I spent the better part of a decade serving our country. I didn’t join for accolades or medals. Nor did I join because I had some grandiose idea of being a hero. I signed the dotted line because at the time, I had no future to speak of and knew joining the military was something that I couldn’t quit. The path I was on was going nowhere. I was trying to attend college, live on my own, and nothing was going well. I tried making a living in rodeo but that’s much tougher than Chris LeDoux led on!
I joined the Military in November 2000 and knew I made the right choice. On September 11, 2001 I watched terror and destruction unfold before my eyes from my first duty station in Texas. My initial thought was that a drunk pilot crashed his plane into the Twin Towers but when I watched the second plane hit, I knew at that very moment we were under attack. The feelings of fear, helplessness, anger and revenge took over. That day changed my whole mindset. I was going to do my part to make sure my family had a safe place to live. For the first time in my life I truly felt like I was in a position to make a difference, to do something positive and be a part of something big.
Nearly 10 years and multiple deployments later I took my uniform off for the last time. I thought back to the number of deployments I had been on and realized that somehow I left pieces of myself in those Godforsaken places. When I came home I tried to find ways to fill the holes that were left in my soul but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find the person I was before. I drifted in and out of some pretty dark places struggling to find my purpose and move forward with my life. I constantly sought ways to fill the holes by drinking excessively, moving from job to job, avoiding situations that caused me anxiety and keeping distance between myself and others. I was depressed and avoided things I once enjoyed. I was struggling to make it through daily life and at times I felt like there was not much holding me back from ending it all but I held on.
I met Rose, the woman who would later become my wife, in 2007. We hit it off and married 5 years later. Rose gave me a reason to hold on and I did, with all my might. The daughter of a Vietnam Veteran, she was able to put up with my mood swings and avoidance. To this day, she still stands strong behind me, even propping me up at times when things get really bad.
After experiencing quite a bit of loss over the years it came to a head when I learned that my late brother's dog had to be put down. The pain was just too much to bear and I broke completely. I think that is where I hit rock bottom.
People often say that taking one's own life is a cowardly act. I think if they've ever been at that point they'd look at it differently. The pain was so great I just wanted it to stop. The burden I felt like I placed on those around me was so profound, I knew they'd be better off. That's what went through my mind. I was so close to becoming a statistic but I was able to hang on by a thread.
I'm glad I did.
In October of 2015 I was sitting at work, flipping through my phone when I came across an article titled “A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: Wilderness, Wild Horses, Warriors” on the NatGeo Adventure news feed. It was the third of a five part series written by Ben Masters. He was recounting the journey of Ray Knell, a decorated Veteran whose life changed through an equine based program out of Manhattan, Montana. He learned what it means to trust again and found purpose by riding horses in the backcountry and establishing bonds with other Veterans, ponies and nature. With a rekindled passion for life, Ray set out to ride from Colorado to Montana and donate his tack and ponies to the organization that facilitated his personal growth knowing it would impact other Veterans in the same way it did him. That organization is Heroes and Horses, a relatively new program started by Navy Seal Veteran Micah Fink. I felt a sense of hope reading Ben’s words.
I applied and was accepted to Heroes and Horses where I was provided an opportunity to take back control of my life. I learned that the only thing hindering Veterans from continuing our greatness is ourselves. We listen to what society tells us we are; he fall in to the stereotypes and forget that we are the most capable, best suited people on the planet. Heroes and Horses didn't take this poor Veteran on a pony ride in the mountains. They challenged and provided me with an opportunity to find something that I never really lost, a sense of purpose... a sense of myself.
Today I am in a better place that I have been in years. Inspired by my mentor and great friend, Val Geissler, I started my own nonprofit, Charlie Five. Val helped me build a solid foundation in horsemanship that has enabled me to train and provide horses to equine assisted therapy programs. I do it all at no cost. It's my way of paying it forward; a way to say thanks to those who helped me crawl my way back up the top. In an age where the machine has taken over the world and you find less cowboys and horse hands out there, my purpose is to carry on the tradition of being a cowboy and horseman; one that someday folks will look at and say “that’s a hand right there”.
For more information on Jeremy's nonprofit, Charlie Five, visit their website at www.charliefive.org.