Five years ago today, the world lost a very special man. While some people may have heard Clay’s name in the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention For American Veterans Act that was signed by President Obama last year, or through theClay Hunt Fellowship Program put on by Team Rubicon to develop leadership skills for transitioning service members, many people probably don’t know his full story. So, who was Clay Hunt and how has his life had such a special impact on the veteran community?
Clay Warren Hunt was a Marine, scout sniper, and Purple Heart recipient. He was big-hearted humanitarian, with a sheepish grin, always making new friends. He had a big tattoo on his forearm that said, “Not all who wander are lost” — it suited him perfectly. Clay was part of the team that flew to Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake and spent the month saving lives, clearing rubble, and treating a wide variety of injuries and illness. That team ultimately turned into the organization called Team Rubicon. Clay was always doing something to help others.
Clay was one of those guys who you just wanted to be friends with. His smile and laughter were contagious and his heart was driven to help and serve others. He was a son, a brother, and a best friend. Growing up, he loved to spend time on his grandfather’s farm in Texas, hunting and fishing. He was a Texas boy to his core and damn proud of it. He loved life, loved his family, and loved showing others that life had so much more to offer than they ever dreamed possible. He was so good at unlocking the mysteries of life that sometimes I wondered if he was hiding the keys around his neck, next to his Hog’s Tooth that he received after completing the scout sniper basic course. It was no surprise that he was so clever. His apartment was full of books on everything from philosophy to history to the classics and everything in between. Once while standing in his apartment, I asked why he had so many books that he never read. Boy, was I wrong. I got the Cliff Notes version on each of them and then some.
I believe that in life you only get one or maybe two people whom you instantly click and get along with. Clay was that to me. We were together constantly mountain biking, surfing, camping, whatever. He was so genuine, open, honest and intelligent that it was mind-blowing. My first time hanging out with Clay, we decided to go mountain biking. I had just bought this $400 bike that I was really proud of, but when I showed up at his house to ride, he laughed at me and said, “You’re not riding that, are you?” He took me up to his living room where he had about four different mountain bikes and a road bike all standing on a nice bike rack, with parts and tools scattered about the floor. He pulled down a much nicer bike than I had, tuned it, pumped the tires, and said ,“Okay, ride this one.” I started to get the feeling that I was in for more than just riding up fire roads.
That ride was one of the longest, most painful and most memorable of my life. Clay absolutely punished me up and down the single track of the Santa Monica mountains. By the time we finished I was bleeding badly down my forearms, my legs would no longer hold me up and the handlebars were completely bent sideways. As a glutton for punishment, I admired him even more for being able to crush me on the trails. As we put the bikes into the truck he looked and me and said, “I can’t believe you made it through that. I thought for sure you’d quit. I just wanted to see if you have what it takes to join Team Rubicon.” He flashed his big goofy grin, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go get some tacos and beer.”
When we weren’t biking, we spent plenty of time wreaking havoc on the bars and strip of Manhattan and Hermosa Beach. The more we got to know each other, the more open we became with what was eating us up inside.
He told me how he learned that his bunkmate Blake Howey had been killed by a roadside bomb on patrol while Clay was on base manning the radio, and how he slept in the lower bunk after that, just to be closer to his friend. He also talked about how he had watched as his close friend Nathan Windsor was shot through the throat right in front of him while they were on patrol and how he wanted to get out and help, but was stuck inside the Humvee as bullets and debris from rocket-propelled grenades pinged against his door. He showed me his scars and told me about how he had been shot through the wrist while providing security for other Marines and how just seconds before the bullet cracked through his wrist, that’s where his head had been resting. He was sent back to the States early and always felt severely guilty that he didn’t finish out the deployment with his unit. He talked about Afghanistan and some of the good and bad times they had there. When the movie “Restrepo” came out, I went and saw the screening with him and we talked about how similar it had been to his deployment.
David Smith (left) and Clay Hunt (right) at the Ride2Recovery California Challenge.
The most astonishing thing about Clay was not that he had lost friends, but that he was able to talk about it. I had been out of the Marines for almost two years and had never spoken a word about my deployments, except to guys with whom I had served. I had no idea where his strength and ability to share their stories came from or how he was so calm when talking about his experiences. I had been trying to drown mine in alcohol or just completely forget about the bad times altogether, but as Clay opened up, I slowly found myself sharing stories with him. It felt good to have someone to talk to who understood the joys and heartbreaks of combat and who had experienced the great accomplishments and shameful moments of fear that accompanied them.
Clay knew what it was like to fight and to lose friends and to be afraid and to wish that you could go back and change time. Clay knew the sights and sounds and smells and joys of war. He understood the humor in facing death every day and smiling back. He understood the bond that only those who have served together in war can ever know.
One day while sitting in Clay’s apartment, I saw photos of him bicycling over a bridge while pushing an amputee in a hand cycle. They were wearing these red, white, and blue jerseys and it just struck me as this perfect all-American photo. The amputee had lost his legs in Iraq and they were both cycling with a much larger group as members of a program called Ride2Recovery. R2R had been created and developed to help heal the physical and mental wounds of combat by providing cycling opportunities. Clay mentioned that the program was an amazing experience and that I should do it with him in about six months. We signed up together and I began fundraising to support the charity. I still didn’t think that I had any reason to do the ride as an injured veteran, since I had never been injured, but I wanted to be a part of the experience with him.
When the ride began, I had never been on a road bike in my life and I had never used clip-in pedals. The first time I tried was in the parking lot of the hotel and I clipped in with both feet at the same time and fell over with the bike on top of me in front of an NBC news crew. That week we rode over 450 miles. As we rode, I had to rely on other veterans and talk with them so that I wouldn’t end up riding the whole day by myself. As I did, I learned a lot about them and a lot about myself. Stuff that I had only spoken to Clay about started to come out in snippets to other vets and it felt good. It felt as though with each person that I spoke to a small weight was lifted.
I learned that PTSD wasn’t something to be ashamed of and denied, but rather it was something to be admitted and confronted. I learned that sometimes the visible wounds, such as amputations, are the easiest to heal but wounds like guilt, regret, anger, anxiety, depression, and sadness were more difficult. Clay and I were roommates during the ride and I tried to keep up with him as best as I could, but usually he was just too fast for me. I spent a lot of time riding with new people, pushing the hand cycles, and forging bonds with new friends that I still speak to today.
During the evenings, we would have big dinners by the American Legion or VFW or some other group. There would be talks and applause and good times, but I noticed that Clay slipped away to be by himself every chance he got. At the big dinner night, he and I were at the same table, but I didn’t see him all night long. When I made it back to the hotel, he was there and had paid for a taxi back so that he could be alone. He was watching videos from his time in Afghanistan. I knew that Clay was having a really rough time making the readjustment to civilian life but this is when I started to worry.
Clay Hunt (left) and Dave Smith (right) in a California bar.
A short time after the ride, my talks with Clay got more serious. They weren’t just war stories and mild depression anymore. We weren’t just hanging out and having beers for fun. He started to push me away some and used to tell me that if I hugged him he’d punch me in the face. I always loved to bear hug Clay because he acted like he hated it, but I know he secretly appreciated it and he’d joke and say something like, “I love ya too, ya jackwagon.” That seemed to have changed suddenly and although I’m pretty certain his threat to punch me was serious, I still hugged him anyway.
We biked together less often and didn’t hang out quite as much. One day while sitting in his apartment in Santa Monica, he mentioned something about suicide and I told him that he should give his guns over to me until he was feeling better. He was on board with the idea until I made a joke and told him that “maybe I’ll give them back.” I wish I wouldn’t have done that.
I would come home from school often to find him sitting on the couch in my bedroom, half a case of Coors Light cans scattered about his feet. I knew he was hurting bad, so I’d just have a beer and sit there in silence with him until he wanted to talk. I wish I knew how to listen better or what to say. Eventually, he moved home to Texas.
There was a lot of change in Clay’s life in those months. He had recently gotten divorced. He had to break the lease on his apartment and ended up owing money. He was in debt to the government for GI Bill money that had been paid to his university before he dropped out and went to Haiti to help with the disaster relief. The VA was taking forever to finish his disability claim paperwork and so he had no real income. And now he was moving all across the country. I knew he was under tremendous stress. I’d still talk to Clay pretty often and he seemed to be doing well. I sent him photos of the trails I was out biking. I was still worried, but I didn’t know what to make of the situation. We’d chat, but the conversations were less frequent and not at all in-depth. He had just gotten a new job and I was proud of him. He had a new girlfriend and had just bought a brand new truck.
On the evening of March 31, I was asleep in bed because I worked graveyard shift, when my girlfriend came in and woke me up. She was crying and I hadn’t been expecting her over. She was sobbing and her face looked like someone had turned her heart upside down. Finally, she slowed down enough and told me Clay killed himself. I didn’t say anything at all. I don’t know what I was thinking or if I was thinking at all. She said, “Dave, I’m so sorry.” When it finally hit, I think that it may have been the saddest moment of my whole life.
There are some things in this life that I will never understand. I don’t fully understand why Clay took his life and I never will. But I do know this: Had I not met Clay, I probably never would have started doing so much of the therapy and other things that have helped me so greatly over the past several years. I may have never met many of the closest friends that I now have in my life. And God knows I would not have so many wonderful memories and experiences.
I don’t know why certain things happen, but I do know that Clay Hunt’s life and legacy have been an inspiration to countless other veterans and their families. Clay is one of the best men I have ever met. He exemplified the qualities of a Marine, of a brother, and of a friend. I know there is a purpose for each of us and that we don’t meet the most important people in our lives by accident or pure coincidence.
So five years after he left us, here’s how I still remember Clay Hunt. He was a Marine, a veteran advocate, a brother, a son, and a friend. He never stopped in his pursuit to make the world a better place. He lived by his heart and inspired everyone around him to achieve their best. He brought people together in even the most unlikely of situations and always did so with a laugh and big smile. Clay was fearless when it came to helping and serving others. Clay’s life can never be summed up in words, but I am proud to see his legacy continue to live on in the programs and people who have been inspired by his life.
I’ll never stop fighting and living for Clay.