Tito Pineiro knows the feeling of desperation that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can leave with a fighting man.
Seven deployments and an equal number of Purple Hearts left the Fort Bragg soldier on the verge of taking his life.
"I had suicide thoughts and almost attempted suicide. I was really depressed," the 35-year-old native of Puerto Rico said.
That was about the time he began chatting on Facebook with Kelly Brown, a volunteer ambassador for Operation Enduring Warrior, a veteran-founded non-profit launched in May 2013. She explained OEW's mission to Pineiro - to honor, empower and motivate wounded servicemen - and his gloomy outlook began to change.
A large part of OEW's mission is to encourage wounded servicemen to take on sports as a confidence booster. For some, that's skydiving (25 jumps to acquire a Class A license) or a hunting to Montana.
For others such as Pineiro, it includes obstacle course racing. Pineiro was OEW's wounded veteran honoree in late March at a Spartan Sprint event of 4.25 miles near Charlotte, and he helped lead the team of volunteers alongside Earl Granville of Scranton, Pa., who competed on a prosthetic left leg.
Last August, the OEW team participated in an even tougher event, a Spartan Super - 8 miles up, down and across the slopes of Virginia's Wintergreen Ski Resort. Among the wounded servicemen there were a double amputee, Noah Galloway of Alabaster, Ala., and Todd Love of Hiram, Ga., who lost both legs and his left arm in combat.
Reasons for masks
Pineiro's an ultra marthoner who didn't need physical assistance at the Sprint. But there are plenty of volunteers at those types of races who are eager to lend a hand to the severely wounded.
Danny Ellis, a 35-year-old Navy SEAL who instructs medics on Fort Bragg, is among them. The volunteers, and sometimes the competitors, wear masks in obstacle course racing for several reasons.
"We don't really want notoriety for this, so the mask gives you anonymity," he said. "And doing these obstacle races, for us, is no difficult task, really. ...
"In honor of that, we put those masks on to limit our own performance, to put ourselves under a higher stress load, and to be billboards for people who don't think they can do something.
"The mask is also symbolic of the hardship that the wounded veteran can't take off. Just standing there, it's not so bad, but over 10-12 hours when you're running, climbing or carrying somebody, it gets pretty taxing. It's like breathing through a straw. You get headaches and cramping because of oxygen deficit."
And even then, he said, that's little more than mild discomfort compared to what Love, Granville, Galloway, Pineiro and others have endured.
"It's helped me with depression and with fighting to stay in the military," Pineiro said. "It's helped me get through my hardship when I came back from deployment. When you're stationed somewhere every two or three years, you really don't have that family with you and I've found it with these guys. I can turn to any of them and they'll be there for me, even if we haven't met before."
He added that participating in the Sprint was something he will cherish alongside his marriage and the birth of his daughter.
"That's something I'm going to remember the rest of my life," he said. "It was a day to speak out about the wounded warriors and that they were giving back to us. I try to stay back from being interviewed or telling people I've got five Purple Hearts, but these guys, it's about, 'you're wounded, you're a soldier, you need help - I'm here for you.' It felt good to be a part of something even though I'd never met those guys."
Spreading the word
The president of Operation Enduring Warrior is Sgt. 1st Class Scott Blouth. A Special Forces medic, he was stationed at Fort Bragg until about a month ago and is now at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He credits a strong outreach program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for helping spread the word about OEW's mission.
"It's completely amazing. You hear about guys that're that bad off, it just makes you want to reach out and find more people. ... It makes me feel so great to have helped any soldier or service member like that. makes me realize I definitely chose the right thing for a hobby and part-time profession," he said.
The main thing, Danny Ellis said, is giving his wounded brethren hope for the future.
"Life's not over," he said. "I will carry you wherever you want, all you have to do is meet me halfway."