Coon Rapids native creates combat trauma recovery program to help veterans

In 2012, the VA estimated that 22 veterans die by suicide every day.

With that in mind, a Coon Rapids native created a combat trauma recovery program called 23rd veteran. The program uses a unique brain reconditioning strategy to adjust to civilian life.

Therapy can come in many forms and for one group, in between rounds is when the healing comes through.

“Coming to a gun range can be the ultimate trigger and that’s exactly why we’re here,” said Mike Waldron, a veteran.  

The unintended and unexpected consequences of war, finally fade into the background for this group of veterans.

“Things don’t seem as dark as they used to,” said Sean, another veteran. 

As veterans of recent wars, the wounds these men carry are bigger than what the naked eye can see. And yet, this healing journey starts small – in a Crossfit gym in South Minneapolis.

It’s a program developed by an Iraq War veteran from Anoka County.

It was five or six years after he came home from combat when Waldron started having panic attacks. He believed, at the time, he was having heart issues.

“The first one I can remember is, I was driving down the freeway in Indianapolis and all of a sudden my heart started racing, I got tunnel vision, I couldn’t drive,” he recalled. “So, I pulled over on the shoulder of the highway, I switched spots with the passenger and they brought me to the VA.”

Doctors sent Waldron home that same day, telling him he was fine, but everything in him told him he wasn’t.

“I just felt like I was dying every day,” Waldron said.

After five visits to the ER, he was finally escorted to the mental health wing and put on a slew of prescription drugs.

“There was a point that the only thing I looked forward to was going to sleep at night, so I didn’t have to be awake anymore,” he said.

Waldron willed himself out of it, though, discovering that physical activity and trigger re-association were part of the cure.

“Once I finally figured out a path back to hope and happiness, I felt obligated to show my brothers the way back,” he said of what motivated him next.

“My job was a pretty nasty thing at times,” said Josh Hawkins. “And you don’t go from that to being Johnny on the block.”

For many, it’s their third, fourth or maybe even fifth try at healing, but this is the first one to stick.

“We always end everything on a positive note so you always walk out the door feeling uplifted, and feeling better about who you are,” said Sean Eastling, who is active duty Minnesota Army National Guard.

Founded in 2015, 23rd Veteran is an intensive, 14-week program that starts with a hike through the North Carolina Mountains. It’s an experience that lays a foundation of trust among a group of strangers.

From there, they transition into weekly workouts that always end with a gratitude circle, forcing the vets to recognize the positives around them.

Maybe the toughest work comes with the regular group outings that expose them to loud noises and unfamiliar faces. The outings force them to face their triggers head on.

“So, we expose ourselves to these triggers, but we do it in a fun, trusting environment with our memory steroid available and that way the next time there’s a loud noise or the ground shaking, our brains can go back to a new positive event instead of a negative one that happened overseas,” Eastling said.

By the time they advance to the outing at the gun range, their brain is actually processing things differently.

“I’m enjoying things a lot more,” Eastling said. “It’s not as much pent up or anxiety. You’re just kind of getting worked up about little things.”

“There’s no way that half of these people would be comfortable coming to a firing range with people they don’t know three months ago,” added Waldron.

Thanks to the program, the hope of a normal life is finally within reach.

“I have two little girls and I want to show my girls that no matter what circumstances you face in your life, you can come back,” said Hawkins.

This may be their greatest comeback yet.

The program has recently received national recognition with plans to expand into other states.