Iraq War veteran Adam Magers stood before 11 men seated in two classroom-style rows in a Parkville conference room on a recent Sunday evening. Visible through the large glass windows were signs of spring that stood in stark contrast to the dark stories Magers shared with the strangers.
“After I returned home from the war, I had post-traumatic stress,” said the 29-year-old warrior. “My solution was to drink until I blacked out. I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to live. But I was too afraid to kill myself.”
It’s opening night of a 51/2-day Save A Warrior program at the Heartland Center in Parkville, and Magers was recounting his experiences.
Magers graphically described the paralyzing panic attacks that started even before he opened his eyes in the morning. He recounted harrowing months of a downward spiral that shattered his mental, emotional and spiritual being — a self-described trip to hell that led to a bottom more intense and frightening than the horrors of war he encountered.
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“I went to the VA, where they told me I was truly screwed up,” he said. “I had a mild traumatic brain injury from all the IEDs that went off next to me. I went to 10 appointments a week, did cognitive behavioral therapy, started a bunch of medications that numbed me, saw psychiatrists who didn’t understand. My shame increased. I didn’t feel better.”
The men fidgeted, avoiding eye contact with Magers. Some concentrated on the blank pages of notebooks in front of them. A few stared into space, beyond Magers. One heavily tattooed man looked up at the ceiling.
“You know how to traumatize a veteran coming back home after war?”
Magers lobbed the question to his audience but didn’t wait for a response.
“Send them to the VA.”
A nervous laugh rippled through the group.
Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, a gray-haired Vietnam War veteran and a search-and-rescue professional gathered in search of relief from post-traumatic stress disorder. Hailing from Minnesota, Arkansas, Texas, Georgia and Missouri, some of the men are alcoholics; some abuse drugs; some can’t hold a job. Some are in marriages teetering on the brink of divorce, and others have pushed away family and friends and live in isolation. Some have children — terrified of their rages — whom they have forgotten how to love.
These men were seeking a way to recover from war trauma they witnessed and to avoid being a statistic that has become a common headline as veterans return home and transition back into society. It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide each day — a staggering number that doesn’t include other fatal situations, such as suicide by police officer.
Magers is project director for Malibu, Calif.-based Save A Warrior — a 501(c)(3) organization founded by veteran Jake Clark that uses evidence-based resiliency programs such as equine therapy and counseling, a ropes course, group trust exercises, and the practice of meditation to help restore broken lives of active-duty and returning veterans.
Eager to show these hurting brothers — many on the edge of suicide or suffering from suicidal ideation — a different way to live by teaching tools for long-term healing, Magers continued his sales pitch.
“We’re going to empty our crap this week, bucket by bucket. There is a different way to live, to feel alive again. I am living proof.”
Magers excused the men for a 15-minute break. Most scatter outside to smoke cigarettes.
“They’ll be transformed at the week’s end,” he explained. “They’ll leave gut-wrenching fears here. Welcome to war detox.”
Magers, of Kansas City, North, served as a combat medic in the Army for eight years and did a tour in Baghdad from 2007 to 2008, fighting in the 1138th Sapper Company that led the three-month assault on the oppressively poor Shiite community of Sadr City.
A sergeant whose job was to hunt IEDs, Magers spent a year removing from roads the dreaded improvised explosive devices that could rip through a Buffalo armored vehicle and tear apart a fellow soldier in seconds. He survived strikes, ambushes, rocket attacks and urban fighting.
When Magers came home in August 2008, he brought with him an Army Commendation Medal with Valor and a soul-torturing case of PTSD. He freely shares that a part of him died during the battle of Sadr City; his life was in pieces, and the emotional pain he experienced was unspeakable.
“I tried putting the pieces back together, but they kept dissolving,” he said. “The panic attacks consumed me.”
Still struggling with PTSD issues, Magers married Brittany Eads in May 2012.
One day, while researching how others who experienced war coped with PTSD, Magers met a fellow veteran who had tried to hang himself. Instead of committing a suicide he longed for, the warrior was saved and directed to Save A Warrior where he had an epiphany.
“This guy discovered meditation’s healing powers,” Magers said. “It changed his life. I believed him and thought, ‘I have nothing to lose but my life.’”
Magers began walking a spiritual path last September, which led him to a Malibu Save A Warrior cohort — the name used to describe a gathering of people banded together, working toward the same goal.
“For the first time in forever, I felt like the world wasn’t going to eat me alive,” Magers said.
Brittany Magers recalls her constant prayers for her husband’s well-being the week he attended the program in California.
“I loved him, but it was hard living with him,” she said. “There were times he would go without a panic attack for days, and then a week and I would think, ‘OK, this is it, they’re over.’”
Angry and bitter that the newlywed couple’s life was anything but normal, Brittany Magers wanted to believe that Save A Warrior would rescue her husband from an abyss she couldn’t see, but that he was mired in.
“When I picked him up from KCI after the cohort, he looked different,” she said, “but I still wasn’t sold. In two weeks, I saw a different Adam. He hasn’t had a panic attack since. Save A Warrior saved him, and our marriage. He gets to help others feel joy again.”
Save A Warrior creator and executive director Clark got on the phone from Columbus, Ohio, preparing to leave for Kansas City and join Magers and the other cohort instructors.
Newly married, the 49-year-old veteran, whose past includes mental and emotional pain, substance abuse and a search for a solution, has two campaigns under his belt, including in the former Yugoslavia where he saw firsthand horrific genocidal atrocities. He interrupted his MBA studies at Pepperdine University to found the program in September 2012.
Since that time, more than 200 veterans have gone through the 51/2-day cohorts designed to heal those grappling with PTSD and reintegrate them. The program is free to veterans — the $1,200-per-person cost is covered through donations, fundraisers and grants.
Clark says his program, which has a focus on meditation and is based on spiritual principles, has raised some eyebrows throughout the military community.
“But we haven’t lost a single warrior who has gone through the program to suicide,” Clark said. “I want to create a template of best practices that the Department of Defense and the VA could use in helping our veterans recover.”
Save A Warrior, featured in journalist Soledad O’Brien’s documentary on CNN in August, “The War Comes Home,” gives Clark hope that the generation of veterans coming home after serving in wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan — and even those from Vietnam and other conflicts — can find peace from their anguish.
“The ultimate aim is to give these veterans, who enlisted to serve and protect, the tools to live fully self-expressed lives and the power and wisdom to serve others.”
It’s dinnertime at the first night of the Kansas City Save A Warrior cohort. The 11 participants, as well as friends, family members and instructors, took a break for pizza and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
The crowded Heartland Center meeting room was noisy. Suddenly, a plate balanced on a chair slipped and fell. Startled by the crisp crack of the plate hitting the floor, 30 people stopped eating. Conversations halted midsentence and then resumed — except for the 11 men who had jumped to their feet, stealing quick glances around the room.
“It’s a plate guys, a plate,” Andrew Potter addressed the men poised in fight-or-flight stance. “I dropped a plate.”
Potter, 28, who lives in the River Market, is an Afghanistan War veteran and Save A Warrior alumnus; he would conduct a rock climbing session for the group on Cliff Drive in the Northeast area of Kansas City later in the week.
Potter joined the Army in 2009, was elevated to the rank of captain and was discharged on Feb. 1. He served three tours of Afghanistan between 2012 and 2014; the first tour was with the 82nd Airborne Division as a scout/sniper platoon leader, where his job was going from village to village, clearing Taliban. During the second and third tours, Potter served as an officer with the 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite special operations force.
“After returning from the second tour, I noticed my paranoia of being in large places such as airports and shopping centers,” he said. “My training, which involved constantly looking for threats, transferred to the civilian world, where there were no threats but I had the same intensity — my brain was wired to respond.”
Magers and Potters were high school and college buddies and often compared their experiences in two different wars.
“One day Adam asked me how I was doing, and I told him about my anxiety and the other things that affected my daily life,” Potter said. “He told me, ‘Dude, you have to go to Save A Warrior.’”
Potter had been back stateside from the war for five months and was alarmed at how his so-called war brain was negatively impacting everything and everyone around him, including fiancée Alexis Wheeler. He boarded a flight from Kansas City International Airport to Malibu, Calif., in January, Save A Warrior bound.
“I caught my post-traumatic stress before it could grow,” he said. “Some war vets deal with it for six, seven, eight years or decades. Going through Save A Warrior not only gave me tools for living, it helped me see situations for what they are instead of what my battle-weary mentality interpreted them as.”
Wheeler notes that Potter’s ability to go from what she calls “zero to red in seconds” has instead been replaced by contemplation.
“Andrew and I have dialogues now, and he can step back from situations that used to make him anxious and assess them for what they really are,” she explained. “We give each other grace.”
“I’m building relationships instead of breaking them down,” Potter added. “Everyone coming back from war should do this,” he said, nodding his head toward the veterans sitting at the tables. “I would venture to say everyone could use a little help.”
Dale and Megan Duncan of Olathe were at the opening session of the Save A Warrior cohort to show support. Although the couple didn’t know anyone but Magers, they can imagine their son, Spencer, might have needed the program — had he survived the war in Afghanistan.
“As his mother, I would have probably scooted his butt in here,” Megan Duncan said.
Twenty-one-year-old Spencer C. Duncan joined the military in 2008 and was assigned to the 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, U.S. Army Reserve, at New Century near Gardner. He died Aug. 6, 2011, as a specialist in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered when the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, in which he was riding as the door gunner, was shot down by rocket fire. The young soldier died. Twenty-nine other American troops and a military dog also died..
“Megan collapsed the night a general and chaplain came to our door and told us our son had been killed in action,” Dale Duncan said. “But we were and have been surrounded by a loving community since that day.”
The Duncans made a decision to grieve the loss of their oldest son by offering assistance to veterans in myriad ways. They formed the Spencer C. Duncan Make It Count Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that focuses on helping veterans who fought for America’s freedoms and held its inaugural Spencer C. Duncan 5K Run in August 2012.
“We had 500 people register and 100 volunteers,” Megan Duncan said. “The second year we had 751, last year 808. We hope to surpass 1,000 runners this year” when the run is held in August.
To date, more than $165,000 has been donated to beneficiaries supporting veteran entrepreneurism, veteran book scholarships and housing for homeless vets. Save A Warrior receives funds from the foundation as part of the Duncans’ passion for honoring Spencer’s dedication to making each day count.
“This organization is about making a difference for others,” Megan Duncan said. “The single greatest resource our country has is its people who live here and believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Duncans stopped to visit their son’s grave at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery on their way to Heartland Center. Megan Duncan was emotional as she looked around the room at the warriors and the others there to support their recovery efforts.
“The reality is, as a nation we are sending people to fight enormous battles and not giving them what they need when they get home,” she said, wiping away tears. “That’s wrong. Our foundation is not going to solve everyone’s problems. But we can hand out hope, help change one person at a time, just like what Adam and the other instructors are doing here tonight.”
Dale Duncan knows Save A Warrior’s power firsthand.
“I went through the first Kansas City cohort,” he said. “There were six veterans, and three of them had tried to commit suicide. I watched them change each day, and by the end they were transformed, smiling and hugging one another, committed to life rather than contemplating death.”
Steve, a 55-year-old search-and-rescue professional who lives in south Kansas City and did not wish to have his last name printed, was the only civilian participating in the Save A Warrior cohort.
“Each program has a civilian witness in need of healing who is going to be able to go out and tell our story,” Magers said. “You see, this isn’t just for warriors — we have tools to help everyone.”
Steve fought demons from an early age, beginning at age 6 when he suffered major head trauma that left him temporarily blind. At 10, he was with a friend who slipped on black ice and died as Steve was holding him. At 14, he was caught in a movie theater fire.
As a member of the Missouri search-and-rescue team, he sees unspeakable traumas that leave an indelible mark.
“Everything has finally manifested into negative behavior,” Steve said. “No sleep, depression, anger — all of the classic post-traumatic stress symptoms.”
A close friend pointed Steve in Magers’ direction, encouraging him to investigate Save A Warrior.
“I wrote down goals before coming here,” Steve said. “Be a better husband, father to my son, better man. Get rid of some of my baggage. I’ve been looking for the answer for a long time.”
Steve shrugged his broad shoulders, arms crossed.
“I’m a bit of a skeptic. But maybe I’ll find the answer here this week.”
Rudy Chavez, 28, rocked back and forth in a chair on the porch of a cabin at Heartland Center. He and the 10 Save A Warrior participants bunked here for the week, decompressing after intense sessions, sharing, bonding.
Chavez, a single dad in the Northland raising four children ranging from 4 to 8 years old, has his grandmother’s name — Margaret — and dates of her birth and death tattooed on his neck.
“She passed on February 25th,” he said. “She was my family’s matriarch and raised me as one of her own after my mom left when I was 2. If not for her, I could easily have been another statistic: in jail, in trouble, aimless. She believed in the underdog.”
A Marine sergeant who was honorably discharged on Oct. 5, 2012, Chavez did two tours in Afghanistan — one in 2009, where he was in Operation Strike of the Sword, which helped liberate nationals, and the second in 2011 in the Sangin district of Helmand province.
“Our objective was to mitigate any threat to the civilian population,” Chavez said. “Get rid of the Taliban.”
Chavez sought help at the VA once he was back in Kansas City.
“They told me I wasn’t injured or incapacitated,” he said. “But I was hurting. You just couldn’t see it.”
Chavez always had aspirations to become a police officer and serve the community. He graduated from the Kansas City Police Academy in April 2014 and joined the police department’s East Patrol at 27th Street and Van Brunt Boulevard.
“I’m on the dog watch, from 7:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.,” he said. “It’s very eventful in that part of the city.”
Chavez found himself in a situation in May that triggered painful war memories. Still a probationary police officer, he answered a call with his field training officer. An Army veteran, who had previous encounters with the law, was barricaded in a house, threatening suicide and homicide, firing an AK-47 out the windows.
“The sound of an AK-47 is very distinct,” Chavez said. “That incident sparked something — took me back to the days of fighting in the war. But I didn’t have my soldier brothers around me. I could call them, but I couldn’t go to their houses, see them face to face.”
Someone in Chavez’s chain of command at the Police Department recommended the veteran investigate Save A Warrior following his grandmother’s death.
“I’m here to learn how to live life again, how to be the best father I can be,” Chavez said. “And maybe, just maybe, I can help a colleague or a veteran down the road.”
At the end of the week, Magers reflects on the men’s Save A Warrior experience.
The Leap of Faith exercise on Tuesday, in which each man jumped from a 40-foot telephone pole, was especially cathartic. Before climbing to the top, the warriors told of the memories they wanted to leave behind.
“I feel so dead inside. I just want to be the father, husband, I should be,” one warrior said before climbing the pole.
At the top, tethered by ropes, they silently contemplated their commitment to saying goodbye to the memories, some for as long as 20 minutes. Then came the leap to try to touch a pink ball that bobbed in the air about seven feet away.
“Touching the ball is symbolic of leaving behind the old stuff that leaves them anxious, fearful, suicidal, and moving forward to a new life, a new outlook,” Magers said.
The men are then lowered to the ground and enveloped in hugs and emotions.
“The Leap of Faith on Tuesday is a stake in the ground, the guys saying to their brothers, ‘This is what I want to leave behind and change in my life,’” he said.
For Chavez, the Leap of Faith allowed him to purge angst that has beleaguered him his entire life.
“Standing up on that pole, I made a conscious decision to leave behind the monster I’ve carried on my back for years, even before the war,” he said. “The whole week enabled me to see that people and things I’ve blamed for years aren’t responsible for my trials and tribulations.”
Chavez describes a feeling of peace.
“Something an officer I went through the Police Academy with told me kept coming back to me during Save A Warrior,” he said. “‘Kid, you’ve been surviving all your life. It’s time to start living. Learn to let the bad stuff go.’”
During the cohort’s closing ceremony, each Save A Warrior participant receives a wooden box. Inside are letters of support from friends and family members. Several men, including Chavez, break down with emotion, tears streaming down their faces, heads bowed.
“I got a letter from my father, who was tough on me my whole life,” Chavez said. “I longed for him to tell me he loved me.”
He holds up the letter.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for. Now I hope I can go out and help other guys who are suffering, like I was when I walked in here last Sunday, with the new tools for living Save A Warrior has given me.”
▪ For more information on Save A Warrior, visit saveawarrior.org.
▪ The Spencer C. Duncan 5K Run will take place on Saturday, Aug. 1, at the New Century Air Center in Gardner. To register, sponsor or volunteer, visit makeitcounttoday.org.