Wade Christiansen ran out of chances in May 2013. But chances for other wounded veterans live on through Operation Second Chance, a group he worked with in Red Lodge.
Operation Second Chance and partners are holding a barbecue fundraiser on Sunday, July 3, to raise money for the Wade Christiansen Purple Heart Scholarship Fund, which is administered at Montana State University Bozeman. According to the fund’s website, $22,320 has been raised so far toward the fund’s goal of $50,000.
The fundraiser goes on Sunday afternoon in the parking lot at Well Approach Fitness, 810 N. Broadway. It starts following the noon parade that leads to that evening’s Home of Champions Rodeo.
Every dollar taken in during the fundraiser goes toward the scholarship fund, said Steve Mikels, who is doing the cooking. Volunteers are running the event, and food and supplies have been donated.
The fund is intended not only to help a veteran go to college but also to remember Christiansen, who graduated from Red Lodge High School in 2008 and was serving in the 82nd Airborne Division when he was severely injured in 2010 by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
While he was being treated in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he described his injuries this way to CNN: “I suffered a complete loss of vision in my left eye, a fractured jaw, five fractured teeth and just shrapnel peppering on my left side.”
Asked if it had been a long road back, he said, “Oh yeah, it has, but, you know, it’s been going really well.” He received a titanium plate in his jaw, a Purple Heart and a medical discharge.
Asked what advice he would give to returning veterans, Christiansen told CNN, “I would just say, ‘You know, don’t let it get you down. Don’t let anybody get you down. Just keep pushing like you usually would in the military. Just keep that confidence and just don’t quit, just keep going.’”
Christiansen returned to Red Lodge, where he had been an expert snowboarder, and began working with the local chapter of Operation Second Chance, which provides recreational and social opportunities for veterans recovering from their wounds.
“He would teach other veterans about horseback and ATV riding, how to fish, but mainly how to love Montana the way he did,” OSC national President Cindy McGrew said on the nonprofit’s website.
Mikels said, “He was a great, great, just a wonderful kid.”
Christiansen eventually became a photography student at MSU Bozeman, but he could not shake the pain and stress of his wounds. As the scholarship fund’s website puts it, “Wade’s troubles would continue, however. His pain was persistent and required ongoing attention to manage. Wade endured admirably, but ultimately we lost him in May 2013 to a continuing social epidemic: veteran suicide.”
According to news accounts at the time, he had made suicide threats before he shot himself to death while being questioned by police officers who had stopped his vehicle during early morning hours on Main Street in Bozeman. He was 23.
According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, 566 Montana veterans committed suicide between 2004 and 2013. By comparison, only 43 have been killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Veterans Administration estimates that the suicide rate nationwide for male veterans ages 18 to 29 is 56 per 100,000, compared to 20 per 100,000 for all males in that age range.
Montana as a whole has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates. Montana suicides are often associated with high rates of gun ownership, alcohol abuse, harsh living conditions and a “cowboy” mentality that makes people reluctant to seek treatment. Recent intriguing studies also suggest the possibility that living at high altitudes can affect brain chemistry in ways that lead to a 30 percent increase in suicide rates.
Operation Second Chance attempts to help veterans cope with the consequences of combat by offering such activities as fly fishing, ATV and horseback rides, hunting, and river floating.
All activities are provided for free, with no administrative costs or overhead, Mikels said. That’s why fundraising activities such as Sunday’s barbecue are so important.
Mikels said it won’t be a typical Montana barbecue of burgers and brats. Sandwiches will be made of pork shoulder that has been marinated for 24 hours before being smoked for 24 hours. A sandwich with cole slaw and a drink will cost $5.