Colorado Marine helps others who have difficulty coming home from combat
Matt Littrell, Ramah, Colo., grew up a horseman learning to appreciate good horses and growing an affinity for the renegades. When the World Trade Center’s towers fell in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, he knew the U.S. Marines needed him.
He spent his 21st birthday in a hole, in country, in Iraq during the initial invasion with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. After his first deployment, pushing north through Baghdad and Samawah, his second deployment found him in Ramadi, the capitol city of the Al Anbar province, 30 clicks west of Fallujah.
“That was a horse of a different color,” Littrell said. “We were engaged in gunfights pretty much every day. That was a serious fight. We lost 16 guys while we were over there and countless wounded.”
Littrell said he was one of the lucky ones who came back without physical injury, but coming home wasn’t without its own battles. He returned stateside in April of 2005, returning home in December of the same year. He struggled, he said, to find his place in the world after four years owning the sole identity of a Marine in combat.
“When you get out, you have to find a new one,” he said. “The thing about combat is all the hell and brutality of combat, combat is easy. You know exactly what you have to do, you know exactly what’s expected of you, and you’re surrounded by a group of guys who will willingly lay down their life for you and you know that to be a fact.”
Coming back and trying to find that new identity was a struggle for Littrell, despite being surrounded by family. There was safety in combat, he said, of being able to look left and right and see guys who would walk through the gates of hell with you, an experience that can only be experienced, not described.
Littrell spent New Year’s Eve of 2013 staring at a pistol on a table, debating whether or not to become one of the 22 veterans each day who end his or her lives.
He made the decision to walk away from that table and called the VA Hotline, where the person on the other end read a script to him. “They didn’t really care,” he said. “It pissed me off. It pissed me off because I knew somebody out there hadn’t made the decision of whether they were going to pull the trigger or not and they might have reached out and got someone who was just punching the clock and that might have pushed them over the edge.”
He said he went to bed mad and woke up mad but he knew that morning he was going to ride across the country. He began looking for the horse to make the ride on and knew he wanted a mustang, the symbolism of a mustang holding significance. He found one with 30 days riding on him and the first time Littrell rode him, he tried to buck him off. He knew that was the horse.
He and Ray C. Avery set out west from Surf City, N.C., to Camp Pendleton, Calif., a ride that took seven months and ultimately raised over $140,000 for the Semper Fi Fund. It was also a ride during which he spent only one night without someone opening their barn and home to the duo. It was also the ride on which he met his wife, Kristen.
July 4 was the one night they slept in an open field seven miles from the Mississippi River. When local residents learned Littrell and his group were there, they came with barbecue and cold beer. That night spent in a field watching fireworks was one Littrell recalls as one of the best. The kindness of strangers, he said, is truly what this country is but what we just don’t hear about.
On Nov. 30, 2014, Littrell rode his mustang, Crow, into the water at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before returning home and back to normal life. Seven months later, another Marine from his unit chose suicide.
“We may have ridden across the country but the ride’s not over yet,” he said.
He and Kristen opened their doors at Valhalla Ranch to veterans, one at a time, where veterans come get horseback, get away from the noise and chaos, and get quiet with people who know what they’re facing. The horses at Valhalla Ranch play a huge role in helping the veterans. Littrell said a person can lie to himself and others all day long but horses feel and understand and can’t be lied to, allowing them to relax.
Getting tired is part of the experience. Physical work and finding a purpose Littrell said is what’s required as they find their new mission. Building fence, working cattle, and other ranch work gives veterans something to be proud of. Putting them on the road to their mission. It helps Littrell, giving him a mission, as well.
Littrell credits horses with saving his life. Crow, the main horse ridden across the country is one he calls a Red Desert renegade, gathered as a 3 year old and still hanging to his wild roots. Littrell calls Crow his spiritual adviser and said the horse is in tune to Littrell and will put him in line when necessary.
Littrell stopped in Dow, Okla., at the home of his former machine gunner, Kyle Rager, during the ride. Rager made duplicate dog tags for each of the 16 Marines lost during Littrell’s second deployment and gave him the tags, asking him to carry the Marines the rest of the way. Littrell did and knew he wanted to eventually make a saddle with the dog tags.
Littrell approached saddlemaker Tad Knowles, Kiowa, Colo., about making the saddle and Knowles said he would be honored. The saddle has all 16 dog tags hidden in various parts of the saddle. Knowles handcarved poppies on the rear jockey to honor the veterans and built the saddle on a Buster Welch tree. Littrell calls it a piece of art and uses it daily, the first ride, in fact, was 15 miles moving yearlings, a testament to the comfort of the saddle.
“Every time I throw a leg over a horse, there are 17 guys in that saddle,” he said. “They ride with me every time.”
Littrell’s work with veterans on the ranch continues with updates on Facebook at The Long Trail Home.
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.