Tom Holm is the founder of EcoTrek Foundation, a nonprofit with the goal of preserving cultural and natural resources through renewable power, products and practices.
When you meet a Force Recon Marine, you expect many things. Emotional vulnerability is not at the top of the list. But Robert Blanton is sitting behind his desk in the Warfighter Made shop in Temecula, California, describing to a virtual stranger how he was on the brink of suicide just a few short years ago.
Blanton is tall and fit, dressed in an oversized hoodie, trucker hat, shorts, and a pair of Vans sneakers. He could pass for any SoCal dad, except that his posture and demeanor reflect his 21 years of service in the military.
During this time, Blanton saw four combat deployments. In 2008, during his last combat tour, Blanton and his platoon were involved in an ambush that ultimately resulted in the elimination of an insurgent cell. As a result of his actions during that engagement, Blanton received the Silver Star, the United States military's third-highest decoration for valor in combat.
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But his heroism came at a price, “I was also awarded a diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” Blanton said. “My post-traumatic stress manifested itself into anger issues. I couldn't control my anger, and I couldn't control my adrenaline.” Blanton says. He tried to manage his PTSD by self-medicating with alcohol, then through intense therapy and medication. “But I didn't stop drinking,” he says. “One night, it came to a head: I wanted to kill myself.”
Paving the Road to Recovery
This moment proved to be a turning point for Blanton. He decided that he wanted to live and make a positive impact in the world, his way to do that? He leaned into his passion for car builds and modifications; A decision which led him to establish Warfighter Made, an organization focused on improving the lives of catastrophically wounded warfighters.
Warfighter Made supports veterans by facilitating adrenaline therapy for wounded veterans, but maybe the greatest thing they do is offer veterans their autonomy back when it was taken away. They customize vehicles so wounded warriors can get back the wheel. They started by putting veterans in the passenger seat during short course races. “It’s awesome being in the passenger seat and experiencing the controlled chaos. We thought how cool it would be if we could take those vets and put them in the driver’s seat.”
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“You're not going to be able to do it the way you used to do it, but with a little adaptation, you're still going to be able to do it in some form or another.”
With partnerships through Polaris and BFGoodrich, and his chief fabricator and engineer Adam Fitza, Warfighter Made can do that at no cost to the veterans. Blanton says, “When men and women become catastrophically wounded, the initial reaction is, ‘My life is over. I will never be able to do the things I used to do.’ We wanted those vets to know that's not the case,” says Blanton. “You're not going to be able to do it the way you used to do it, but with a little adaptation, you're still going to be able to do it in some form or another.”
Big Impact on a Small Scale
All told, Blanton estimates Warfighter Made has been able to help around 200 veterans. While that figure might not impress in terms of raw numbers, he prefers it that way. “The veteran community is tiny, and you have to keep it personal,” Blanton says. As a veteran himself, it's vital to Blanton to stay connected to the people he and Warfighter Made serve.
Because many soldiers who are knocked down are forgotten. Warfighter Made exists to extend them a hand. Not just to pull them back on their feet. To get them back behind the wheel so they can take their lives back.