#WyoStrong: Local veteran found help with Heroes and Horses

#Wyostrong stories, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, highlight Wyoming perseverance, ingenuity, creativity, and resilience.

“There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse” Winston Churchill once said.

In the life of at least one man, the relationship between man and horse brought him back from the edge.

He entered the Corps on September 27, 1988, a few months after high school graduation, the first step in a 23-year career that saw his rise from private to Chief Warrant Officer 3.

That career included missions in Desert Storm while on the USS Iwo Jima and seven tours in Iraq.

Brian Chavez was a stellar athlete at Shoshoni High School. He excelled in football, track, and wrestling. He was not a domineering figure on the gridiron, at least until the ball was snapped. At 5-7, he wrestled at 126 pounds and didn’t weigh much more during football.

As a senior, he donned a white headband with a hand-lettered name on it, “Super Mex.” The quick teenager tore through defenses, terrorizing quarterbacks while blowing past tight-ends and tackles that towered over him.

His speed and tenacity, combined with his upbringing in Fremont County, made him a perfect Marine.

“My DI (drill instructor) called me 327, after the Chevy engine,” Chavez said.

Chavez tallied the highest score in his unit on the PFT (physical fitness test). He easily completed 20 pull-ups and 80 sit ups well below the time limit for a 100% score then destroyed the 3-mile run standard, completing the course in 15:10, almost a full three minutes below the Marine standard.

His fellow Shoshoni High School classmate Ken Howard joined with Chavez on the buddy program and earned the marksmanship award. 

When graduation ceremonies took place, the commander asked what was going on in Shoshoni, Wyoming, and to have the town send him more Marines.

From boot camp he went to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to begin his career as a Marine engineer, with his initial duty as a heavy equipment operator.

In 1991 he set out for Iraq on the antiquated Iwo Jima.

“It was old and broken down,” Chavez said. “In the middle of the Mediterranean, we were dead in the water. They towed us to Bahrain for repairs.”

Three weeks later they went out to sea and a boiler exploded, killing 13 sailors.

“They repaired the boiler with brass instead of steel bolts,” Chavez said. “When it got up to pressure, the brass melted and it exploded.”

Their trip to fight in Desert Storm was as a decoy, a part of an amphibious assault group that tricked Sadam Hussein into deploying his forces away from the actual attack.

“Over six months, we were the only ship that ported,” Chavez said.

Steadily rising in rank, eventually to Gunnery Sergeant, Chavez worked on a lot of domestic projects, some in foreign countries and eventually in combat conditions back in Iraq.

One of his first assignments was constructing the Carlos Hathcock Shooting Range at Camp Lejeune. Hathcock was the legendary Marine Corps sniper from Vietnam, credited with a kill from a mile away on a North Vietnamese general.

Perhaps the most ambitious assignment Chavez completed as a warrant officer commanding an engineering platoon was the construction of the longest pontoon bridge ever built across the Tigris River in Iraq. In all, he served on 28 combat bridging missions.

“We were shot at, took mortar fire, and were hit by IEDs,” Chavez said. “We were mortared almost every day.”

One of those mortars came dangerously close.

“A 110 mm mortar hit 10 to 15 yards away from me. It hit flat and the shrapnel flew away from me,” Chavez said. “It rang my bells and threw me to the ground. We took a headcount, it was all clear, and we went back to work.”

One assignment led to his future diagnosis of PTSD.

Serving with TRAP (Tactical Recovery Aircraft and Personnel) Chavez led his engineers in recovering bodies, recovering destroyed aircraft, and then returning them to base for investigation.

“We spent two or three days, up to a week, waiting for the jet fuel to burn out at the crash site,” Chavez said. “It burned so hot, the sand fused into glass. We found one chunk of glass with a complete gear from an engine encased in it.”

Recovering bodies, some of the people you knew was a traumatic process.

“That was the worst part of the whole job. All you can smell is burning human flesh for days. There was nothing you could do about it,” Chavez said. “Sometimes all would find is a torso strapped into a seat.”

The experience led to nightmares. “It is one of those things you accept, people are going to die,” Chavez said. “The casualties of war.”

One crash hit him especially hard.

“There was a National Guard Unit from Alaska on a training mission next to us,” Chavez said. “We got to know those guys, we saw them every day. One day they took off in a CH-47, did a bank turn and we watched the rotors fall off. It killed all 15 on board. It was their first week in country.”

One of his final missions was a fascinating hitch with CBIRF (Chemical Biological Incident Response Force) a special group designed to deal with nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare.

“I was getting old. I wasn’t as fast, not as strong, and was tired of getting shot at. My kids were in high school and needed a dad around,” he said.

He eventually retired, and bought a small farm just a few miles from where he grew up in Paradise Valley. He married his high school sweetheart Tania.

The nightmares were still there.

He discovered an organization called Heroes and Horses, founded by retired Navy Seal Micah Fink. It is a non-profit organization for veterans from all branches of service.

“There weren’t any programs for vets with PTSD that were beneficial,” Chavez said. “You do a 40 day cleanse and have required reading that you discuss with the group.” “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday is one book. The other is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor.

“It’s a way for guys to open up,” Chavez said.

Heroes and Horses place a man with a horse that matches his disposition.

“You can’t lie to a horse. They’re all mustangs,” Chavez said.

The 40-day program features two-pack trips to rural Montana or Wyoming.

“The first week they teach basic horsemanship, basic packing for a seven-day trip,” Chavez said. “Then they take eight vets, an instructor, and a helper out on a pack trip. We covered 10 to 12 miles a day.”

They worked on a cattle ranch in Montana rounding up livestock from more than a dozen sections of grazing land.

“They taught us basic blacksmithing, how to forge a hoof pick out of a horseshoe, basic equine medicine, and wilderness first aid,” Chavez said. “When you’re packing anything and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.”

One of the biggest symptoms of PTSD is the inability to deal with stress.

“A horse and mule react to your actions. You form an emotional bond with your horse,” Chavez said. “It teaches you to deal with frustration.”

Chavez partnered with “Uh-oh” a huge mustang, 17 hands high. Uh-oh’s back was level with the top of Chavez’s head.

“I guess they didn’t know how tall I was,” he joked.

The bond between man and horse is legendary, dating back to the first time someone hopped on the back of a wild horse and broke it to ride.

Heroes and Horses has been a godsend to veterans suffering from PTSD. One of their core values describes the trek Chavez has made, “We’ve done a great job of turning civilians into soldiers, but fundamentally failed at helping soldiers transition back into civilians.”

The mantra, “Our veterans don’t need more help, they need better help” is the mission of Heroes and Horses.

Between 2008 and 2017, 60,000 veterans committed suicide.

If riding a horse can help veterans heal from the scars of war, the outside of a horse, truly is the best thing for the inside of a man.

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