LONG WAY HOME: Marine’s coast to coast ride raises funds, awareness | TSLN.com

LONG WAY HOME: Marine’s coast to coast ride raises funds, awareness

It was a journey of epic proportions. Marine combat veteran Matt Littrell rode his horse from the Atlantic to the Pacific to raise money and awareness for wounded service members.

Littrell, a rural-raised youth from Elizabeth, Colorado, joined the Marine Corps just before 9/11 in 2001 and served two combat tours in Iraq during his four-year enlistment as a Marine infantryman.

It was after returning home to Colorado that Littrell's struggle with post-traumatic stress and the unseen wounds of war really began. Feeling helpless and alone, he watched many of his fellow Marines wrestle with substance abuse or worse, suicide. After a long night spent staring at a pistol, deciding whether or not to end his own life, Littrell found a cause worth fighting for and 'The Long Trail Home' was born.

The Long Trail Home refers not only to his incredible coast-to-coast ride but also to the difficult transition many veterans experience as they leave military service and return to civilian living, Littrell said.

Littrell's own healing began with the return of horses to his life. After joining his father shoeing horses, he found that the horses helped calm him. He could relate to them in ways he couldn't to people. In his new mount, Crow, a Wyoming-born mustang, he found a kindred soul.

"They've [mustangs] had to fight for their survival, just like we did," Littrell said in a television interview.

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Partnered with the Semper Fi Fund, a non-profit organization that supports Post 9/11 wounded service members, Littrell began his ride May 1 in Surf City, North Carolina, just a few miles south of Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps' largest military base.

With two other horses and a family friend, Ray Avery, Littrell's mount dipped his feet in the Atlantic and they headed west. The road to California was anything but easy. The miles took their toll on the horses and men alike. Littrell posted his progress daily to his Facebook feed, often asking for help with a place to stay for the night or donations of feed for his horses.

He acknowledged that asking for help from strangers is not something vets are comfortable doing. That inability or unwillingness to ask for help contributes to the alarming 22 veterans that succumb to suicide each day, a statistic that fuels Littrell's mission to raise funds and awareness for wounded veterans.

Averaging 20 miles a day, the 2,600-mile-trip took six months to complete, something that Littrell realized he needed personally.

"I think the ride is special because it's real and it's slow. I think for me and a lot of guys coming back we need to figure out how to slow down, especially our minds," Littrell posted.

Littrell's regular posts about the journey and the trials along the way garnered a dedicated group of followers that swelled to over 47 thousand by the ride's end. The low points of the ride, like when Littrell's saddle was stolen as he slept in Arizona or the loss of one of Littrell's remuda horses to colic in California, were felt by thousands of supporters across the country.

Equally moving was the love story that began on the trail. After finding shelter for the night in her family's barn in Alabama, Littrell met Kristen Fuhrman. She would later join him on the ride and eventually became Littrell's fiancée. The two are planning to wed when they return home.

On November 30, Littrell, Fuhrman and Avery rode aboard Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in Oceanside, California, and into the surf of the Pacific Ocean. Littrell raised $100,000 for the Semper Fi Fund with his ride and brought much needed awareness to the plight of the nation's veterans. If that wasn't enough success, days later the Colorado Horse Council named Littrell the 2014 Colorado Horseman of the Year.

Of his personal journey home, Littrell said to his Facebook supporters, "I'm not sure what I thought I would be at the end of the ride and how it would affect me. I'm still a vet and I still think about the times when I walked the streets of Ramadi. I still think those were the best and worst days of my life. I believe I've made a couple steps towards the rest of my life but it took a whole lot more physical steps to get those couple."

To his fellow veterans, Littrell's message is to keep fighting for a new day and to keep moving forward.

"We are forever different and always will be. We will never be someone who didn't see and do what we had to. I guess we just learn to deal a little bit more every day and head down the trail and keep riding and every once in awhile we get somewhere in the right direction. The second we stop riding is when we become in danger of being one of the 22 a day. All we can do is ride, ride and fight."