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One-man mission of love

Local veteran seeks to help others battle PTSD
Casey Garner, a combat-wounded veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, appeared in several local parades this past summer, leading a horse draped with a banner bearing the names of American military personnel who died in the service of their country to honor and remember the fallen. Garner hopes to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress syndrome and other veterans’ issues. (Photo by Lori Lindner)

CEDAR RAPIDS– “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
It’s a quote of uncertain origin, but there is no uncertainty about whom it was said.
These rough men and women, are the nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, National Guard and reserves who volunteer their service and swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Over the past decade, many of them have been called upon, in some cases multiple times, to deploy to Iraq and/or Afghanistan in this country’s ongoing wars.
But what happens to these warriors when they leave the military? What becomes of them when life in a war zone is no longer their norm?
Casey Garner knows that answer all too well. He has seen first-hand how life can get very tough, even for a rough man who answered his country’s call to serve. Garner has made it his mission to raise other people’s awareness as well. This summer, Garner walked in several local parades with a banner draped across the back of a horse, to honor and remind us of the sacrifices of military troops.
Garner was born in St. Petersburg, W.Va., but has lived all over the U.S. In 2004, he joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 and earned a spot in the famed 75th Ranger regiment, a unit who’s history goes back to North Africa, D-Day (“the boys of Pointe Du Hoc”) and the Philippines in WWII, and whose lineage traces back to before the Revolutionary War.
“A lot of history, a lot of pride. I’m very thankful that I was able to be a part of that, and that I can still be a part of that,” Garner said. He served three combat tours, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan before a devastating attack on his unit changed him forever.
An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) killed several of his fellow soldiers instantly, and severely wounded him and one other.
“My platoon was wiped out and I woke up after a week of being in a coma.”
After his discharge in 2009, Garner moved to Phoenix, Ariz., but quickly found out, “it was a bad thing for me.” Between frequent helicopter fly-overs and gunfire, he said, “I was there about two months and just had to leave. I was just going crazy.” His Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) untreated, he realized he had to get away from the city.
Garner found comfort in a lady named Ashley and a new purpose in life by moving from Arizona to the oil fields of Oklahoma where a person can make big bucks by working hard and putting in long hours.
“Instead of boozing and drugs, I got addicted to work,” Garner said. The oil fields were perfect for him. “They loved to work me and I loved to work. It kept me busy and I didn’t have to think about the craziness of what happened, or what should’ve happened or what didn’t happen.” But ultimately, it ended up being another stressor for Garner.
“I had no life,” he said.
He proposed marriage to Ashley, who accepted on the condition he quit the oil fields so she could actually spend time with him. Garner agreed. “She was worth it,” he said. The couple moved to Chariton and he sought treatment for his PTSD at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Des Moines. It helped that he had a Ranger buddy in nearby Kellogg.
But then, his life turned upside down again when Ashley died in October 2012. Reminders of her were everywhere in Chariton, so Garner got in his car and drove away. He ended up in Cedar Rapids, found a bar and started drinking. Once again in a bad place personally, Garner turned to alcohol.
“I started drinking pretty heavily, not for the sake of just getting drunk, I just …was done. I didn’t really have the nerve to grab a rope and hang myself, but I figured if I could just numb myself from the pain of prior experiences and the pain from my wife’s passing, and die from it, then it was a ‘win’ situation.” He described himself as hell on wheels and said he got involved in some bad things for about two weeks. Soon, he hit rock bottom.
“I ran out of money. But I was more upset that I was still alive than I was that I could no longer support the habit,” Garner said.
He went for a walk and found himself looking at a sign on a building offering the one thing he needed more than anything to that point.
“I ran into the Mission of Hope (1537 First Ave. SE), and all I’d seen was ‘hope.’ I said, that’s what I want.” He knocked on the door and explained his situation. Their shelter house was full, but the gentleman who let him in found a cot and set it up in the basement for him. “I stayed there for about three weeks, got a job, got my life together… I haven’t drank or anything since, I got involved in church and met Gail Tyler” at the Sanctuary church.
Garner said he’s changed from being self-absorbed and very materialistic, started volunteering at the mission and, “fell in love with serving.”
Even though they’ve been difficult, Garner said he is thankful for the experiences he’s had, whether being in the war, going through the passing of a loved one, using drugs and alcohol, suffering abuse as a child, or living in foster care, because they have given him the ability to connect with people on a level he never otherwise would have been able to.
Garner said it is easier for him to talk about his war experiences with someone who’s also been under fire than it is to talk with someone who has only read about it. He’s also found this to be true for civilian experiences like child abuse, foster kids and other domestic situations. “Being able to connect with them is great, and it’s become my passion.”
He hopes to use that passion to help his fellow veterans from all branches of the service and all wars who are struggling with PTSD or other issues.
Working with Tyler and her Mended Hearts Ranch, Garner hopes to create a place where troubled vets can get away from the stresses of the city and find peace not only within themselves, but also atop a horse.
“I think most soldiers come back (from war) with some form of stress disorder. When they come back to the city, they’re dealing with… whatever. So, to get away from the daily stresses and to go out to a ranch where they can have a connection, being able to communicate, and being able to establish a relationship… with the focus being Christ.”
Garner started working with veterans this year in partnership with Tyler who he said, “has always had a heart and a passion for soldiers and POWs/MIAs.”
Garner thinks his next year will be full of positives as he and Tyler set up the ranch, which will provide amenities for veterans. Garner will work primarily with the troops while Tyler will counsel battered women. Mended Hearts Ranch will differ from other entities, such as English River Outfitters near Washington and other veterans’ organizations, by having a Christian orientation,
“This will be more church and Christ-focused,” he said; however, he added, “Christ and church is not forced on anybody. I think that is where a lot of ministries go wrong. You can do more damage by trying to slam people with your beliefs.” Rather, Garner thinks just loving on people is the better way. “Respect people, honor people. That’s the kind of behavior, as a Christian, we should carry. And when we love people, and we’re not slamming people… it does great things.”
Acknowledging there would likely be no shortage of potential clients at Mended Hearts Ranch, Garner looked at the bright side.
“It is unfortunate, but what a blessing to be able to reach out and to show people there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Hey, I know, the world is crashing down. I understand that when it rains, it pours.” But Garner wants to do more than just reach out; he wants to take action. “Lots of people talk, talk is cheap. We’ve grown into a society and a nation of talkers, and I think as a society and as a nation we need to wake up as individuals and start uniting.”
To that end, Garner has been walking. He’s been seen in several local parades recently, wearing his combat uniform and leading a horse carrying a banner. On the banner are the names of men and women who gave that last full measure, as General Douglas McArthur once said, and made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I wanted to have them honored and respected in a way that it’s not just a name on a plaque that you have to go to. Let’s put the names on a banner and take it to the people.” Garner said the reaction has been overwhelming. “People stand up and cheer, they start crying, it’s a very emotional experience. It’s been amazing, it really has.” And it’s only a start.
Garner plans to have multiple banners on display when the ranch is up and running. The banners have also been a way of connecting with his fellow veterans as they write the names of the fallen soldiers they knew.
It often starts a conversation.
“What I’m finding is that those soldiers who are coming back are having a lot of problems just like I was. It really opened up the door to not only helping the ones who didn’t make it back, but also the ones who did.”
Garner said his situation wasn’t any less or more important than anyone else’s. “Every soldier individually deals with and handles situations and struggles differently, and PTSD affects every soldier differently because every soldier has a different experience.” Those experiences can lead to homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse and relationship issues. “Regardless of what situation a soldier or a civilian finds themselves in, I believe that healing and peace and freedom can be attained if dealt with properly.” Drugs don’t solve anything, he said, nor do alcohol or violence. “But how do you show a soldier or a civilian who’s in that state, that there’s a better way?”
The answer, Garner said, is “to love on them.” Love, he said includes taking as much time as needed to truly listen to a soldier’s concerns and confusions, as well as whatever crisis he or she may be going. This approach, Garner feels, is more effective than shifting from person to person, facility to facility.
“From personal experience, and from what I’ve seen, (love is) extremely effective not only in my life but also others. And there’s not a lot of love anyplace, it seems. I think human beings are selfish by nature, so being able to get outside themselves, and being able to view somebody else as more important… it’s hard to find people like that,” Garner said.
His hope is that he can show fellow veterans they have worth and there is a life worth living. Perhaps they’ll go on to help others as well.
“It’s about the love, man. It’s about the soldiers, it’s about the people, it’s about hearts being mended, it’s about the worth being found. If I only help one person, it’s worth it. We’re serious about it, we’re not going to stop doing this and we’re going to grow.”
Mended Hearts Ranch is a non-profit 501-C3 organization currently operating on a small parcel of land; Garner and Tyler are now actively looking for land in the area. “We’re praying that God will open up a door for that.” Garner said they welcome volunteers, and will gratefully accept prayers as well.
“I believe in the power of prayer,” he said. “We’re always looking for anybody who wants to be part of something that’s so much bigger than themselves.”
For more information, contact Casey Garner through Mended Hearts Ranch at mendedheartsranch4@gmail.com.