After a Stranger Stepped In to Help, Ryan Discovered a New Path
May 30, 2018 | 6-minute read
Ryan was homeless, living off plants and the dumpsters behind restaurants, when a simple act of kindness began to change everything.
He was in the midst of relocating his camp that day — walking down the road in his old Army fatigues, carrying a military assault pack — when a stranger pulled over.
“Are you a Veteran?” the stranger asked.
“Yes, sir, I am,” answered Ryan, who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When was the last time you had a shower and a meal?”
That’s how Ryan struck up a friendship with a man named Russ. Eventually, he began working for Russ, landscaping and laying hardwood floors — that type of thing.
“Which was a good experience for me,” Ryan says. “I was learning some skills that I could actually use on the outside.”
After enduring six months of homelessness, Ryan moved in with Russ. Their friendship became a launching point: With the support of Russ and his newfound stability, Ryan started to find the help he needed to manage his posttraumatic stress. And eventually, he would discover a new passion — and a new path forward.
One day while living with Russ, Ryan was giving a friend a back massage. She suggested he go to school to become a professional massage therapist.
“What?” he said. “That’s a thing? People go to school for that?”
Ryan might never have been homeless, might never have met Russ, were it not for a fight over a tax refund. He and his wife were arguing over how to spend it when things just got out of hand.
“That whole thing gradually just escalated into how much she hates me,” he says, “and how unhappy we both were in the relationship.”
Later that night, he sat with his hunting rifle, thinking about suicide. Instead, he called 911, and the operator talked him down. When five officers arrived at his house, three of them turned out to be Veterans themselves. One of them was an older Marine.
“I just lost one of my guys to suicide two weeks ago,” he told Ryan. “I’m not about to sit here and let you go out this way.”
“You should be dead right now.” That’s what a medic in Iraq said while showing Ryan his ballistic vest, tracing where a piece of shrapnel had pierced his collar, traveled through the Kevlar around the collar, and then exited out the back.
Ryan’s truck had been hit by an explosively formed penetrating device, or an EFP. Seven pieces of shrapnel struck the left side of his face, and another two entered his right arm. To this day, he still doesn’t know how he didn’t lose his legs in the blast. That evening, his attention turned to his driver — the man who had become his fast friend.
“I want to go see Brad,” Ryan said. “Where’s Brad?” His sergeant looked at him and shook his head: “Brad’s gone. He didn’t make it.”
The moment, the loss of his friend, the apology he gave Brad’s widow for not bringing her husband home safely — it all wore on Ryan. He doesn’t like to talk about it.
“I tell people now, you know, when they ask me about stuff like that: ‘I signed up to bear that burden. I signed up to have that memory. I’m not gonna tell you about it. And it’s not because I am not OK sharing it, but it’s because you don’t need to have that memory. You don’t need to conjure it up, what was that situation like. That’s my cross to bear.”
By and large, Ryan would bury those feelings. He’d occasionally talk to guys from his unit or to a psychologist if the nightmares got too bad. After his first tour, he slept with a pistol under his pillow. He was irritable, and his fuse became shorter and shorter.
“I looked back and it’s like, God, I had zero tolerance for anybody,” he says.
After the fight with his ex-wife, Ryan spent 10 days in a VA hospital and then moved out to survive on his own. “That was a hobby of mine before even joining the military,” he says. “I was a Boy Scout when I was growing up. I grew up out on the country. Yeah, I can survive on the woods. I can do this.”
Facing His Fears
After Russ picked him up on the side of the road, Ryan caught another break: the Army Wounded Warriors Program found a sponsor to send him to Pueblo, Colorado, for a 30-day inpatient program.
There, he learned about cognitive processing therapy, and yoga, and prolonged exposure therapy. The programs were scary and tough, but they began to help.
Take exposure therapy: One day, Ryan and his therapist approached a truck that was largely covered by a tarp. He’d been programmed to avoid that type of situation — convinced that it could be dangerous.
“I’m not going near that truck,” Ryan told his therapist.
“What’s wrong with the truck?” she asked.
“I don’t know what’s in it.”
“You don’t need to.”
She asked him his stress level; it was about a 4.5 out of 5. So they just stayed right there.
“You stay in that stress, and you stay without increasing that stress, without decreasing that stress,” Ryan says. “You stay in that stress, and over time, by the time I had left the program, I was helping other guys walk up to that same truck, and I was walking up to that truck, putting my hand on it.”
He faced down a similar fear of traffic circles. In Iraq, they provide a 360-degree area for a bomb. After returning to Michigan, Ryan noticed they seem to be popping up everywhere. If he was going to be a part of society, he reasoned, he would have to drive around traffic circles. So in Pueblo, he’d drive out to one late at night, park close by, and just stay there — facing his fear, staying in that stress.
“Now I can drive through a traffic circle without an issue,” Ryan says, “other than the fact that most people don’t know how to use them properly.”
The Next Mission
“I want you to understand and know going into this,” the director said. “Going to school here is going to change your life.”
The director of a massage therapy school in Missouri sat with Ryan, reviewing the intake process. In response, Ryan tried to explain his mentality as a Veteran.
“We’re kinda like the working class of dog,” he told her. “If you don’t give us a job and expect us to raise ourselves, we’re going to tear your house apart. But if you give us a job, if you give us a mission, we will do it with absolutely everything we’ve got. And we will do it with pride and with as much loyalty as we can muster up.”
And he did just that.
Ryan used the Post-9/11 GI Bill and graduated from massage therapy school with a 3.7 GPA. He fell in love with the field.
Ryan continued on to get another degree from Eastern Michigan University in sport performance and fitness entrepreneurship. He wants to one day own a wellness center and go into business for himself.
“You have to figure out what your next mission is,” Ryan says. “Nobody’s there to give you that next mission. But there are all kinds of people, both at the VA and other Veterans Service Organizations, that can help you figure out what your next goal should be — what your next mission is.
“Most of the people at the VA that I’ve encountered are prior service members. They get it. They’ve been there. You have to be OK asking for help.”