Photographs by Frederik Broden
We’re getting the signal to stay back, back behind the wall. We’ve got our camo-clad shoulders pressed against the crumbling wall of an abandoned stone barn, guns in hand. There’s the rusted carcass of a truck ahead, about 40 yards closer to our target, and it’d provide good cover if we could get to it unseen—but that’s a gamble we’re not keen to take. Ryan Rigdon, who’s with me behind the barn, cranes his neck to peek around the corner—slowly, gingerly, tilting the gun barrel back so as not to invite a telltale glint of sunlight. “The big guy’s still at the edge,” he whispers. “But we’re gonna have to get a lot closer for a decent shot.”
Rigdon knows all about combat operations—he served two tours in the war in Iraq—but despite the overtones, this isn’t a military ambush. It’s a turkey hunt, with the “big guy” at the edge being a gobbler strutting beside a flock of hens about 100 yards away, on the other side of a stream trickling through northwest Nebraska. Yet it’s also not just a turkey hunt—for Rigdon, who came home from Iraq with an agonizing, and almost fatal, case of post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s a form of therapy.
The hunter giving us the signals is our local guide, Justin Simmons, who’s hiding behind a fantail, on his belly, in the shade of a lonesome cottonwood. He’s been calling, trying to rouse some interest from the gobbler. But the tom has mostly been ignoring us, and aside from the truck, there’s no cover between us and him—just a grassy sweep of sandhill prairie sloping toward the creek. This abandoned farm, outside the town of Gordon, is our second hunting location of the morning. We watched the sun rise with our backs pressed against cold cottonwood trunks in some bottomlands near the Niobrara River, the dawn serenaded by gobblers that refused to show themselves.
Finally Simmons gives up. He vents some frustrated sighs, perhaps because he’s donated his time for this therapeutic hunt and feels an extra pound of pressure to get Rigdon a shot. “He’s not going to cross the water,” Simmons says, “and we can’t get down and across without him seeing us.” A late-spring snowstorm, he told us earlier, ruined the turkeys’ nests, rendering conditions in late May closer to those of early April, a more challenging hunting dynamic. He thinks for a while, squinting toward the distant turkeys, then says, “Let’s try another spot.”
“Yessir,” replies Rigdon, who begins unloading the shells from his 12-gauge, as good a soldier in this field as he was in others.
+++ War Stories
Snapshots of Rigdon with his family; after a bighorn hunt; and receiving his Bronze Star.
Rigdon was not a hunter when, at the age of 20, he enlisted in the Navy in 2003. He’d barely ever fired a gun. Football was Rigdon’s thing, and he was a good enough linebacker to play NAIA college ball, at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma City. Yet after the September 11 attacks, which he watched on TV in his dorm room, and the subsequent buildup toward the war in Iraq, football struck him as inconsequential. He enlisted, got married, and became the father to a baby girl. She was 18 months old when Rigdon first deployed to Iraq, in 2007, and his wife, Whitney, was pregnant with their second child.
Rigdon was a senior explosive ordnance disposal technician, meaning that when U.S. troops discovered bombs or IEDs, Rigdon’s team got the call to disarm them. The Oscar-winning 2009 film The Hurt Locker viscerally depicts Rigdon’s duties: He was one of those guys in an armored bomb suit, making that long walk toward an explosive device that it was up to him to outsmart. For every bomb explosion reported in the news, there were many more unreported moments of defused silence—precious quiet that soldiers like Rigdon provided. On his first operational day in Iraq, Rigdon was called out seven times—a literal baptism in fire. Often the calls sent him to the scene of a still-smoldering IED attack and its attendant carnage: “Every time a truck got hit,” he explains, “you had to make sure there wasn’t anything else there, another bomb. And those calls were the worst, because you were going to a grave.”
Explosive ordnance disposal is tense duty that can crank one’s nerves taut as a bowstring. Not long after learning about the birth of his second daughter, Rigdon had to disarm an IED secreted at the base of a 30-foot tower in Baghdad. To thwart the remote-controlled robots that disposal technicians prefer to use, the device had been planted amid big chunks of concrete, forcing Rigdon to go in alone; worse yet, his team had disarmed an IED at the very same location a week earlier, opening the possibility that he was a target for a sniper attack. Rigdon engineered a kind of fishing-rod strategy by tying 10 pounds of C4 explosive to a painter’s pole he found, in order to put a smidgen of distance between himself and the bomb—which, so far as he knew, could be detonated at any moment with a nearby cellphone. The brick of C4, swinging on the end of the painter’s pole, had to be delicately placed next to the IED. “This would be an awesome fishing story,” he recalls thinking, “if I was actually fishing.” After gently putting the C4 in position, Rigdon took cover and detonated it, thereby disrupting the IED. He watched the entire tower come crashing down.
That call came just a week or so after another, even more harrowing, one. It was nighttime. An IED was discovered in East Baghdad, out on Dead Girl Road—a skinny, single-lane dirt trail with rock walls on both sides, infamous for IED attacks. Rigdon deployed a robot and disrupted the device, then went out to gather evidence and assess the blast site. And there, at the roadside, he came upon an unexploded IED disguised as a rock. The bomb was covered in foam, blocking Rigdon’s view of its electrical guts. He flipped it so that if it detonated, the blast would be directed earthward, and with a knife, he cut the foam and then the wires away. It took him a while to remember to breathe.
To describe his immediate feelings after both of these operations, he uses the same word: elation. Adrenaline flooded his body with a narcotic force; his blood vessels thrashed and whooped. But after that rush always came the crash. “I remember calling my wife the next day,” he says about the incident on Dead Girl Road, “to see if my daughter had been born, yet at the same time trying to reconcile the fact that I’d almost been killed the day before.” But that’s what war is, he told himself. That’s what you signed up for. That’s what you’ve been trained for. “You can’t order a turd sandwich,” he says, “and complain that it tastes like s – – t.”
Rigdon shows his Bronze Star, which the military awarded him in 2007.
We’re bellied up to one of the two Main Street bars in Gordon, Neb., this one a camo-friendly place with cold beer and Rocky Mountain oysters on the menu. Today was Rigdon’s first day of turkey hunting—his hunting résumé so far includes mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and elk—and like many first-time turkey hunters, he’s feeling the twinges of a potential addiction. He enjoyed the calling, that musical element of a turkey hunt, the artistry required to bring a bird into range.
Rigdon is a big-shouldered guy, the kind with whom no sane man would ever want to pick a bar fight. He has long brown hair and the burly beard of a lumberjack, but he’s buoyant and often laces his conversation with subversive humor. Neither of us took a shot today, though Rigdon almost did. Simmons called in a gobbler close to where Rigdon was perched on a ridge of cedars, but the gobbler approached from a vexing angle and spooked before Rigdon could swing himself and his shotgun into position. Still, the day never sagged; turkeys were everywhere around us, if mostly unseen. For a while, he and I trade hunting stories, and then, more quietly, Rigdon circles back to how and why he came to have hunting stories in the first place.
Rigdon’s second deployment to Iraq—in 2008, this time to Tikrit—began just weeks after his older daughter suddenly started suffering febrile seizures, terrifying and mysterious episodes during which her eyes rolled back in her head. Six thousand miles away, he felt powerless to help her, and powerless in the face of another round of endless explosions, endless IEDs, endless callouts into the Iraqi night. These feelings curdled into anger.
“I was pissed at everything,” he tells me. “I was even pissed at guys for dying. I’ve got a wife at home who’s having to move herself”—during Rigdon’s deployment, the Navy transferred the family from South Carolina to Nevada—“and a daughter having seizures and I’ve already missed the first year of my other daughter’s life. And on top of that, man, you just get tired of seeing people get blown up.”
He smoked, dipped, drank smuggled booze, anything to ease his jangling nerves. One day he flipped out on another soldier, grabbing him by the throat and pinning him to the wall for reasons he doesn’t fully recall now and probably didn’t fully understand then. Still, he donned that 90-pound suit when the calls came in and continued providing the silences that meant lives saved. Except, for Rigdon, there was never silence. Tinnitus, the result of being exposed to innumerable blasts, caused a day-and-night ringing in his ears, as though sonic memories of those explosions were playing on a constant loop.
Completing that second deployment and heading home proved a cold shock: At home, where things should have been consoling, where he’d longed to return during his entire deployment—there, things somehow got worse. Crowds crippled him with fear. Even entering a store to buy his daughters Christmas presents felt threatening and raw. The dark sometimes terrified him. Worst of all was the phone ringing in the night, triggering flashbacks of those Iraqi callouts. “How do you explain to your wife that you’re scared of the phone ringing?” he says. “I could never tell her. I’d just say it was rude for her family to be calling so late.” And then there were the long stretches Rigdon spent on what soldiers sometimes call “Camp Couch,” half-paralyzed in front of the TV, self-medicated with ferocious amount of liquor, his entire existence feeling drained, emptied out, dusty. “Life in combat,” he says, “was either peak or valley. There wasn’t any middle. At home, without that adrenaline, life seemed stupid. It was just breathing.”
Hunting entered his life a year later—not in any meaningful way, at first, but as something that his wife’s father enjoyed and that Rigdon thought he might also enjoy. “There I was,” he recalls with a grin, “sitting in a hunter’s education class with a bunch of 10-year-old girls.” He was stationed at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in Fallon, Nev., with access to good mule deer hunting west toward Reno. It didn’t take him long to notice something about hunting, whether he was pursuing elk in the Jarbidge Mountains or bighorn sheep in the Fairview Range: “It gave me the calm that I needed and the rush that I needed. If I could’ve hunted all the time, that would’ve been perfect.”
But he couldn’t—and things were far from perfect. Eventually Rigdon realized something was wrong with him, but he refused to consider PTSD. “I never lost an arm,” he says. “I never got shot. What am I bitching about?” Just as he didn’t feel, back then, that he’d truly earned the Bronze Star he’d been awarded, Rigdon says he “spent a lot of time thinking that my experience didn’t warrant the feelings I was feeling.” Plus, he’d internalized a persistent stigma about PTSD: “That was what pussies had.” By 2011, however, he couldn’t bear it any longer. Panic attacks chased him through the nights. In a semiconscious state he’d frantically search his own house for IEDs, frightening his girls awake. In his mind’s eye, always, flickered a continuous montage of images: the scene at Dead Girl Road, the IED he pulled out with his hands.
Rigdon began seeing a civilian therapist, who advised the Navy to grant him an early medical discharge. He took a job with the TSA as an explosives specialist at Love Field in Dallas in 2012, and started weekly therapy sessions with the help of a nonprofit group called Give an Hour, which connects veterans with psychologists.
A reboot in Texas, a new job, intensive treatment: This would’ve been the prime spot in the story for Rigdon’s comeback to begin. And in some ways it did. But PTSD is a slippery and complicated beast; Rigdon couldn’t know that he had even darker hours, his darkest yet, to come.
+++ Stress Relief
“For as long as there have been battles,” says Dr. Arnold Marks, “there’s been PTSD.” Marks was a captain in the Medical Service Corps during the Vietnam War, and he was Rigdon’s Give an Hour–assigned therapist in Texas. Treating PTSD is a professional and personal passion of his. The disorder has been identified by more than 80 names throughout history—soldier’s heart during the Civil War, shell shoc_k during World War I, _combat fatigue during World War II—but Marks says the symptoms have always been the same: “Avoidance or withdrawal, intrusive thoughts and nightmares, and hypervigilance. Combine these with depression, and it’s a pretty toxic brew.”
Toxic, and terribly common. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 20 percent of Iraq War veterans (and 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan) are afflicted with some degree of PTSD. Who gets it and why? Medical science can’t explain that yet.
“That’s the real challenge,” Marks says. “How can two guys who grow up together, attend the same high school, go off into combat together, and then return home—how does one of them come back broken and the other doesn’t? That’s the $64,000 question.”
When Rigdon walked into Marks’s office in Aug. 2012, he struck the psychologist as “a typical John Wayne type,” uncomfortable with the somewhat squishy environment of therapy. “But Ryan was determined to get himself better,” he says. The only thing to which Rigdon wouldn’t accede was medication. “I was too much of a man,” Rigdon says, wagging his head at his former self, “to take any pills.”
Even with the aid of antidepressants and antianxiety medications, however, the PTSD therapy process can be long and unsteady. By 2013, despite the progress Rigdon had made by recognizing the disorder and committing himself to treatment, he couldn’t see any end in sight. The center wasn’t holding. And it wasn’t just him suffering, he thought—his family was paying the price. He could see it in the way his daughters looked at him. He couldn’t bear his reflection in their eyes.
Late on a Friday night, around 3 a.m., Rigdon entered the bathroom of his home carrying a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. He flicked on the light. He put the barrel in his mouth and dry-fired the gun. Then he loaded the firearm and returned the barrel to his mouth, holding it there for a long, long time.
“The only reason I didn’t do it,” he tells me, “is because I didn’t want my wife and kids to be messed up from finding me.”
The next day, after admitting what he’d almost done to a TSA coworker, who was also a vet, Rigdon took the coworker’s alarmed advice and got himself to a VA hospital, where he was prescribed 60mg a day of the antidepressant Prozac. During that time in the bathroom he’d glimpsed the full spectrum of what was at stake, the binary facts of his condition: live or die. According to government reports, 22 veterans a day commit suicide.
Ryan Rigdon decided not to be one of them. He decided to stay.
+++ Operation Gobbler
Rigdon in his military camo, which he sometimes wears on hunts.
Counseling, medication, family support, the nonprofit group Give an Hour, that elusive quality known as grit—all these helped Rigdon. But there’s one more thing that saved him. Hunting.
“That was the other prong in my personal treatment,” he says. “Even before the medications, when I was feeling crazy, sometimes I could think about the mountains and the animals and the hunts, and that would bring me back to center.”
There was some mystery to that for him at first, because hunting would seem, on the surface, to be riddled with potential triggers for a PTSD sufferer. The slight combat evocations of our failed ambush at the abandoned farm, which Rigdon also recognized, would seem to be the antithesis of therapy: a movement, albeit small, back toward the trappings of war rather than away from it. Marks explains it like this: “Each one of these guys is as different as a snowflake. For some of them, the solution is meditation, yoga, journaling—there are countless ways for them to get consolation.”
It’s early afternoon now, on day two of our turkey hunt, and we’re positioned near the top of a ridge in a snow-dusted scruff of ponderosa pines. A jake and a hen decoy are fluttering upwind on a bald outcrop of rock. Rigdon is about 30 yards to my right, seated at the base of a pine like I am, with Simmons back behind us, calling lightly. We started the day at yesterday’s abandoned farm, but the situation there was the same as before: multiple gobblers but no clear way to get to them. Now it’s different. We’ve been sitting here for just 10 minutes, listening hard as a gobbler moves slowly our way, and the tension is coiling.
That tension is—paradoxically, maybe—part of what Rigdon finds therapeutic about hunting. It’s an outlet for that hypervigilance. And for adrenaline: the neurochemical that made combat endurable for Rigdon; the absence of which often made life back home feel unendurable. “I realized, through hunting, that I didn’t need to be around a bomb to feel it,” he says. “I felt it trying to get close to an animal.” That same laser focus he’d once brought to disarming IEDs, a brain-body concentration that he found nearly impossible to muster in the diffuse life of a workaday dad, could be applied to stalking deer and elk and now turkeys. With every hunt, he further untethers that focus, that adrenaline, and that vigilance from his memories of Iraq.
“The smells, the breeze, the sounds of the leaves, the animal,” Rigdon tells me. In the hunting woods, he can grant himself the luxury of sensing and feeling everything—including peace. “It all gets me back to neutral. And I don’t have to impress nature. I don’t need to prove myself to it. I can just be.”
Simmons sounds a few short quiet clucks on the call, and a gobbled retort comes fluttering up the ridge from our right. I’m watching Rigdon when, from the corner of my eye, I’m almost startled by the emergence of a longbeard—and then, directly behind it, another gobbler. It’s a close shot, maybe 20 yards, and Rigdon fires at the lead tom, dropping it. The one behind it keeps walking, with a slightly more hurried step, and I get a bead on its head just as it’s about to descend the ridge. It drops, too, and Rigdon and I rise from the snow in tandem.
The two gobblers weigh about 20 pounds apiece, and standing over them, as Simmons is making his way to us, Rigdon is already talking about how he’ll cook his bird. That burst of post-hunt camaraderie that occurs among hunters overtakes us as we dissect our shots and admire the gobblers, no less regal and arresting for having fallen prey to us on that ridge.
Rigdon knows he still has a long journey. He realizes it’s something he’ll have to work on for years and years to come. For now, however, when I look at him, recounting the way those gobblers surprised him too with their sudden strut onto the ridge, I see something on his face that seems heartening and deserved: his word, elation.