fell into an 18-day coma, doctors told his mother to say her goodbyes. But neither statistics nor modern medicine accounted for the variable that is Matt Cable.
“He is the definition of resilience; you can’t keep him down. After being in a coma for as long as he was, relapsing, even when medicine tells him not to, he finds a way to bounce back,” said Consuella Moore, the head coach of the Invictus Games, Team U.S.
Cable was the sole National Guard member competing on Team U.S. at this year’s Invictus Games, an annual international military adaptive sports competition.
This year’s games were in The Hague, Netherlands, April 14-22, and included more than 500 competitors representing 20 countries. Cable won medals in all seven events in which he competed, including in the 4x100 meter relay, shot put, 4-minute row, powerlifting, 100- and 200-meter dash.
Cable, a 10-year veteran of the Montana Air National Guard who begins a medical retirement this year, started competing in the Department of Defense’s adaptive sports programs after recovering from his first bout with leukemia in 2014. He won three gold medals at the 2017 Warrior Games, which pits athletes from all five services in competition, and placed first in nine events at this year’s Air Force Warrior Games trials.
“Who doesn’t love Matt ’The Tank’ Cable?” exclaimed Moore. “Of course he’s talented, he’s strong, he’s fast, from a competitive perspective, but the important part for me is what he brings to the team’s morale. He could be a lot different considering what he’s been through, but he’s not. He’s out there cheering for everybody, trying to hype everybody else up; that’s Matt Cable. I wouldn’t know what to do without that type of energy.”
His seemingly endless energy and drive date back to his childhood in Great Falls, Montana, where he played five sports in high school and went on to focus on wrestling in college. While pursuing a criminal justice degree in college, Cable joined the Montana Air National Guard as a security forces defender in 2012 to jump-start his law enforcement career.
By 2014 he was on active-duty orders performing security missions at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. The leukemia diagnosis came that year, and he began the fight for his life.
“After my first round of chemotherapy, I went into complete organ failure, and I was on life support. I was also in a coma for 18 days,” he said. Over the 18 days, he lost 60 pounds. He spent over a month in the hospital relearning how to eat and walk. “Once I woke up, I knew I had to fight, so the first day out of the hospital I went to the gym. I looked in the mirror and just told myself it will all come back, just keep fighting, and that’s what I did; I fought every day.”
About six months into recovery, he found himself feeling depressed, he said. His care coordinator introduced him to the Air Force Wounded Warrior program, which provides care and services to seriously wounded, ill, or injured service members. The program includes adaptive sports programs. Like many service members, Cable mistakenly thought his injuries had to be sustained in combat to be eligible for the program.
“When I went to my first [Warrior Games] camp and met all these wounded warriors, Airmen and retirees, veterans, it brought a whole new perspective of life,” Cable said in an interview with ESPN during his first Warrior Games in 2017. “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.”
After earning three gold medals in the 2017 Warrior Games, he turned his attention to a new challenge – the Titan Games, a televised athletic competition hosted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Although he didn’t win, he achieved his main reason for competing — sharing his story and inspiring others battling cancer.
One of those who heard his story was his future wife, Ensley Roessler, who was battling breast cancer.
The two connected through social media after his Titan Games appearance in 2019, but had still not met in person because he was deployed to Qatar. While overseas, he continued to nurture the budding relationship with Ensley virtually as she recovered from a double mastectomy.
But his health began to decline.
“I was very blessed that there was an oncologist who was deployed there with the National Guard,” said Cable. “He drew blood and tested it and found out that my leukemia had returned.”
He was immediately evacuated to Walter Reed National Medical Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and hospitalized for about 40 days of aggressive chemotherapy. He spent another month in the hospital at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. He overcame serious complications during both hospital stays, like a fungal infection in his brain that almost caused him to lose his right eye and a blood clot in his heart.
“With all the chemo I have been through, it has damaged my heart,” said Cable. “That’s why I train the way I train, because I know I have to keep my heart strong and my body strong. That’s the reason I’m here today, honestly. If I wasn’t at the fitness level I was, my body wouldn’t have been able to fight what it fought.”
After his stay at the Mayo Clinic, his next hurdle was a bone marrow transplant, which required him to return to the gym to regain his strength and “get ready to fight because a bone marrow transplant is serious stuff.”
However, he had a new partner in his battle, Ensley, who he met in person for the first time when she flew from Florida to meet him at Walter Reed.
“She pretty much took care of me ever since that day,” Cable said. “I had a great caregiver in my girlfriend, fiancé, my wife. Without her, I would probably be dead.”
The two married in 2020, and the family of two became three in December 2021 when Ensley gave birth to their son, Cade.
“We weren’t supposed to be able to conceive with everything that we went through,” he said. “She only has one ovary, but here we are with a 4-month-old.”
Ensley and Cade traveled to the Netherlands to root Matt on as he took home medal after medal in each competition. But, the journey was more than just about winning.
“Being called to compete at Invictus helps in my recovery process,” said Cable. “It gives me something to fight for and train for, knowing what I’ve been through. Not just me but all these other athletes, they’ve all gone through something very traumatizing, mentally, physically and emotionally. So, being called on to represent Team U.S. helps us mentally, and it’s an absolute honor.”