The Warrior Rides Again

FIVE-AND-A-HALF YEARS AGO, IN JANUARY OF 2012, MARINE CORPS GUNNERY SGT. THOMAS McRAE STEPPED ON A 20-LB. IED.

Since becoming a triple amputee after stepping on an Afghani bomb, one Marine is making moves to get back in the saddle. G.R. Schiavino

“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 leather working 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 seat belts 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, leather working, 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.

Click here to download the full article and read more.