Iraq Veteran Jonathan Fehrenback, 29, gazed at the water alongside other veterans attending the nonprofit, Operation Second Chance (OSC) fishing event on the property of veteran Steve Gose and his wife, Marty, in Roberts, Tuesday, August 6. He and his wife Gina, have replaced veteran Wade Christiansen in assisting OSC after Christiansen, 23, committed suicide in May.
Jonathan still found the loss of Christiansen hard to believe. “He was so strong. He pulled me out of the fire. If I’d known…” OSC, a Red Lodge nonprofit that holds outdoor experiences for injured vets, has now grown to include three retreats nationwide this year: one in Alaska fishing for King Salmon; one in Texas, and one in Red Lodge. The Red Lodge retreat has three phases: last week hosting Special Forces; this week hosting five veterans and one wife accompanying her husband and next week: hosting “spouses only.” Jonathan attributes last year’s OSC retreat to giving him his life back. “I hadn’t gone out in three years except for medical visits.”
Gina made him apply to OSC online telling him it was a long shot. But she pushed. “We really, really need this,” she told them. Despite being booked, OSC called. At first, Jonathan wasn’t too happy. Gina said, “Well, you signed it,” and he reluctantly agreed to go. He then made the huge step of getting on a plane to Montana. Red Lodge veteran Hank Tuell, an original member of the Red Lodge branch of OSC, recalled that first visit. “At the end of the first day the group went to eat at the Grizzly Bar. At one point, we were outside. Jonathan patted me on the back and said, ‘Watch me go back in that restaurant.’” It was his first time in a restaurant in two years.
When he first came home, Jonathan had problems with alcohol. “I thought, just let me be a normal 22 year old. It was the worst thing I could have done. It destroyed my life for a little while; destroyed my wife. Look at her,” he smiled. “She’s been through everything. Wives must remember it’s not going to be the same.” Jonathan explained, “I tried to do the grieving process, going to Arlington to say good-by to friends helped. I’ve been on everything psycho-tropic. I realized it was too much; I was so drugged up. I didn’t even notice Gina.” He needed therapy, “But they just say take this and, ‘go ahead.’”
He said the service advised Gina, “‘There is going to be some abnormal behavior.’ My Marine staff sergeant told her to get a restraining order.” He tried to cope. “Technology today…I heard Iraqi insurgents recorded their sniper shots and posted them on the Internet as a morale killer. I’d be drunk, watching it. I’d become so numb. I wanted to feel sympathy; I wanted to cry. For a long time, I couldn’t get any emotion out.” He said the VA did not help. “They don’t tell you anything. They act like, ‘Man up!’ It does more damage. Vets lose faith in the system. You don’t ask for more help; you isolate more.”
When Jonathan arrived in Montana he was scared and confused. Soon, he was horseback riding up in the mountains. “By the second day, I was saying, ‘What can I do to help?’” This day, Jonathan was escorting five men fishing. The week included horseback riding, ATV’ing and rafting. The ponds lining Gose’s property were thick with big trout. A stream gurgled peacefully by as men cast bobbers and flies near cottonwoods. Trout were biting.
Gose said, “ We ’ r e blessed to give back what the Lord’s given us.” Lunch was eaten on an outdoor terrace, high among treetops filled with chattering birds. A deer and fawn passed below. “We all come from the base at San Antonio, but not all of us are from Texas,” volunteered Troy Drebenstedt from Charlevoix, Michigan. He admitted he was on his honeymoon. “I snuck away two weeks ago; she had to work.” Veteran David Ruppel exclaimed, “I came in her place!”
For Drebenstedt, it was the trip of a lifetime. “Unbelievable…great people putting forth such great effort. The community has embraced us. It’s a breath of fresh air.” The next week is for the spouses, with Gina leading the events. “For the first time here,” said Tuell, “OSC is honoring spouses who run the homes, raise the children and worry.” These days, Jonathan still suffers extreme pain but is not on opiates. He has injuries to his back and knees and traumatic brain injury from an Improvised Explosive Device. He takes some pain meds but has a range of treatments. “I use an electric pulse system on my knees to cancel pain.” Since the pulse loses effectiveness over time, the VA has offered to surgically implant a device. He is wary. “I think of (fellow vet) Jenna. She had experimental surgery after she inhaled during an explosion. It charred her throat. The operation opened up her airway. She said, ‘I am finally able to breathe.’ Three days later, her airways collapsed.”
He feels OSC events are healing. “I’m feeding myself as well. It lets me take time out.” He regrets time wasted. “How much time I focused on it as a painful thing.” At one point, Jonathan attempted suicide, overdosing on morphine. “I dosed it with a sip of wine,” he calmly recalled. Gina saved his life. “I think how I scared her. I was drinking myself to death.”
When he overdosed, Gina remembered the local VA saying they wouldn’t cover him anymore. She drove two hours to a different hospital risking his organs shutting down. When she arrived, “She received flack,” said Jonathan. “They wouldn’t let her stay in the ICU!” Jonathan was comatose for 3-4 days. “Gina told me, ‘You’re not going to leave me: Semper Fi! You owe me, for life,’” he said laughing.
When they met, Gina told him she had a scar from open heart surgery and asked if he minded. “Thank God, I said no, because when I came back our whole life changed. She’s been my guardian angel.” Jonathan reflected on the quality of VA care. “You should be able to go to any clinic and get treated.” When he was choking at night and needed a breathing machine immediately, his local VA had a 6 month waiting period. “When they don’t prescribe the proper meds, vets self-medicate with hard drugs and alcohol.”
Jonathan said Christiansen was highly effective h e l p i n g i n j u r e d v e t s . “Wade…blew me away. I don’t want anyone to think he didn’t help. He was great.” Gina agreed. “OSC was wonderful. It really made a difference in Jonathan. It really brought him out.”