Clay Hunt

An Inextinguishable Light

By David Daly

On March 31, 2011, our nation suffered another combat casualty. This death was not caused by a roadside bomb in the shifting sands of Iraq. Nor was it the result of sniper fire in Afghanistan's snow-covered mountains. On this particular day, our collective loss occurred in Houston, Texas, as Clay Hunt, a former United States Marine, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

 

Clay's death marked the end of 28 years of life and a years-long fight with PTSD. All the more tragic is that his death would come at his own hand after surviving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clay Hunt was haunted by memories of comrades killed in combat and gnawing survivor's guilt. Those are the dark times only those who have experienced war can fully appreciate. They know how quickly the intrusive memories can become a burden too heavy to bear. 

 

While Clay's death is a tragedy, his life had a meaning and purpose that far exceeds any statistics on veteran suicide. Clay's lasting mark is present through the countless people Clay helped during his short life. Clay's desire to help others is perhaps best seen through his involvement with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), such as Ride2Recovery and Team Rubicon.

Clay Hunt was devoted to a life of service. The fallen warrior once said, "If I had one thing to say to my fellow veterans, it would be this: Continue to serve, even though we have taken off our uniforms. No matter how great or small your service is, it is desired and needed by the world we live in today." 

 

Clay continued, "It doesn't matter what it is. It only matters that you continue to put others before yourself, just like you did when you were in the military. Actions like that are the only sure ways to bring about the positive social change that our country and our world need so badly these days."

The nature of the organizations Clay gave his time to offer a window into his heart and the man he was. Project Hero, which runs Ride2Recovery events across the nation, has donated thousands of bikes and supported over 10,000 veterans since it's inception. Military.com states, "Ride 2 Recovery supports physical and psychological rehabilitation programs for injured veterans. From indoor spinning training at military installations to multiday, long-distance rides, Ride2Recovery helps injured veterans heal through the challenge of cycling long distances using hand cycles, recumbents, tandems, and traditional upright bikes." 

 

Through Ride2Recovery events, Project Hero participants can learn coping skills to fight the symptoms of PTSD in positive ways while accompanied by a fellowship of riders. Many riders have reported improved substance abuse issues, faster injury recovery times, improved sleep, and an overall improvement in their daily lives. Riding events have logged over 30,000 miles of bicycling across 30 states and six countries worldwide.

 

Team Rubicon is an NGO focused on helping neighborhoods prepare, respond, and recover from disasters and crises. The team was founded on taking military veterans' skills and applying them to real-world emergencies. Team Rubicon's mission is to 'provide relief to those affected by a disaster, no matter when or where they strike. By pairing the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders, medical professionals, and technology solutions, Team Rubicon aims to provide the greatest service and impact possible.'

After their time in the service, many veterans feel as if they've lost their sense of purpose. Team Rubicon seeks to provide its team members with a community of purposeful, passionate individuals who recognize the positive impact one person can make. For many, the organization helps bridge the transition between military and civilian life. 

While about 70% of the people who volunteer for Team Rubicon are veterans, prior military service is not required to join. Many first responders, medical professionals, teachers, mental health providers, and individuals with technical and construction backgrounds make up Team Rubicon's ranks. The only requirement is a commitment to serve. 

The Life of Clay Hunt

Clay Warren Hunt was born on April 18, 1982, in Houston, Texas. He enjoyed sports and graduated from Stratford High School in 2001. After high school, Clay earned an Associate degree from Blinn College and attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Guided by his desire to help, Clay enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in May of 2005. 

 

Following the nine week-long School of Infantry course in 2006, he joined Second Battalion, Seventh Regiment (2/7). In January 2007, he was deployed to Iraq. Clay's unit was sent to one of the most dangerous provinces in the country, Al Anbar. In 2004, one of the province's cities, Fallujah, was the scene of a significant battle that lasted well over a month. The region remains a dangerous area to this day.

Photo Courtesy of Team Rubicon

Clay lost several close friends during his deployment and was later wounded when his unit came under sniper fire. The sniper's rounds barely missed his head but found their mark on Clay's wrist, earning him a Purple Heart. As a result of his injury, he was evacuated to the States to recover. Survivor's guilt and the memories of his lost friends began to occupy his thoughts. This was the tour where Clay started to struggle with PTSD.

 

After recovering from his wrist wound, Clay Hunt applied for the Marine Corps Scout Sniper School and graduated from the program in 2008. A month after completing the course, his unit was deployed to Afghanistan. Clay and his fellow Marines would operate near Sangin, a town in Helmand Province known as a Taliban stronghold, perhaps the country's most dangerous region. The tour would add to his already significant trauma.

 

Shortly after returning from Afghanistan, Clay was Honorably Discharged from the Marine Corps in April 2009. After leaving the service, Clay had difficulty in understanding why he survived, and others did not. Survivor's guilt is a common symptom of PTSD, and Psychology Today has reported in the past on why they believe this symptom is so powerful in the veteran community.

 

"Given the opportunity, many veterans would return to their old units and battlefields. Their survivor's guilt can hinge on themes of longing, nostalgia, feelings they betrayed the bonds of brother or sisterhood, and desire for retribution. For some, combat was the most exhilarating time of their life and the thing that most haunts them. It's a love-hate relationship as old as time. The conflict between the two can cause immense distress, interpersonal isolation, and shame. Living to die or dying to live is a thin line many walk on a daily basis."

No longer in the Marine Corps, Clay searched for direction and maintained a strong desire to continue serving in some capacity. His chance to help again would come in 2010 when Haiti was hit with a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake. After seeing the unimaginable devastation from the earthquake, a small group of veterans decided to take action independently. Eight people, including the co-founder and now CEO of Team Rubicon, Jake Wood, flew into the Dominican Republic and boarded a truck that would take them into Haiti. 

 

Jake and Clay were in the Marine Corps together and were as close as brothers. True to character, Clay knew he needed to join up with Jake and the other volunteers as soon as possible. He arrived in Haiti just a few days after the original team of eight began helping in disaster recovery efforts bringing the team's size to nine motivated veterans.

 

The small group of veterans started in Haiti's capital city of Port-Au Prince just one week after the earthquake occurred. Operating independently in areas many NGOs deemed unsafe, the team established field medical facilities and transportation. Together they helped thousands of people over the month they were there. His time in Haiti would solidify his most dedicated purpose. 

Photo Courtesy of The Houston Chronicle

In 2010, he and Team Rubicon would again deploy, this time to Chile after an 8.8 magnitude quake devasted the region near Santiago, the Chilean capital. Whether deployed with Team Rubicon or on a Ride2Recovery event, Clay seemed to control his PTSD by staying busy. However, no one realized in between these events, his Post-Traumatic Stress-Disorder demons were becoming harder to keep at bay. Less than two years after leaving the Marine Corps, Clay shockingly and unexpectedly took his own life.

 

Clay's death, albeit devastating, was a catalyst for change. Before his passing, Team Rubicon was focused solely on offering humanitarian assistance abroad. After Clay's death, the organization opened itself up to also working within the United States. Soon after, Team Rubicon commenced the Clay Hunt Fellows Program for veterans' personal development and growth in honor of Clay's spirit of selfless service to others.

 

The Clay Hunt Fellows Program (CHFP) has evolved since its inception. It now encompasses a six-month curriculum designed to help veterans find their purpose outside of military service. The six-month course is called Base Camp and helps to identify individual strong points and goals. These attributes are strengthened through group discussion, reading, and assignments designed to guide participants through self-reflection and self-awareness exploration.

When asked about Clay, Michael Davidson, the head of the Clay Hunt Fellows Program, stated, "What he was getting out of Team Rubicon was really the three tenants we hope every 'Greyshirt,' or Team Rubicon Member, gets out of it - and that's community, identity, and purpose." As Michael recalls, "Up until the day he took his own life, he was an advocate for other veterans that were going through the same shit that he was going through." 

It is for this reason that his death was so hard to understand by so many. In interviews since Clay's passing, many of the Team Rubicon members that knew him have expressed their initial anger over Clay's death. "When Clay committed suicide, the first emotion that came over me was, I was pissed," said Michael. "Team Rubicon was faced with two courses of action. We could close up shop and call it a failed social experiment or double down and start doing domestic operations." The CHFP was born out of this decision. 

The first few years of the program were not as focused on self-exploration. Initially, CHFP was a year-long curriculum designed to build leaders for disaster response. Michael, a graduate of Cohort 2, took over the program in 2015. Since then, the program has morphed into a focus on redefining individual purpose and identity.

Photo Courtesy of Envoy Air

Photo Courtesy of USMCLife.com

Brian Calgano, who now works full time for Team Rubicon, applied what he learned in the program by rebuilding homes for Texas victims of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. "Handing the house keys back to family is one of the most rewarding things I've ever been a part of," he asserts. Reaching their goal to rebuild 100 houses in 2 years, Team Rubicon members who knew Clay know he would be proud. For Brian and so many others, accomplishing this aim was enormously meaningful. 

 

According to Michael, the program has even helped people avoid Clay's tragic fate. "I know for a fact that this program has saved lives. There has not been a single cohort where at least someone didn't have suicidal ideations." The program even allows participants to complete LivingWork's Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Even with so much success, Team Rubicon's core values remain as genuine as ever.

 

Michael proudly states, "The only return on investment that we want from the Clay Hunt graduate is for them to be a better, more well-adjusted citizen that can go back and spread the ripple effect. We want them to tell their story and live it. It's an opportunity for veterans to put themselves first." Brian agrees and adds, "We are creating combat multipliers not just for the organization but for society. We are adding to the pool of people that are most prepared to help themselves and others. Team Rubicon is an opportunity to add something to your life."

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act was signed into law in 2015 by President Barack Obama, providing further evidence of Clay's lasting impact. The Act is designed to improve access to mental health services for veterans and members of the Armed Forces and their families.

 

There are three specific focuses for the Act. 

  • Require annual third-party evaluations of VA's mental health care and suicide prevention programs

  • Create a centralized website with resources and information for veterans about the range of mental health services available from the VA

  • Require collaboration on suicide prevention efforts between VA and non-profit mental health organizations

 

While Clay's sudden departure is difficult to process, a wealth of hope has sprung forward since. His caring heart and love for humankind are a light that not even death could extinguish. With no more battles to fight, Clay's spirit continues to shine through organizations like Team Rubicon and Ride2Recovery.

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