A thick fog hung over Mission Bay. Still dark out, it was early morning in San Diego, and Ryan Leighton was nervous. A lot was on the line that December day in 2013.
Chaos broke out in the frigid water a short while later. People climbed over each other. Feet and elbows flew. Leighton was claustrophobic as the sprint triathlon got underway; a blow to the face disoriented him. He thought of tapping out but silently talked himself into continuing. Quitting, he knew, would haunt him.
A bunch of bikes were still sitting around when he got to the first transition area. Leighton was freezing. His feet were numb and his hands wouldn’t work as he struggled to rinse sand off and put socks on. Wheeling away, he made his first mistake. He had forgotten to take off his wetsuit and had to stop and change. Finally ready to go, the then-40-year-old pedaled off.
Two laps around Fiesta Island zipped by. Leighton passed one cyclist after another. By the third lap, his mind was racing.
This is for everyone who said it would never happen.
This is for everything I fought for.
In his excitement, he forgot to take off his helmet before the five-kilometer run, his second miscue. It was understandable; besides, his goal had been just to finish.
His feet were still numb from the water. His legs felt like Jell-O. Compared with the cycling, the first half of the run was like slow motion. The triathlon was the most sustained exercise Leighton had done since the night he nearly died more than a year earlier. Leighton started worrying: Maybe that was it. Maybe he had hit his breaking point. Maybe he had nothing left.
Just don’t walk.
Now, Leighton was the one getting picked off. Somehow he wasn’t done, though. There was a little something left in his legs. He all-out sprinted the last quarter-mile. Tears flowed down Leighton’s cheeks when he crossed the finish line. He placed third in his age group at San Diego’s Beach Blast Sprint Triathlon. After a decade of pain and self-destruction, Leighton was finally one step closer to getting his life back.
Ryan Leighton is 6-foot-1 and built like a lumberjack. He has short brown hair, a disarming personality, and a thing for crawfish étouffée and old-school punk—the band Fugazi is a favorite.
Leighton is a guy’s guy. He’s someone you’d want to spend a Saturday afternoon with barbecuing and drinking a beer. And if you were in trouble, you’d definitely want him in your corner because he’s quick to offer a hand.
Born in 1973 and originally from Bradenton, Florida, Leighton was a self-described “military brat” who grew up hopping around the southeastern United States and parts of Canada. Both his father and grandfather served in the military, and Leighton followed suit in 1992 after graduating from high school.
The Marine Corps was his pick. Over time, Leighton found his calling as a crew chief on Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopters. “You’re kind of like a flight engineer,” he says. “You’re a mechanic. You’re a door gunner. You’re basically anything they need.”
After four years in the Marines, Leighton returned to civilian life in 1996. But he re-upped just two years later when he heard the Marines needed crew chiefs. In 2002, Leighton was sent to Arizona as a weapons and tactics instructor at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. In 2003, he deployed to Iraq—that same month he turned 30.
Ryan lost four close friends while in Iraq. They died in a crash at the end of a runway. The deaths got to him. At the time, Leighton says, “it was probably the worst thing that ever happened [to me].”
The first time Leighton thought of suicide was during his final month of that tour in Iraq. He didn’t think about it often over there. But when he did, he grew desensitized to the idea—as long as nobody else got hurt, it seemed like a reasonable option. Also on Leighton’s mind was what life would be like back home. It wasn’t going to be good. A divorce with his then-wife of about five years was looming, and Leighton was scared of losing custody of his daughter. It would be really convenient, he thought, if something just happened to him and he was killed during the final days of his deployment. However, as his time in the Middle East ran out, he switched to thinking about how he’d take his own life.
In August 2016, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a report on veteran suicide rates from 2001 to 2014. The department dubbed the report part of the culmination of “the most comprehensive analysis of Veteran suicide in our nation’s history.” Using 1979 to 2014 as its time span for the overall study, the department looked at more than 55 million veterans’ records. The information in the sub-study that examined 2001 to 2014 is sobering.
During that period, there was a 31 percent increase in veterans killing themselves compared with 24 percent for adult civilians. When taking differences in age and gender into account in 2014, veterans faced a 22 percent greater risk of suicide than their nonmilitary peers. In 2014, veterans between 18 and 29 years old had the highest suicide rates. Those aged 60 to 80 experienced the lowest rates that year. On average, 20 veterans took their own lives each day in 2014.
Suicide is a serious issue for active-duty and reserve-component (reserve and National Guard) personnel, too. According to a report from the Department of Defense, in 2012, 525 active-duty and reserve-component members of the military took their own lives. That number fell to 476 in 2013 and then to 446 the following year. In 2015, the number increased to 480 and then rose slightly to 483 in 2016. Through two quarters of 2017, 246 active or reserve service members committed suicide.
Put another way, more than 7,000 military personnel past and present kill themselves each year. They are sons and daughters; brothers and sisters; fathers and mothers; relatives and significant others; old classmates and best friends.
“This is a huge public-health problem,” says Dr. Charles Nemeroff, a professor and the chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Also, remember that for each suicide that occurs, there are a very substantial number of suicide attempts.”
That’s something Leighton knows all too well. Like so many soldiers, his story is both unique and somehow familiar. It is also just one story among thousands.
Back stateside in Yuma, Leighton was in trouble almost immediately. He felt empty at the homecoming reception. Loved ones, wives, and children excitedly greeted their Marines. Nobody showed up for him. Leighton bummed a ride home. On the way, he prayed that his wife would be there, that things weren’t as bad as he feared.
It was midafternoon when he arrived at his house, a hunter-green, triple-wide modular structure that looked abandoned. A half-hour or so came and went before he screwed up the courage to go inside. The place was empty. Furniture was gone. Bars of soap were gone. The only things Leighton found were his clothes. Seeing the home so barren, Leighton realized that some of his worst fears had been made real. He snapped.
“Just trashing the place—I went in and just destroyed the house, you know?” he says. “Punching walls; throwing things; complete and utter temper tantrum. I did a lot of damage—I did quite a bit of damage just losing my shit on the house because it was all true.” As he continues to speak, his matter-of-fact tone disappears, replaced by raw emotion that still hasn’t healed. “I don’t know if I can put weight on the enormity of that, like, when it’s like no one’s fucking there,” he says. “Like: I went to combat, you know? Could’ve been killed.”
After trashing the house, Leighton briefly changed out of his uniform and into civilian clothes—Marines are not allowed to wear desert camouflage in town—and walked down the road to buy alcohol. Being in civilian clothes felt weird. So when he got home, he put his cammo back on, plopped onto his Marine Corps sea bag in the living room, and drank everything he had. Life sank in. Leighton was done. He thought about suicide again—but he wasn’t carrying a weapon. Leighton says he probably would have taken his life that night if he’d had anything to use—like gasoline to light himself on fire.
Leighton started running to get away from his nightmares. Almost immediately after returning to Yuma, Leighton began to wake up from graphic nightmares of his friends dying in the Middle East. In them, Leighton could catch the smell of burning flesh. He often would wake up from the violent nightmares covered in sweat and hyperventilating. He tried desperately to scrub off the dream’s burning-body smell. Afterward, he’d run on base in the middle of the night.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone about it,” he says of the nightmares and lets out a sigh. “Because even at the schoolhouse [Marine Corps Air Station Yuma], there wasn’t just Huey guys, there was other aircraft guys who just didn’t have the experiences that I had. So, I just started running as a way to get rid of nervous energy.”
Leighton’s introduction to running came thanks to the Marine Corps’ routine mandatory fitness tests. Competitive by nature, Leighton pushed himself to beat his peers. In the process, he got hooked. He never ran less than nine miles. It was an arbitrary rule Leighton made for himself, but one he followed religiously. Running shifted his focus from his nightmares to what was on his agenda for the day. He says those middle-of-the-night outings were the only times he felt normal.
That said, Leighton describes himself as somewhat of a “sadist.” Take his go-to music: the soundtrack to the movie Black Hawk Down—on repeat. It was the element in his runs that would put him over the edge emotionally and compel him to push himself further physically. “I wore that sucker out,” he says. Other times, it was music from Gladiator. Both brought back memories from Iraq. It was as though some part of him insisted on remembering. Even when he tried to run away from what haunted him, his brain couldn’t let go completely.
At least twice, he suffered stress fractures from running too much. Even that didn’t stop him—not at first. Sure, he felt the physical pain of his injuries, but running was still the best escape he had. When Leighton finally got to the point where it became difficult just to walk, he temporarily switched to long-distance biking.
Leighton calls 2003 to 2006 his “downward spiral.” Before Iraq, he hadn’t been a big drinker. But once stateside again, Leighton downed anything he could get his hands on. And like so many others who need to feel in control, he had rules when it came to drinking. One was that his daughter, Sara, had to be in bed asleep. His divorce became official in 2004, when Sara was not even 5 years old. With her, Leighton tried to act like everything was fine. But around 8 p.m., he’d hole up in his home office—where framed 8-by-10 pictures of his military friends who had died hung on the wall. Staring at the photos, Leighton would drink until one or two in the morning.
Coming to grips with the fact that he wasn’t in control of things was a struggle. Nighttime led to anxiety about going to bed. He knew a nightmare would find him in his sleep. So, he’d try to drink away his nerves. “Could you imagine every night if you were going to go to sleep knowing you’re going to dream that?” he asks. “It was the worst thing in the world for me, knowing I’d eventually have to go to sleep.” And as the nightmares piled up, so did his mileage.
Leighton thought he was doing okay. Work was fine—great, even. Leighton was happy with his job; it helped keep his mind off his anxiety. While instructing, he was extremely careful to hide what he was going through. In fact, he became downright reclusive about his personal life. When it came to drinking, Leighton diligently followed the rules restricting alcohol consumption prior to flying. He also only drank at home. That way, nobody in small-town Yuma would ever catch him.
But, really, life was far from okay.
The graphic nightmares fueled Leighton’s desire to take his own life. If only it were possible to trade places with those who were lost, he thought. To him, they were better human beings than he was. After just two or three months stateside, Leighton’s suicidal thoughts became overwhelming—going from occasional to daily.
But thinking about Sara, and how selfish it would be to kill himself, stopped Leighton from taking his own life. “It’s like you want to—you really, really want to—but you feel like you can’t,” Leighton explains. “It’s sort of like purgatory every day. You wake and you’re stuck. You’re stuck in your life, and you don’t want to be there, but you don’t have any other choice.”
This isn’t uncommon. According to Nemeroff, just as there are risk factors that can push someone closer to taking one’s own life, there are protective factors that can hold a person back from suicide. “Having a very strong religious faith can be protective,” Nemeroff says. But there’s something else: “most importantly, psychosocial support—connectedness—including family members.”
And so Leighton plodded through his life and his nightmares: drinking, running, teaching—over and over again—during his three-year stint in Arizona after Iraq.
That’s not to say he didn’t get close to suicide. Twice during the final months of his stay in Yuma, he pointed a loaded gun to his head.
Orders next sent him to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans in April 2006, where at first he kept up his exercise routine. Eventually, Leighton’s drinking got even worse. He started trying to drink himself past his mental purgatory—to summon the liquid courage to commit suicide. It happened about once a month—until his next deployment in 2007. Drinking wasn’t allowed during deployment.
The return to Iraq lasted less than a year.
Over there, Leighton was protected from himself. When he had time, a running club and his bike relaxed him. More importantly, he felt like he had a support system. There were people he could talk to and work out with. For once, his nightmares weren’t that big a problem.
A dangerous flight during the deployment had also helped his self-esteem. Leighton’s helicopter expertise had been vital. If it weren’t for him being on that flight, he says, the helicopter would have gone down. The incident gave Leighton more pride in his abilities. People, he began to realize, respected him.
The thought of returning to the United States in 2008 was scary. His time in Iraq had been meaningful, and given his first disastrous homecoming, Leighton had a pretty solid idea of what life looked like stateside. He was right to be scared. At home, Leighton returned to drinking. Run-of-the-mill nonmilitary activities made him uncomfortable, and his support system had vanished. Alcohol was his coping mechanism.
But, Leighton stuck with cycling and running after returning home. He was in good shape and decided to test himself: He signed up for his first triathlon in New Orleans.
Leighton didn’t have a road bike to use in the triathlon, so he jerry-rigged his mountain bike into one by throwing on road tires. Boy, did he get some funny looks the day of the competition. But Leighton wasn’t deterred. He did very well, finishing around 26th overall out of more than 200 competitors. “For me, that was a crowning achievement,” he says, looking back. His goal was just to finish; he crushed it. “It did a lot for my self-confidence at the time.”
Leighton was excited. He thought maybe if he got into the triathlon scene, it would help keep him from giving in to his vices. There’s also plenty of evidence that physical exercise can help combat mild-to-moderate levels of depression. Nemeroff says this occurs through a process called neurogenesis, in which the hippocampus can create new brain cells, even in adulthood. Nemeroff added, however, that exercise is not enough to cure the kind of severe depression that Leighton had. But research suggests it could certainly help him deal with the everyday stress that might lead him there.
Sure enough, exercise worked. Until it didn’t. Leighton put his triathlon kick on the backburner and started drinking again. Without the thin line of defense fitness had given him, Leighton was easy game for his demons.
One night, Leighton was out on his old beat-up deck with a .45-caliber. Despite being only two or three beers in, he was worked up. He had had enough with life and was daring himself to end everything. He raised the gun to his head. The safety was off.
“I just remember letting off the trigger, feeling all the slack go out of the trigger, and wondering how the fuck it never went off,” he says. “How it didn’t go off—I don’t know. … There was no problem with that gun.”
Whatever happened, Leighton had seriously scared himself. Something needed to change. But instead of asking for help, Leighton put in a request for orders. He needed a fresh start, he told himself. In May 2009, he went to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
There, Leighton met a woman named Jacquie, a former Marine Corps helicopter mechanic and an avid runner who roped Leighton back into the habit. “That’s what actually our first date was, you know, shit-talking over who was a better runner,” he remembers. One date became two. Two became three. Eventually, the couple got married. Finally, Leighton saw a glimmer of light in his life.
It didn’t last. Leighton lost seven more friends on February 22, 2012. That day, after Leighton got back from flying, the crew who replaced him died when their helicopter and another collided.
Shortly afterward, Leighton deployed again, this time to Afghanistan.
It was pitch-black. The edge of road surrounding the perimeter of Camp Bastion’s runway was gravelly and littered with debris and rubble. It was late August 2012, almost exactly six months since the tragedy back home. Leighton, then a gunnery sergeant, had woken up early and was getting a run in prior to his night shift. The Afghanistan edition of the Marine Corps Marathon was coming up, and Leighton wasn’t going to miss it. He knocked out his nine miles that evening and mentally prepared for work. It was quiet. Military traffic motoring by was the only thing that broke the silence.
Leighton and a host of other troops were supporting NATO that night. They were traveling to an “NAI,” or Named Area of Interest, 60 to 70 miles north of Tarin Kowt to verify the location of a person tied to narcotics and believed to be associated with the Taliban.
Leighton reported for duty by 11:30 p.m. local—early. He wasn’t flying with his usual crew that night, and he wanted to make sure everything was just right heading into the operation. He also knew that the mountainous area he and the others were headed into had recently seen an uptick in hostility. Aircraft had been getting shot at more than normal. There had also been an unusual increase in ground activity. “They were getting a lot better,” he says of the enemy. “These weren’t your normal farmers [who] just pick up an AK and fire into the air. These guys really knew what they were doing.”
Taking off under the cloak of the Afghan night, Leighton was the most-senior Marine in his UH-1Y Yankee—he won’t say how many helicopters were involved in the op—and he felt he had brought his A-game.
It took about 30 to 40 minutes for Leighton’s helicopter to get from Camp Bastion—a since-vacated United Kingdom base located in a sea of poppy fields in Helmand Province—to Tarin Kowt. There, they picked up five or so members of Task Force 66, an Australian Special Operations Task Group; they refueled; and they addressed some minor electrical issues, setting their schedule back a bit.
Conscious of time, Leighton’s helicopter made its final approach to the NAI around one or two in the morning. The area didn’t look right to Leighton compared with what he saw on his map. The pilot disagreed.
At around the one-minute-to-go mark, Leighton turned to the two Task Force 66 members on his side of the Yankee and told them to be careful during their mission. That’s when he noticed the helicopter was coming in faster than normal. Seconds later, the Yankee lost reference to the ground. The helicopter had gotten too close to it, kicking up loose desert sand high into the air and engulfing the Yankee.
Leighton issued a wave-off. A wave-off is a command to abort a landing; it is supposed to be honored on the spot. Except this time, it wasn’t. As best as he can remember, and despite the whirl of sand around them, Leighton recalls the pilot saying that he did in fact have a ground reference.
Leighton looked back again to determine where the helicopter’s tail rotor was compared with the physical environment. He saw massive boulders. As calmly as possible, Leighton checked in again with the pilot. He gave another wave-off. The Yankee’s tail was low and its nose was up—the helicopter was almost perpendicular to the ground. Leighton gave yet another wave-off.
“I got it,” Leighton remembers the pilot saying. “I’ve got the ground.” But Leighton wasn’t budging and again issued a wave-off. Once more, Leighton looked toward the back of the helicopter.
“Basically, that’s when we hit,” he says. Sparks flew as the tail rotor hit the rocks. “The whole aircraft flipped over really, really quick, and as soon as it did, I got ejected.”
Leighton momentarily landed in an elevated valley between a pair of mountains. Still strapped into his gunner’s belt, he felt himself slingshot back into the air before flying down to the rocky, sandy earth like a yo-yo. This time, the impact knocked him out. He isn’t sure for how long. When he eventually came to, the Yankee’s engines were roaring uncontrollably above him. He was pinned underneath the helicopter. Leighton was facedown in the dirt with the weight of the aircraft on top of him. He couldn’t breathe.
“It was the scariest thing in the world, and everything hurt,” he says. “And then, I think the realization hits, it’s like, ‘Holy shit, we just crashed.’”
His mouth was full of blood, dirt, and helicopter fuel. He scooped out a hole with his left hand to spit into. There was also the gunner’s belt to worry about. It was still strapped around Leighton and stretched beyond its usual limit; a gunner’s belt only has so much slack before it can become a strangulation device. The belt was pulling so hard, Leighton felt like he was being bear-hugged. He couldn’t breathe and started to feel like he was going to pass out again. If he did, he thought, he would die from lack of oxygen. As he started to lose consciousness, he reached up and hit the release. The belt went flying away.
He started to breathe more normally.
As he did, though, his back began to break. One bone snapped after another, starting from the L2 to the T10.
Two people died in the crash. Both were from Task Force 66.
Leighton was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He stayed for about three weeks.
The injuries he sustained were extensive. He had a traumatic brain injury. He had nerve damage and couldn’t feel anything in his arms. He had speech and memory issues. An infection in one of his legs made his shin bone so soggy that it was basically memory foam. Then there was his back. Leighton’s spine was more smashed than broken. There wasn’t much that could be done for it other than a back brace and time.
After his stint at Walter Reed, Leighton returned to California. In December 2012, he was assigned to Wounded Warrior Battalion West’s Alpha Company at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, a regiment that provides medical care as Marines transition back to their units or back to civilian life. There, he continued his recovery, suspecting that his flying days were over as vision and hearing problems were added to his list of injuries. But something else happened, too. Leighton’s wife, Jacquie, noticed a change in her husband’s personality.
“He had a dark side before his accident,” Jacquie says. “It just, it wasn’t there every waking minute of every day.” And then the crash happened. “It was like watching a light switch get flipped.”
The crash tormented Leighton. In his mind, the Australians’ deaths were his fault. He blames himself to this day. “We were the flight crew,” he says of the Americans on the helicopter. “We were the ones that were supposed to get ‘em where they’re going. … I couldn’t save ‘em when they needed me. That was my fucking job. I was put specifically on that aircrew—you know, I was pulled from my crew, put on that crew to mitigate fuckin’ problems, and if anything went wrong, I would know what to do. And I was the one person who couldn’t do anything.”
The slow slog of recovery also tortured him. In February 2013, he briefly decided to stop taking his medication, only to wind up getting intensely sick and having to go to the emergency room. Worse, he soon tried it again. Things got bad in a hurry.
As soon as he could walk a little, Leighton started trying to sneak out of the house. The thing was, he wasn’t fast—or coordinated. By now, Jacquie spent her nights sleeping on the couch or in the hallway, basically anywhere she’d be able to respond to and take care of Leighton. He didn’t try to sneak out a whole lot, probably fewer than five times, but Jacquie caught him each time. They were trial runs, he explains. But Jacquie didn’t realize what was going on. She was so focused on being her husband’s personal nurse and attending to his physical needs that she didn’t see that Leighton was preparing for something.
On March 5, 2013, the couple’s anniversary, Leighton was eerily distant and calm, and Jacquie started to think she had to watch out for suicidal behavior. The following day, he came home later than usual from his doctors’ appointments and work at Wounded Warrior Battalion West. Leighton was acting strange and wandering around the house. Eventually, he told his wife he was going out for a walk. Jacquie was confused. Her husband never went for walks. Plus, Jacquie noticed something: What was behind Leighton’s back? “Nothing,” he said. Jacquie knew better: He had a gun.
Leighton handed over the .45-caliber Glock 21 but was soon out the door anyway. Jacquie locked the gun and ammo up. She stashed the keys in her car’s glove box. Then she took off on foot after her husband and eventually persuaded him to come home.
The next morning, she brought him to the naval hospital. Leighton admitted he had thoughts of hurting himself. “I didn’t want to just end it,” he says. “I wanted to suffer when I ended it. … I just felt lower than low.”
For the next two weeks or so, Leighton was so heavily medicated that he was basically in a blackout. But things started changing for the better after he woke up.
For a while, Leighton worked with a service dog: a black lab named Jobie. She was great at calming Leighton down, which allowed him to open up more at mental-health appointments. Leighton also took on the duties of first sergeant at Wounded Warrior Battalion West. He had been promoted to the rank after the crash, but until that spring, hadn’t been well enough to serve in the role. The new administrative leadership position was vastly different compared with his aviation work, but he flourished. Leighton was responsible for a whole company, roughly 200 people.
And then he met Gary Hanson, the man who would finally help Leighton get back on track mentally and physically. Hanson, a California native in his early 50s, has decades of experience in the cycling industry. The pair met in spring 2013. Hanson, a lifelong civilian, was working as the cycling coach at Camp Pendleton for Wounded Warrior Battalion West. He also coached the Marine Corps’ team in the annual Paralympic-style Department of Defense Warrior Games, held for wounded, ill, and injured members of the military. Hanson says, “It was 10 times more rewarding than any event I ever competed in.”
About four to six weeks after Leighton first met Hanson, the two went for a late-morning ride around Camp Pendleton. By now, Leighton was on the mend. His balance had improved. He was more flexible, too, and his back was much stronger. Talking as they pedaled, they discussed the helicopter crash, the deaths, and how Leighton dealt with it—or didn’t. That’s when Leighton opened up. There were days he wanted to die, Leighton told Hanson. Days he wanted to fight everybody at Wounded Warrior Battalion West. Days he wanted to scream. It was the first time Leighton had ever volunteered to talk about his demons without being pressed. The conversation that day changed their relationship. Instead of being a Marine and trainer, the two became friends.
In addition to feeling connected to others—the way Leighton did with Hanson—research shows that while exercise is not a panacea, it can be “particularly effective for patients for whom more conventional psychological interventions are less acceptable.” Certainly fitness had long been a touchstone for Leighton.
Unsurprisingly, when another Marine Corps patient at Wounded Warrior Battalion West floated the idea of doing a team sprint triathlon, Leighton was interested. A team sprint triathlon is a short-distance triathlon with a three-person team: in this case, one teammate does a 150-meter swim, another bikes 12 miles, and the third runs five kilometers. Leighton still couldn’t walk perfectly, but he said he was in. Hanson approved.
The summer heat was giving way to autumn’s chill when Leighton slowly began to train. It was painful. But the physical activity energized him and made him feel more engaged in his recovery. He was penciled-in for the cycling portion of the Tinsel Triathlon in Hemet, California, that December. While preparing, he added running back into his exercise mix. It was his little secret: He wasn’t medically cleared to run. Nevertheless, he eventually worked his way up to running two miles.
On December 8, 2013, the day of the sprint triathlon, there was a switch in plans. Something had happened to one of Leighton’s teammates, which brought last-minute changes. Leighton was asked to do the run instead of the bike. He was floored. He still hadn’t been medically cleared to run. And now he was being asked to do a 5K? Some might have balked, but Leighton didn’t shy away. That’s not to say he wasn’t nervous: Before the race started, he dry heaved in a Porta Potty.
Then, it was go time. Out on the course, Leighton looked at his GPS and did a triple take. His pace shocked him. “Which was like a 9:11—it was something horrible, but,” he says with a laugh, “that was like blistering light speed for me at the time.”
The back half of Leighton’s 5K was even faster.
His success that day was personally transformational. In nothing flat, Leighton was talking to his nonmedical case manager: He wanted to stay in the Marines. But he was told that just wasn’t in the cards. Leighton says his medical case manager echoed the sentiment. Leighton was on limited duty while at Wounded Warrior Battalion West; he was nearing the point when the military would show him the door. Time was running out.
The Marine was frustrated. But he knew how to stay in the Corps. He needed to pass the Marine Corps’ physical-fitness and combat-fitness tests and get his mental health cleared.
He wondered: What if he could finish all three components of a sprint triathlon? If he could do that, then surely he could pass the Marine Corps’ fitness tests. He decided to try—the very next weekend.
Leighton, who was 40 at the time, took third place in his age group at the Beach Blast Sprint Triathlon—even after taking an elbow to the face in the frigid water of Mission Bay.
And it turned out Leighton was right. After finishing the sprint triathlon, he did indeed later pass the Marine Corps physical- and combat-fitness tests. He cleared his mental-health assessment, too. He was going to stay a Marine and return to full duty.
Of course, passing those fitness tests wasn’t a cakewalk. “I went home that day and literally threw up blood all night and went back to every bit of pain patch and Motrin I could take,” Leighton says. “Everything fuckin’ hurt.”
Jacquie was once a surfer. So, her husband picked Hawaii for his station assignment even though doing so would require him to transition from aviation to combat arms. It was Leighton’s way of saying thank you to his wife for taking care of him and staying by his side.
Life after the accident was hard for Jacquie, but despite everything the couple had gone through, leaving Leighton never crossed her mind. “He’s my husband,” she says, getting emotional. “We got married. It’s that simple. We’re married.”
More than 14 months after the crash, in January 2014, Leighton began serving in Hawaii as the company first sergeant for Combat Assault Company. At first, Leighton rode his bike every day. Hanson chipped in with training plans when needed. Meanwhile, back in California, Hanson’s new nonprofit, WIRED Athletes (Warrior Integrating Reconditioning Educating Developing) had started taking shape. WIRED began as an outreach program to get former military service members connected to clubs for road biking, mountain biking, and triathlons in their hometowns, but then WIRED branched out and created a team of military athletes. Leighton was one of the first to join, and he represented WIRED at a sprint triathlon on base in Hawaii.
A brief trip to Quantico, Virginia, in April 2015, however, brought the Marine back a step. Quantico is where First Sergeants Course is taught. There, first sergeants learn how to carry out their duties by the book. While in Virginia, Leighton panicked. He beat himself up over imagined work-related failings. He felt like he didn’t fit in with his classmates. He slept and ate less than he should have. Not having his bike with him didn’t help. For those couple weeks at Quantico, running was once again his coping mechanism. Leighton gutted the course out and graduated. However, the experience—far from his support system and family—made Leighton realize that, despite being cleared to continue in the Marine Corps, he no longer had the mental wherewithal to fulfill his job responsibilities. It was time to retire after all.
But just when Leighton acknowledged that it was time to move on, a phone call complicated things. Leighton had been assigned to a different unit in Hawaii—and this new unit was going on deployment.
So, Leighton got ready for a noncombat strategic-positioning deployment to Asia. Still, prior to departure, Leighton made sure to file his retirement paperwork. Two months or so into the deployment, he found out his retirement had been approved. And, for the most part, the rest of his time in Asia was stress-free: “Everything’s easy when you have a finish line.”
Traffic was heavy westbound on Loop 1604 in San Antonio. It was after five o’clock in the evening on a Tuesday this past June. Leighton was driving home from work in his tan Toyota Tundra. His back hurt. It felt like four putty knives were in between his lower vertebrae, each knife turning in a different direction. Talking helped take his mind off the pain.
There were only 10 days or so left in Texas. After working as an aviation-maintenance supervisor there for nearly a year since getting out of the Marine Corps, Leighton had accepted an aircrew instructor position with a government contractor in Orlando, Florida. Once an instructor, always an instructor; it was his passion. Plus, the new gig would let him spend more time with his young family. Leighton and Jacquie now have a bustling household with three children under 7.
Leighton has moments when he second-guesses his decision to retire from the Marines. He misses flying and being a role model. “When you’re overseas or in combat, and you have young guys looking at you for direction and complete trust and confidence that you’re going to get them home … when they look at you like that, that’s the best feeling in the world,” he explained.
Yet, he said, officially retiring was the right call.
Civilian life has taken some getting used to. It’s still weird when people call him by his first name. And there’s the whole clothes thing. Now, he has had to think about what to wear.
There are of course more serious issues. The 44-year-old sometimes struggles to remember things. Post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder have been problems, too. And not being able to hear much of anything with his right ear makes loud, crowded settings uncomfortable. Same when his three little ones are noisy at home.
The nightmares haven’t gone away. He gets them three or four times a week, but they’re usually different now—less about the friends he lost during his 2003 deployment. Instead, the dreams have become replays of Leighton’s own crash. When he has nightmares now, his black lab helps calm him down. The dog, not alcohol, is Leighton’s crutch. An herbal supplement and being more connected to others have also helped take the edge off.
Every day, an average of more than 20 former military personnel take their own lives—a number that climbs higher if you include current service members. Leighton nearly became a part of that statistic a terrifying four times over the past 14 years as he deployed and returned and deployed and returned. He still occasionally thinks about suicide. The idea is an easy refuge, he said, for when he has what he calls a “setback”—a bad week or incident.
Running is too hard on his back these days, but Leighton still has his bike. And he knows that endurance isn’t about blindly tolerating pain; it’s about training for it, fighting it, and moving past it.
Leighton sat in his driveway on Palomino Path sometime after six that Tuesday night in June in front of the home he shared with his wife and three children. He cared about his family. He was their provider. They were counting on him.