Meet Colonel John Mayer, United States Marine Corps, retired.
His military career of 33 years prepared him well for the path he would travel after retiring. As a Marine, this strong and humble cowboy was a combat infantry commander, serving two tours of duty and commanding front line battalions during the Iraq war. His leadership earned him the rank of Colonel as he served our Marine Corps with integrity and pride.
Today, he leads his fellow servicemen and veterans in a new kind of battle, the very personal struggle for peace in the lives of those who have come home having seen too much. Standing toe-to-toe with his soldiers on this, their invisible “front line,” Colonel John Mayer and a steady supply of savvy cow horses are leading our armed services men and women every day, one heart at a time, to their own victories here at home.
The inspired Colonel-turned-cowboy is quick to acknowledge the hero in every military man or woman. Upon returning home from deployment, Colonel Mayer says many service men and women find themselves struggling with the effects of debilitating service-related post-traumatic stress disorder and/or traumatic physical injuries. The toll these injuries take on a military family are immeasurable.
With a reputation of always helping his fellow Marines, in 2010 Colonel Mayer accepted a position to lead the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment, where he was instrumental in developing its first equine-related competitions for wounded veterans.
In July, 2011 The Cutting Horse Classic inaugural event was held in Nokesville, Virginia. The week-long event paired ten veterans with horses and mentors, and the days were spent training for the competition at week’s end. The overwhelming success of this event inspired the growth of the overall program.
The veterans craved more opportunities for hands-on, real challenges. Some told him the horsemanship program, where they were taught to saddle and ride a horse in a controlled environment, was boring. They yearned for adventure, physical challenges and a chance to once again achieve all personal core values that brought them to the military. Listening to them, the Colonel realized that these men and women, some with missing limbs or physical scars that spoke of horrendous injuries, embodied the spirit of courage. As such, they deserved an equally courageous program. He went to work.
Karen Guenther, a registered nurse working at The Balboa Naval Medical Center of San Diego, and spouse to an active duty Marine, had seen first-hand the devastating effects of war on too many post-9/11 returning service men and women. In 2004, she began to find ways, at first on her own, then later with the help of several of her fellow Marine spouses, to provide needed services and material items to families in need so that they in turn could focus on healing. It wasn’t long before their work, initially to help three injured Marines and their families, evolved into a nationwide registered non-profit known as The Semper Fi Fund. The term “Semper Fi”, the motto for the Marine Corps, means “always faithful” and Guenther felt it was a perfect fit for their new non-profit.
Today, Guenther and her core group manage a busy staff and year-round programs designed to provide immediate financial aid and quality-of-life solutions so that each military family in need, regardless of their branch of service, can focus on recovery. At last tally, the Fund has issued more than 138,000 grants to more than 18,000 post-9/11 veterans and their families totaling more than $142 million in assistance. As the Semper Fi Fund has grown, Guenther and her team continued to explore ways to offer unique and measurable programs to their members. From her experience growing up on a California ranch, Guenther knew the healing power of horses, and in 2011 the Jinx McCain Horsemanship program was added to other Semper Fi Fund programs. Colonel Jinx McCain, the horsemanship program namesake, was a 4-time Purple Heart recipient for Iwo Jima, Korea, and Viet Nam. In the 1960’s, Colonel McCain hosted trail rides for amputees from the Viet Nam war.
Colonel Mayer seized upon the opportunity to get more wounded Marines riding, and that same year The Wounded Warrior Regiment’s horsemanship program merged with Guenther’s Semper Fi Fund. With a name to live up to, Colonel Mayer and Karen Guenther knew that only the sky was the limit.
With a voice that speaks from experience, Colonel Mayer says that military training “provides preparation for battle, but not for the consequences of battle.” It is these consequences, he believes that form the foundation for many of the issues that can negatively impact veterans. Since the program’s marriage to the Semper Fi Fund, veterans have been key participants on working cattle ranches, learning and then tackling the work that must be done. They’ve learned how to saddle, ride, and care for the horses. They’ve learned how to sort and rope calves, then brand, ear tag, castrate and inoculate them for the ranchers they support. They’ve pushed herds of cattle through some of the harshest terrain our country offers. They’ve learned to make and roll a bedroll and to get that bedroll tied down on their saddled horse before the sun comes up.
For the past four years, groups of wounded veterans have traveled to a Wyoming cattle ranch to help move herds from winter to summer pastures, an endeavor requiring adept handling of hundreds of cattle as they move through drastic, yet breathtakingly beautiful country. Last June, a New Mexico rancher welcomed the help from Jinx McCain cowboys for his annual cattle drive. Colonel Mayer and his students gathered, sorted and branded over 450 hefty spring calves during six days of cowboying in the high Chihuahua desert.
Many of the veterans have learned to do these things while standing on one leg, or using prosthetic limbs, or from the seat of a wheelchair. No matter what the task, each veteran learns that once in the saddle, they are no longer differently abled. The ranch horse they ride, and their own abilities, work together to make all things equal.
The Colonel has never regretted trading in his combat boots for cowboy boots. As the scope of the program has grown, he is always excited to add partners who can offer new opportunities for veterans. But it’s not always all about cowboying. In 2015 The Semper Fi Fund added an apprenticeship program, also directed by Colonel Mayer. Assisting post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured veterans with a 70% or more disability rating, the program is designed to help these vets find meaningful trades, careers, or small business opportunities through vocational education and apprenticeship opportunities with industry experts.
He is proud of a veteran learning how to become a sailmaker, apprenticed to a professional sailmaker on the east coast of the United States. He has another veteran apprenticed to become a master knife maker, learning how to choose and grade the proper steel, forge a solid blade, and mount that blade into a hand-carved handle. Other veterans are apprenticed to learn the art of rawhide braiding, a skill nearly lost over decades of machine automation. Currently there are over 35 veterans apprenticed in a variety of trades from service dog training to computer forensics to taxidermy, even home bakery businesses.
Colonel Mayer says these affiliations with other people, businesses and craftsmen who share his admiration and respect for our veterans are what makes the program special.
Always searching for ranchers willing to share their horses, cattle, and work with the Semper Fi Fund/Jinx McCain veterans, the Colonel is always seeking additional trade professionals, currently active or retired in their profession, willing to share their knowledge with a veteran. As John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” Thank you for your service, Colonel Mayer, and to every man and woman who stood on that line for us, thank you, too. It’s our turn now to stand up for you.
“Look back at our struggle for freedom,
Trace our present day’s strength to it’s source;
And you’ll find that man’s pathway to glory
Is strewn with the bones of the horse.”
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