By Dani Wexelman
He has fought terrorists in Afghanistan and competed against 300-pound linemen in the Big 12, but Nate Boyer’s toughest mission yet is helping other veterans win their most challenging battle of all.
After returning home from the Middle East, the former active-duty U.S. Army Green Beret knew there would be no more fitting in.
“Too many guys are coming back [from service] and trying to fit in. We’re not going to fit in,” Boyer said. “We’re different. What’s inside you is something that led you to some of the darkest parts of the world, fighting for people you’ve never met.”
The statistics are frightening. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 40,000 people die from suicide each year, and more than 22 percent of those deaths are veterans.
However, the Tennessee native doesn’t believe in succumbing to those odds. He prefers to defy them.
Never too Late to Battle
Boyer knows all about the specialized population that is our military.
Boyer felt a responsibility, not only to himself, but to his brothers and sisters in arms. He wants to inspire hope in those who have lost it.
While still serving, Boyer set his sights on the gridiron, aiming to walk on to the University of Texas and play football. During his deployment in 2009, Boyer prepared for the game. Then in January of 2010, he walked on to the team at the age of 29. Just two short years later, having never played football in his life Boyer, earned the starting job of long snapper.
During the fall, Boyer fought for his UT teammates on the football field and in the spring, he deployed to Afghanistan, fighting for a new set of teammates on the battlefield.
After five seasons, Boyer graduated from UT with a bachelors in kinesiology and a masters in advertising, and he was honorably discharged from the Army.
While he continues to prepare for an NFL opportunity to come knocking, he’s helping other veterans find their new normal.
“My biggest fear is veterans thinking they’re never going to find it,” Boyer said. “Maybe they do know what that thing is, but they’re too afraid to go after it because it’s weird, hard, or they’re worried about what others will think.”
The Moment That Changed Everything
For one Marine, he desperately needed to find a place of belonging.
At 21 years old in 2009, Blake Watson joined the infantry knowing that if he wanted to move up the ranks, he couldn’t settle for anything less than his best.
“I always had this purpose to do something bigger than myself. I had this calling to serve others,” retired Marine Corporal Watson revealed.
In 2010, the Dallas native served with the 3rd battalion 5th Marines in the Helmund Province of Afghanistan in a town called Sangin.
“About 95% percent of the town was Taliban or affiliated,” Watson recalled.
His job, like those of others who serve our country, involved risk. Watson served as the door-kicking, trigger-pulling rifleman and point man in his squad.
“We were conducting a security patrol, walking around in an alleyway to make entry into a three-story building,” Watson said about one particularly dangerous mission. “I was about to blow a lock off a door.”
But he never made it to the door.
“I knelt down on an IED.” Watson said. “Someone pushed a button and it blew up a foot behind me.”
It’s a narrative we’ve heard far too often. Watson lost his left leg above the knee, lost tissue and muscle in his right leg, and had to have his right elbow fused.
He was lucky to be alive, but lost a piece of his identity he’ll never get back — His dream of building a life in the military. It was taken away in an instant, and Watson medically retired on December 30, 2013.
Finding a New Identity
Boyer knew the story.
“A blast takes his life from him without killing him, changes his life, and flips it upside down,” Boyer said.
After returning home, Watson’s battles escalated. He became addicted to his opium pain medication during rehab. The only purpose he’d felt came from standing behind a gun and pulling a trigger, something that doesn’t translate as easily into the civilian world.
“I was at my house crying because I knew I would end up dead or in jail in six months,” Watson said.
The life of a veteran who has lost his life without actually dying in combat is devastating.
“They’re coming back and they’re lost and empty,” Boyer said. “’What am I going to do now? I can’t taste anything any more. I don’t have that vigor’ is what they’re saying.”
Watson hit bottom.
“It took me almost a whole year to get to a point of feeling better and having a positive outlook,” he said. “I got blown up. I flat-lined on the helicopter. I’ve been given a second chance at life.”
And that second chance came by way of barbells and bench pressing.
A friend introduced Watson to former NFL linebacker David Vobora. Vobora started the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF), a Dallas-based gym for adaptive athletes to go to post rehabilitation.
Vobora realized that there was a need to help veterans returning home from war who had not only lost limbs but pieces of their identity. It was exactly the medication that Watson needed.
Structured schedules and high expectations pushed Watson out of bed each morning so he could train at ATF.
“My guys in Afghanistan risked their lives to make sure I could still be here,” Watson shared. “If nothing else, I owe it to them to live my life to the fullest.”
Watson knows that not everyone is as lucky in being able to find the support that he has found.
“Some of my guys didn’t win their battle with PTSD when they got back, so I owe it to all those guys who stuck with me and press on,” Watson said.
His transition home had gone from near death to life-changing, but little did Watson know that his training at ATF was preparing him for his biggest challenge yet — something that could take Watson’s comeback to new heights.
It only took one phone call to breathe life into Boyer’s new mission, and on the other end of the phone was St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long.
Vobora, Long’s former teammate, connected the two big-hearted men and soon after, Conquering Kili was born.
Boyer and Watson teamed up with the Waterboys Initiative, which brings NFL players together to raise funds and awareness for clean water projects in east Africa. The idea and the initiative were started by Long.
On the itinerary is to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as the “Waterboys Champion” in February 2016, but summiting the highest mountain in Africa is only half the battle.
“I’m going to take wounded vets up the mountain, but before that, we’re not gonna go unless we raise enough money to put a clean water well in the ground that will serve thousands of people in Tanzania,” Boyer said.
It takes $45,000 to build a sustainable well in Sub-Sahara Africa. Boyer is aiming to raise $100,000. Then the mission up the mountain will begin.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro will be the ultimate test for Watson. He has been wheelchair bound for five years, never having been upright on his prosthetic leg for three consecutive weeks.
In Boyer’s mind, you get what you give.
“I’ve always believed the only way to deal with the pain you have inside is to alleviate the pain from somebody else,” he explained. “If you spend time working on everybody else and helping people that need it, that’s gonna really work on you.”
Keeping the Heart Hydrated
This mission will undoubtedly change Watson’s life. And in turn, has the power to change the life of an entire country.
“In my line of work, digging deep and pushing past the pain is just part of the job, but for families who live here, digging deep is the only way to survive,” Long said in a promotional video for Waterboys.
Although the three men (Boyer, Long, and Watson) have yet to come together as a group, that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s their passion to give back and enhance lives that’s already formed an unbreakable bond.
“I wouldn’t bet against him,” Long said of Watson. “I didn’t bat an eye when Nate vouched for him.”
This climb means so many things for Watson. It’s a chance to defy the statistics, to honor those who never made it home, and most importantly, to inspire fellow veterans to find a new purpose.
“A lot of people who have experienced third world countries and know the struggles there are vets.” Long explained. “A lot of people that need this purpose, community service, purpose-driven work, are veterans.”
All three men explained that serving others is what makes them feel alive. For Boyer and Watson, it’s structure and service that make them feel like there’s a reason to live after transitioning out of the military; a feeling they hope to spread to other veterans.
“Football has an expiration date, but helping people doesn’t,” Long said.