Five-and-a-half years ago, in January of 2012, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Thomas McRae stepped on a 20-lb. IED.
“Both of my legs got blown off above the knee, and then my left arm was amputated above the elbow. I got hit in the face, and so, initially, I was blind in one eye because the nerve got torn, but they cut that out, eventually. Where I got hit in my head, in my eye socket, a bunch of bone fragments shot back into my brain, which means I’m lucky I’m not drooling on myself.”
This is Tom. He is a single dad raising his 9-year-old daughter and he served our country for 14 years, joining right out of high school in 2000. He deployed six times—to Japan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Portugal, Iraq, and finally Afghanistan, “to a sweet little hell-hole called Sangin,” Tom adds, which, in 2017, continues to be a war-torn city, with the Taliban recovering control just this past March. For the first many years of his service, Tom was a machine gunner in the infantry. Then he elected to go to the Explosive Ordnance Device (EOD) school to continue his service as an EOD team member. And he might be one of the few men in the world with no legs, one arm, and one eye who considers himself some version of lucky. But that really is Tom.
“I don’t want other people running my life. Right now I can’t drive; that’s one of the things I can’t do. I have a hard time with a lot of other things, but there are very few things that I actually can’t do. Except for walking on prosthetics, but I’m working on that one.”
In the meantime, Tom has another goal: To chase cattle through Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains in July with the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program (JMHP).
The JMHP has graced the pages of this magazine before; first in our April/May 2015 issue, when we did a profile piece on Col. John Mayer, the foreman of the program, and then in our Dec./Jan. 2016 issue, when we ran a feature story on the same Double Rafter Cattle Drive that Tom is currently looking forward to. Since the publication of those stories, the JMHP, which operates under the 501c umbrella of the Semper Fi Fund and offers post-9/11 veterans recovery through cowboy work, has expanded its programming to include spring and fall works at ranches in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; spur making and leatherworking clinics; a Colorado high country pack trip; ongoing roping clinics in California; and more.
And, while Tom rode before the explosion, when he woke up in the hospital three months later, it would be a year-and-a-half before he was allowed to participate in the therapeutic riding programs out of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where much of Tom’s recovery took place.
“It made me feel more normal than I’ve felt ever since I woke up,” Tom recalls telling a therapist who recommended riding as part of his initial recovery about being on a horse again. He continued to ride in those programs for more than a year, but ended up feeling pretty limited.
“It’s really great to be on a horse like that, but the downside is that you’re only ever allowed to walk, basically. You’re not allowed to trot and it’s just on flat ground.”
Determined to live a life that always involves horses, Tom retired from the Corps and began working toward his own solution—fixing up his North Carolina horse property and finding a mount that could accommodate his needs—when his case worker at the Semper Fi Fund started pushing the JMHP.
“She was so adamant about it that I actually pushed off calling John (Col. Mayer) and finding out about the program. So she gave John all my information and said you need to chase this guy down. And you can’t blame her. She ended up being right.”
As Tom recalls his first conversation about the program with the colonel, his pace quickens and his tone becomes light. He’s excited.
“So I started getting filled in on what the program does and whether or not it would be something I’d really like to do. And I decided that yes, it would be something I’d really, really, really like to do. But for me to do it, because of the extent of my injuries, I had to … make sure I could stay on a horse.”
To do so, Mo Smith—a vital member of the JMHP staff and the Senior Manager of the Semper Fi Fund Apprenticeship Program, which finds real-work experience for our veterans—invited Tom to his own North Carolina ranch this past September to see what Tom was capable of.
“Being a triple amputee,” Mo explains, “people weren’t going to really give him an opportunity to ride a horse and especially to go out and chase cattle, so I said, ‘If he’s game, I’m game.’”
A few adaptations were required, so Mo constructed a wheelchair ramp to make his house accessible, and to help keep Tom weighted in his seat, they rigged up a saddle with a couple of leather straps running from horn to cantle, like seatbelts across his thighs. Mo pulled his 18-year-old mare, Tobi, for three days with Tom, and when things went well in the arena, they went for a trail ride, and when that went well, Mo rounded up some of his cattle and put Tom’s cowboying skills to the test.
“That was my first time trotting a horse in like three years,” Tom recalls of his time in Mo’s arena. “I mean, ever since I got blown up, I’ve never even trotted a horse.”
In his report back to the Semper Fi Fund following the visit, Mo wrote that Tom was “advanced quickly to make sure he had the confidence and know-how to handle a long event.” Tom’s initial success cleared him for an October trip with the JMHP to the Orme School and Ranch in Mayer, Ariz.—a multi-day riding, leatherworking, and cattle work clinic that would test the physicality of any able-bodied person, even as one of the more introductory clinics offered by the program. Having handled the trip excellently, Tom has been given the opportunity to do the six-day cattle drive in Wyoming, camping out each night in the backcountry, and riding an average of 12 miles each day, while chasing wily cow-calf pairs up and down steep mountain trails, through timber, and across running water.
The only challenge left was getting Tom a proper saddle. Mo’s initial alterations were a good starting point for a functional design, but real time spent in the saddle in Arizona revealed a few shortcomings, while the Western environment presented other challenges Tom hadn’t anticipated.
“I was having a huge problem with my prosthetic eye because I don’t make tears in that eye. I’d never been out where it was so windy and dry, so I was having to pack a bag, but it was really hard for me to get into it.”
While there, Tom also tried an adaptive saddle that had been custom-built for a JMHP rider who is paralyzed from the waist down, but because Tom maintains use of his stumps, he felt that saddle was too restrictive.
With the support of the Semper Fi Fund, Mo got to work finding a solution to Tom’s needs and reached out to an acquaintance, custom saddlemaker J.R. Miller.
J.R. runs his shop in Amish country Ohio, and the men planned a trip north in October, following the Arizona clinic, to discuss design options and to nail down the sort of customizations necessary to enable Tom to be a viable member of a working cowboy crew. Despite J.R.’s nearly 15 years experience in saddlemaking, Tom’s needs were a tall order.
“Yea, I was a little bit nervous,” J.R. admits.
The saddle was designed with a wade tree, which J.R. chose to give Tom better stability. It has a fiddle-style inlay seat and enlarged, padded bucking rolls that Tom can use to balance himself by adding pressure with his stumps. Keeping with the seatbelt design across the thighs, J.R. attached the leather straps to D-rings installed underneath the gullet, while heavy-duty Velcro allows for adjustability. Then came Tom’s inventive requests.
As a devoted user of chewing tobacco, Tom realized in Arizona that employing his one hand to balance his dip tin while negotiating the lid and getting a pinch of chew proved infinitely more difficult when also trying to hold the reins and keep his horse from walking off.
“I’ve only got one hand,” Tom reiterates, “so I’ve got to decide, do I lose my Copenhagen, or do I let the horse go till he feels like stopping? And, normally, my hand goes to the Copenhagen.”
He needed a place to set his tin where it would stay, sort of like a cup holder. The solution was for J.R. to create an oversized horn with a shallow, circular depression in the cap, just big enough to fit a tin, nice and snug (seen in the image at the top of this page).
To address the irritation caused to Tom’s eye by the dust and dryness out West, J.R. crafted a matching pommel bag to carry eye drops and other essentials, as well as an easily accessible pouch for a chew tin and a pistol holster because, when Tom talks about the things he wants in his life, they include tobacco, horses, guns, and enough space to enjoy all of the above.
Typically, on a custom saddle order, J.R. is booked out between 10 and 12 months, but Mo and Tom were back in Ohio in February, driving for two days each way, anxious to get Tom outfitted with his new rig. J.R., who made Tom’s saddle a priority on the work list, was equally anxious.
“He did an amazing job with the ideas that Mo and I came up with and with the bucket list of things from me,” Tom emphasizes when discussing J.R.’s craftsmanship. “He put it all together on one heck of a piece.”
A few modifications were made to the bucking rolls upon arrival, and then the crew headed out to Buckeye Acre Farm, owned and operated by J.R.’s neighbor, horse trainer Duane Yoder, to saddle up a few horses and give the rig a go in real time. At the farm, Duane is in the business of taking quarter horses (mostly) with basic training to the next level, training each of them to both ride and drive. For Tom, he pulled a sleek-looking 5-year-old buckskin gelding named Vegas, and Cactus, a large, bay roan.
Starting with Vegas, Tom mounted up—a task made simpler thanks to Duane’s commitment to also training each of his horses to lie down on command—and moved through the paces in the arena, getting a first-time feel for what his saddle could allow him to do. Confident in the fit and functionality, the crew swapped horses and Tom headed outside astride Cactus for some hilly ascents and water crossings.
“I was honored to meet Tom,” Duane recounts. “I mean, it almost shocked me, what he went through. He’s got a big determination to do what he does and to ride as good as he does. He did a great job handling the horses.”
And even then, enabling Tom to meet the arduous physical challenges of working from the saddle for days at a time has only been half the battle.
“I have a really bad brain injury,” Tom states. “I talk okay now, but I have a really bad memory. I can’t multitask. I have seizures, but I haven’t had one in a really long time.”
Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) have come to be recognized as the country’s post-9/11 “invisible wounds” of war, largely because, in the early years of the war, on paper, they barely existed.
“I’m a firm believer that undiagnosed TBIs are the Agent Orange of my generation,” Tom asserts.
And though the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center was founded in 1992, just following the end of the first Gulf War, it wasn’t until 15 years later, in 2007, when the military was first able to introduce practices in the field in the form of “in-theater consultation,” according to the center’s website. An act that was followed shortly by Congress’s passing of the Traumatic Brain Injury Act of 2008 in response to the unprecedented public health and medical concerns directly resulting from the number of TBIs impacting service members.
When asked how he maintains his positive outlook, Tom explains, “I had to deal with a couple of issues and one thing that really helps is that I don’t dwell, at all, on what happened to me. It was something that is a consequence of what we do, and it sucks, but you get unlucky. You may get blown up and have limbs blown off, but I don’t think about what happened to me so much.”
Arguably, this is the very reason Tom has prioritized his desire to keep horses in his life. Equine-assisted therapy programs are offered throughout the country and cover the gamut in terms of approach. Some, like the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) focus simply on the relationship between a person and a horse on the ground—no riding; it’s all about trust. On the other end of the spectrum are programs like the JMHP, which rely on that same relationship of trust and put it to work in the cowboy theater of the American West. But, regardless of where the program falls on the spectrum of activity, each brings focus to the participant. With the horse, there is no room to dwell on the past or to be anxious about the future. Everything happens in the now. For combat veterans trying to manage the symptoms of their TBIs (memory loss, insomnia, comprehension deficits, irritability, seizures, pain, etc.), living in the moment is everything.
On the drive back to North Carolina, Tom requested Mo swing by the barn where Tom’s horse was in training until this May, when Tom was able to move the horse to his own property. A horse that, prior to this day in February, Tom had never even ridden.
“It was good,” Tom says of their first ride. “He just needs a couple days of me being on him so he can learn my cues to get him to walk and trot and so on.”
It’s all part of the process for Tom. Adapting. Finding new ways to do what is completely regular for the average person. It’s not an endeavor Tom faces entirely on his own. Tom’s ability to move a few hundred head of cattle through the Bighorn backcountry this summer will be because of his case worker’s talent for identifying opportunities, the support from the Semper Fi Fund and Mo’s willingness to take chances and find solutions, and J.R.’s desire to challenge himself and create something unlike anything he’d ever even seen before. But then, when the plans and designs and preparations are complete, it will be entirely up to Tom, and according to Mo, that part is a non-issue.
“This event is going to be really hard. Long days in the saddle, no comfortable bed, and no indoor plumbing. But we can pull this off. Thomas has no quit in him and is more gung-ho than most able-bodied people I encounter. This cattle drive will give him an opportunity to experience the cowboy way using his horse to take him places that would be virtually impossible for him to navigate on his own.
“But hell,” Mo concludes, “there’s no reason that people with legs should have all the fun, and life is not over just ’cause you are a little banged up.”
J.R. Miller builds custom gear at his shop in Millersburg, Ohio. Saddle prices from $2,200. 330-893-4610
Charles Caswell is an Iraq War wounded veteran-turned-cowboy-photographer through his participation in the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program and Semper Fi Fund Apprenticeship Program. Last September, while shooting the Mountain States Ranch Rodeo in Montrose, Colo., before a pack trip deep into the San Juan Mountains, Charles was introduced to professional rodeo photographer Karsten Balsley, who took Charles under his wing. Charles now shoots consistently for the programs, and was hired by this magazine to cover this story. 269-364-1711, dogtagimaging.com
Ed note: In the original printing of this article, we mistakenly described the bomb in the subhead as an “Afghani” bomb. We have since learned that Afghani only refers to the currency in Afghanistan. We have revised the error in this version.