During 9/11, I was an enlisted air crewman in the United States Navy. My job entailed search and rescue operations, anti-submarine warfare, and maritime interdiction operations (Anti-piracy, human sex trafficking, drug smuggling, and so forth). Not just being in the military but, also having been stationed in a combat zone my adrenaline levels from day to day were always at a higher level. The everyday quick precise communications and teamwork in stressful situations were values that helped keep myself, my fellow soldiers, and civilians alive. This also included my most rewarding mission of finding and coordinating a 36-hour, multi-national operation that led to the successful rescue of 60 women who had been kidnapped and forced into the sex trade.
After my honorable discharge of service from the Navy, I found it difficult transitioning into the civilian world. Because of my unique military skill sets, I had little to nothing that I was able to relate to in civilian employment. I felt as though I was slowly drowning in being misunderstood, failures of jobs, and relationships. Less than ten years after getting out of the service I had reached a low point in my life and wanted to give up. While sitting on the edge of my bed, staring into a helical, black pit, I felt it wasn't fair to give up without trying one last thing.
One of my earliest memories that I can remember as a kid was staying up as late as I could, I would turn the volume down on the TV and then turn it on and try to find ABC's Wide World of Sports. When I did, my face would light up from the flickering glow of dirt flying, while watching racing legends like Scott Pruett, Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae.
While sitting on the side of the bed I decided that the one last thing I would try to do to save me from myself was to race in a rally. I emptied my bank account, used all my tax returns, maxed out my credit cards, and rented a car for the 2015 Oregon Trail Rally (OTR). I did not realize at that moment, how important that race was going to be, combined with all the factors and people involved, would save my life.
Military veterans find comfort in the things that helped keep them alive in combat. Some of these things are: having a mission, goals, preparation for missions, teamwork, communication, adrenaline rushes, adapting and overcoming challenges, and veterans don't know the word quit we just don't know how to give up. It's EXTREMELY difficult for veterans to find those things in the civilian world and so, many veterans just want to find an escape because it's easier. They unfortunately find unhealthy escapes in drugs, alcohol, delinquent behavior, or suicide. Rally allows veterans, like myself, to have a healthy outlet.
During preparation for OTR, I had goals, I had a mission, I had a team that was working with me and we all wanted everyone involved to succeed. Being a competitive person, I wanted to win. I didn’t want to just show up and piddle around in the car. I wanted to drive the crap out of it and I wanted to turn people’s heads. So along with car preparation, I started to study YouTube videos, I began eating healthier, and I started to not think about the darkness, the daily frustrations, but I hadn’t realized it yet.
When the race came, I was able to not think of anything but the race. All outside drama, stress, frustrations, bills.... it all disappeared for 4 solid days and it was amazing! During the race I had challenges to adapt to and overcome, communications, teamwork, adrenaline rushes... it was all there. My co-driver (Tracy Manspeaker) had lost her voice, and she had to use hand signals, with me, a driver who had never competed in a single motor-sports race before let alone a stage rally! We lost power steering, we got two flat tires, we sucked up water on stage and lost minutes of time on stage.
It wasn't until Tracy and I were on transit to the last stage that it hit me in how INCREDIBLE this experience was. It was then that I realized that I needed to start something to get other veterans involved. Over the next three years I volunteered at rallies, worked on getting a program up and running, and I can honestly say that rally has helped keep me alive and still is. It is helping other veterans who are already in the sport and it is helping veterans that I have introduced to the sport. With the support of Mark Tabor at Tabor Accounting Group and other people in the rally family, we finalized the paperwork with the IRS to create a 501(c)(3) non-profit called Phoenix Project (phxpjt.org). It wasn’t until close to the time of filing the paperwork with the IRS that I chose the name. Like military veterans, the phoenix is a strong powerful animal and its presence can shine as bright as the sun. Its life ended by fire and leaves nothing but ashes behind and from those ashes a new phoenix is born. As for the word “project”, it is defined as: to plan, figure, or estimate for the future. A project is always ongoing, things change, but you’re always trying to work hard to better yourself, your physical surroundings, and those who surround you.
Now here I am, working with veterans and civilians to help bring awareness to the high veteran suicide rate as well as doing my part to help reduce the national average of veteran suicide.