Warfighter Made restores hope to injured veterans

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Even when things may look bleak, not all hope is lost.

Warfighter Made’s CEO Robert Blanton is a 21-year Marine who completed his fourth deployment in 2008, and in 2009, he was awarded the nation’s third highest award for heroism called the Silver Star Medal. Blanton was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.

“We actually had a guy wearing a suicide vest jump on our vehicle and detonate himself, and it kind of rattled my brain a little bit,” Blanton said of his deployment in 2008.

After he was diagnosed, he began to have trouble with controlling his anger, he said.

“I was in charge of making recon Marines,” Blanton said, adding “Not anyone can do it. Part of the process is you do a lot of water work, a lot of swimming. It requires a lot of hiking with a lot of weight on your back and you’re not just walking along, you’re running.”

Blanton said that the Marines had started to have issues and were quitting, and at first he saw it as a sign of disrespect.

“I wanted to make these men understand that when you join the Marine Corps, you’re joining it for a very specific reason – quitting is not an option. It’s never an option. You just continue on to give your best until someone tells you that you’re done or you’re dead. You don’t quit.”

That moment was a catalyst for Blanton to realize he was having a problem and that he needed to start seeking help.

“One of my biggest struggles or one of my biggest fears was the relationship with my kids. I was ruining it,” Blanton said.

After going around in circles with his therapist, she told him that if he wasn’t going to get better for himself, to do it for his children.

One of the ways Blanton was coping was through drinking, he said.

“One of the reasons I was destroying my relationship was because I was a full blown alcoholic,” Blanton said. “I was also only sleeping maybe four hours a night, but those were fragmented hours. I would do that for a week and a half and be so exhausted that I’d wake up at three in the afternoon the next day and have 25 missed messages or missed calls wondering where I was.”

One night, Blanton woke up and convinced himself that everyone else was better off without him and that he needed to end his life to give everybody else relief from what he had been putting them through, he said.

“My wife ended up waking up and stopping me,” Blanton said.

After this, his wife reached out to a friend to see if Blanton could help him work on a car. After working on the car and doing things around the shop, Blanton realized the focus it took to not mess up was relieving him of his stressors and triggers, and he wasn’t being angry.

“After months of doing that, we decided that we needed to start an organization that brought vets in to basically continue on,” Blanton said.

Warfighter Made not only adapts customized vehicles to those who have been injured in service, but also provides adrenaline therapy – placing veterans behind the wheel of high performance off-road vehicles. They have helped customize around 15 vehicles to date.

They rent out tracks that they invite everyone to come out to.

“When you’re sitting behind that wheel and you’re going around these corners, or you’re getting ready to go off this jump – you’re so focused on that experience, that moment that you don’t have time for the triggers or stressors,” Blanton said. “You don’t have time to get locked up in your brain about combat or the people you’ve lost or whatever the case may be because all of the focus in that moment is on that task at hand, which is driving.”

Angus Powers, now a quadriplegic, grew up riding three wheelers and quads.

“I’d maybe been injured a year and I was looking for any way to get back out there and do it,” Powers said.

He had initially bought a vehicle from Temecula Motorsports, but they wouldn’t adapt it and instead suggested Warfighter Made.

“They made me some hand controls for me so I could ride,” Powers said, adding that they’ve adapted two vehicles for him now.

“It’s kind of like a camaraderie thing too,” Powers said. “It’s a place to go, a place to hang out. If you’ve got nothing to do or you’re down, you can always go hang out with people at the shops.”

The shop is also a place for networking, Blanton said.

“Veterans meet other veterans who have now become friends and are doing stuff together, and it becomes a massive support network,” he said.

Simon Jackson was in the Army for six and a half years and was injured in Germany during a training accident. His injury wasn’t instantaneous, but gradual. He has a spinal cord injury, but his spinal cord isn’t severed. He can still move his right leg and has some feeling in his left, but still uses a wheelchair from the incident.

“I went to Warfighter Made about a year and a half ago during an open house,” Jackson said. “It was cool, and I wanted to come back and do it but I didn’t come back for almost a year. I wasn’t ready to get out and see people.”

When Jackson did come back with a friend he helped work on pulling a motor out, and has been back nearly every day since.

“It’s been really, really good for me. Getting out of my house and coming here and being apart of something, getting to help people,” he said. “I feel like I’m contributing in the limited way that I’m still able to.”

They have plenty of volunteers as well.

“They can make sure the vets have their helmets on right, make sure they’re buckled in properly, if machine breaks we have patriots running out there to help fix it, cover it, whatever the case may be,” Blanton said.

They also work with other organizations in the valley and across the nation. If someone comes in and they can be helped by some of these other organizations, Warfighter Made works on connecting them to these other groups.

“They got me back out there doing what I love to do, so it’s helped me out significantly,” Powers said.

“If you’re local, come stop by the shop and see everything that we do on a day-to-day basis, if you’re not local go to the website, www.warfightermade.org, and check us out there.”

Lexington Howe can be reached by email at valleystaff@reedermedia.com.