TREMPEALEAU, Wis. — Nathan Harter has struggled to find peace of mind.
Harter, 31, served in the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade for more than 12 years and saw his fair share of combat while deployed in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Stationed in Samarra, Iraq, Harter witnessed the deaths of two men from his brigade.
But when the unit returned stateside, the war didn’t end for Harter or many of the men he served with. Another member of his battalion committed suicide, and several others tried, the Trempealeau man said.
As the years passed, Harter couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything he could have done to help his fellow veterans cope with the stress — a stress he knew firsthand as he struggled with his own personal demons.
“When I got out, I drank and did all the wrong things,” Harter said. “It was a pretty rough time for me. And I knew I wasn’t the only one going through these things. It’s not something you just get over.”
Suicide among military personnel is at an all-time high — 349 in 2012, the most since the military began tracking suicides in 2001. Last month alone, there were 15 potential suicides among reserve component soldiers who were not on active duty, according to the Defense Department.
To help find a way to deal with the overwhelming frustration, Harter founded ATV for Vets, an organization that focuses on providing veterans with a stress-free environment while enjoying the outdoors.
“Our goal is to introduce veterans to other veterans who are dealing with the same issues and expand their sources of outreach,” Harter said. “Our hope is that if a vet is having a difficult time later on, they can remember us and give us a call, just to talk.”
The organization is in the founding stages, and Harter has hired an accountant to help the group gain tax-exempt status. Harter is also trying
to get ATV manufacturers including Polaris and Yamaha to donate machines to the organization — Harter is using his own ATVs for now.
“It’s complicated to do (rides) with insurance and all,” he said. “We’re hoping that by 2014, we’ll have some machines donated to us, once the tax-exempt status goes through.”
ATV for Vets plans to have at least two organized rides this summer on the Black River Falls trails, plus a picnic and a poker ride. He’s also signed up six veterans to participate in the Tough Mudder competition to be held in September outside of Milwaukee.
Craig Bailey, 47, of Trempealeau, is anticipating those rides. A 21 year veteran of the Wisconsin National Guard, serving from 1983 to 2006, Bailey was also deployed in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, and knows how important it is for veterans to help one another.
“When you come back from deployment, especially from the infantry, you think you’re bulletproof and that nothing can stop you,” Bailey said. “When you go through situations like war, you come back and think: Well, how bad is it here, really? Oh no, my car won’t start? You see small things as small things, but as time goes on, you kind of lose sight of that.”
That lost sight is what Harter hopes to prevent by providing rides in the ATV for Vets program.
“Veterans usually rely on each other more than they really rely on other people, and that’s kind of the focus of what we want here,” he said. “We want them to have some fun but also want them to realize there are people out there that have been through what they’ve been through, and there are people out there willing to help them.”
With more veterans returning home as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, Bailey expects ATV for Vets to be a huge success.
He said he hopes to see the program expand, and pledges to help Harter in any way he can.
“I told him to be prepared, it’s going to get bigger than he can handle,” Bailey said. “He’s already got people who want to go out and go riding, and I’m looking forward to it. One thing about veterans is that we will always stick together and are always there for each other.”