#Wyostrong Stories, Featured By Community Bank of Wyomingshowcase Wyoming’s 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 at least one man’s life, the relationship between man and horse has brought him back from the brink.
He entered the Corps on September 27, 1988, months after graduating from high school, the first step in a 23-year career that saw him rise from Private to Chief Warrant Officer 3.
This career included missions in Desert Storm on the USS Iwo Jima and seven tours in Iraq.
Brian Chavez was a stellar athlete at Shoshoni High School. He excelled in football, athletics and wrestling. He was not a dominating figure on the gridiron, at least until the ball was broken. At age 5-7, he struggled at 126 pounds and didn’t weigh much more during football.
As a senior, he donned a white headband with a handwritten name on it, “Super Mex.” The speedy teenager tore through defenses, terrorizing quarterbacks while driving 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 got the highest score in his unit on the PFT (physical fitness test). He easily completed 20 pull-ups and 80 sit-ups well under the time limit for a 100% score, then destroyed the 3-mile running standard, completing the course in 15:10, nearly three full minutes under. of the Marine standard.
His Shoshoni High School classmate, Ken Howard, joined Chavez in the buddy program and won the marksmanship award.
When the graduation ceremonies were held, the commander asked what was happening in Shoshoni, Wyoming, and asked the city to 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 duties as a heavy equipment operator.
In 1991 he left for Iraq on old Iwo Jima.
“He 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 fixed the boiler with brass instead of steel bolts,” Chavez said. “When it hit pressure, the brass melted and it exploded.”
Their journey to fight in Desert Storm was like a decoy, part of an amphibious assault group that caused Saddam Hussein to deploy his forces away from the actual attack.
“For six months we were the only portage ship,” Chavez said.
Steadily rising in rank, eventually becoming a gunnery sergeant, Chavez worked on numerous domestic projects, some in foreign countries and eventually under combat conditions in Iraq.
One of his first assignments was building the Carlos Hathcock Range at Camp Lejeune. Hathcock was Vietnam’s legendary Marine Corps sniper, credited with killing a North Vietnamese general a mile away.
Perhaps the most ambitious mission Chavez accomplished as a warrant officer commanding an engineer platoon was the construction of the longest pontoon bridge ever built over the Tigris in Iraq. In all, he participated in 28 combat transition missions.
“We were shot down, received mortar fire and were hit by IEDs,” Chavez said. “We were mortared almost every day.”
One of these mortars came dangerously close.
“A 110mm mortar hit 10 to 15 meters from me. It hit flat and the shrapnel flew away from me,” Chavez said. “He rang my bells and threw me to the ground. We did a countdown, everything was clear, and we got back to work.
A mission 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 bringing them back to base for investigation.
“We spent two or three days, up to a week, waiting for the kerosene to run out at the crash site,” Chavez said. “It was burning so hot that the sand fused into glass. We found a piece of glass with full gear of an engine locked 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 human flesh being burned for days. There was nothing you could do about it,” Chavez said. we find is a torso attached to a seat.”
The experience led to nightmares. “It’s one of those things that you accept, people are going to die,” Chavez said. “The Victims of War.”
An accident particularly affected him.
“There was an Alaska National Guard unit on a training mission next to us,” Chavez said. “We got to know these guys, we saw them every day. One day they took off in a CH-47, made a banked turn, and we saw the rotors drop. It killed all 15 people on board. It was their first week in the country.
One of his last assignments was a fascinating snag with the CBIRF (Chemical Biological Incident Response Force), a special task force designed to deal with nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.
“I was getting old. I wasn’t as fast, not as strong and I was tired of getting shot. My kids were in high school and needed a dad around,” he said.
He eventually retired and bought a small farm 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 of all branches of service.
“There were no programs for vets with PTSD that were beneficial,” Chavez said. “You’re doing a 40 day cleanse and you need readings that you discuss with the group.” “The Obstacle is the Path” by Ryan Holiday is a 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 temperament.
“You can’t lie to a horse. They’re all mustangs,” Chavez said.
The 40-day program includes two-pack trips to rural Montana or Wyoming.
“The first week they teach basic riding, basic packing for a seven-day trip,” Chavez said. “Then they take eight vets, an instructor and an assistant on a pack trip. We were doing 10-12 miles a day.
They worked on a cattle ranch in Montana rounding up cattle from over a dozen pasture sections.
“They taught us basic blacksmithing, how to forge a hoof pick into a horseshoe, basic equine medicine and wilderness first aid,” Chavez said. “When you wrap anything and everything that can go wrong, it goes wrong.”
One of the biggest symptoms of PTSD is the inability to handle stress.
“A horse and a mule react to your actions. You form an emotional bond with your horse,” Chavez said. “It teaches you to deal with frustration.”
Chavez teamed up with “Uh-oh” a massive 17-hand-tall mustang. Uh-oh’s back was level with the top of Chavez’s head.
“I guess they didn’t know what my size was,” he joked.
The bond between man and horse is legendary, dating back to the first time someone jumped on the back of a wild horse and broke it to ride.
Heroes and Horses has been a boon for veterans with PTSD. One of their core values describes the path Chavez has taken: “We have done a great job of turning civilians into soldiers, but we have fundamentally failed to help soldiers become civilians again.”
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, a horse’s exterior is truly the best thing for a man’s interior.