Veteran Turned Coach Finds Strength in Uplifting and Inspiring Carry Forward 5K Participants
Three years in a row, a group of supporters have joined Christina Witchey in Chehalis, Washington to honor Army veteran Ryan Taniguchi by doing a 5K together. Ryan’s time with Christina and others at nearby Fort Lewis was brief, but impactful. The soldier turned coach made lifelong friends who continue to show him support years after he moved away for reassignments and deployments.
After Ryan survived multiple explosions and attacks while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, he had to relearn to process thoughts and manage basic functions. The struggles of the initial recovery were a preview of the difficulties he would face dealing with emotional and psychological injuries. His path to become a fitness coach in addition to registering to receive services from Wounded Warrior Project helped change his life.
“Wounded Warrior Project kept me alive,” Ryan told Christina in hindsight when they reconnected.
Christina was thankful Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) was there for Ryan. “I wanted to support the program that saved his life,” Christina said. “I also wanted to show him that we care.”
Finding the right way to show support from a distance was made easier when Christina learned about the virtual component of WWP’s Carry Forward® 5K. She named her squad, “Running for Ryan,” and organizes a virtual Carry Forward 5K every Nov. 11, at 11:11 a.m. in Washington state – regardless of where Ryan and fellow Fort Lewis veterans might be located.
Ryan’s Own Journey
Ryan now lives in Idaho and travels to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, weekly to coach mountain athletes. He is fully engaged in motivating others to achieve their fitness goals. He does this regardless of how many times he himself has struggled.
He knows what it takes to dig oneself out of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a fitness slump, or plain inertia. His inner strength comes from having plenty of practice motivating himself.
“I’m not perfect, but I was given this gift of connecting with people through physical activity,” Ryan said. “I still manage my own issues, but I also want to continue serving others. I love to help educate people about what they can achieve.”
But Ryan was not always comfortable in his own skin. Growing up in Hawaii, Ryan recalls feeling “small in size and mostly disadvantaged; I kind of felt like an outsider.” He built confidence through wresting and other sports and earned a spot at Lahainaluna Public Boarding School. While still in high school, he met visiting soldiers.
“I saw soldiers and was struck by how courageous and tough they looked,” Ryan recalled. Wanting to prove himself, Ryan enlisted in the Army as a junior in high school. “I wanted the adventure, the challenge, and the toughness,” Ryan said.
After graduating high school, Ryan became an infantryman, and quickly got used to handling a rifle and carrying hundreds of pounds of gear.
He had multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in addition to others around the world. He even came back to Hawaii for a special mission. As an active-duty soldier, he participated in the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle in 2014, a category 4 storm. He aided in the rescue of a woman and her two daughters from raging floodwaters.
Early in his career, while stationed near Tacoma, Washington, Ryan made long-term connections.
“I didn’t know anyone in Tacoma,” Ryan recalled. “It was a little rough for me as a young soldier when I first started. Then I found both service members and civilians who loved to play sports. I also met other people from Hawaii, and I found this softball team outside the base.”
Christina played on the same softball team as a civilian. She had a special, caring way and wanted to give back to servicemen and women. When Thanksgiving came around, and Christina realized that Ryan had never experienced the holidays away from home, she and her family invited him to their home for the holiday.
“She actually came and got me at the base, and I had that first Thanksgiving as a soldier with her family,” Ryan said.
Ryan and Christina stayed in touch even after Ryan’s three years in Tacoma were up and he was sent to Panama for training and subsequent deployments. “Christina and (her husband) Jared wrote to me and showed me a lot of support,” Ryan recalled.
The friends lost touch for a while after Ryan’s injury in Afghanistan in 2013. Christina and her family found out what happened via social media and renewed their friendship with Ryan.
An Uphill Climb, Both Ways
Ryan’s exposure to numerous combat-related explosions, fatalities, and injuries while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan caused physical and mental issues.
“I had head trauma and mental trauma,” Ryan said. “Even after recovering from physical injuries, the mental trauma lingered. One thing that kept me going was physical activity. I had to overcome being hurt.”
After the uphill climb of physical recovery, he faced mental challenges related to PTSD.
“An Army friend introduced me to Wounded Warrior Project right before I separated from the military,” Ryan said. “By myself, I would have been too proud and too tough on the inside to go get help.”
Ryan found the care and camaraderie he needed at that moment with WWP.
“My first impression of Wounded Warrior Project was, ‘they care.’ There are people out there who care about me. WWP made everything more approachable. I went to a Project Odyssey, and it was intense, but it was good intense. We were all from different military backgrounds, but we had a good connection. We all knew we needed help and we were in the right place to get help.”
Ryan found a long-term therapist through that Project Odyssey, connected to other veterans with similar healing journeys, and realized the journey is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Every day I suffer with nightmares, flashbacks, smells, and sounds from some of the most horrific events I could have experienced,” Ryan said. “But the thought of waking up and living just one more day to help another fellow human get better, to know that they are not alone, is my purpose. I understand that PTSD is not a momentary sickness. It’s something I have to live with every day.”
Ryan realizes even though PTSD has presented hurdles, “great family friends like the Witcheys in Washington – Christina, Jared, Brenna, and Vivy – are there to offer the support I need to live a life where I can still make a difference.”
A Long Path of Continuous Recovery
For Ryan, and for many veterans, serving others is an important motivating factor. But selflessness can also distract from their own needs and delay recovery. Ryan’s friend and fellow warrior James Hokoana recognized this from his own experience and encouraged Ryan to register with WWP and use available services.
“I have seen such a positive impact from Wounded Warrior Project on Ryan’s post-combat life,” James said. “This is the new normal and I understand that we will always carry our combat experiences and deal with the challenges differently. But with help and resources from Wounded Warrior Project, we are better able to manage it. We’re all on different paths to recovery, and at those difficult moments when we struggle, we can turn to WWP resources to help us through.”
From Ryan’s point of view, harboring hope is an important step.
“I have hope that I can make a difference despite all the adversities I had faced and all of the trauma, combat, and death around me,” Ryan said. “I wake up every day with a tear to many friends that I did lose directly and indirectly due to service-related duties or hardships. I honor them. I pick up a barbell, I stride another run, or I endure another workout... for them. I am strong because of the soldiers I still carry on my back in memory.”
“I am grateful for the Wounded Warrior Project and really living up to its mission of empowerment.”
Although he has joined virtually from Hawaii before, this year, Ryan hopes to join Christina’s Carry Forward 5K in Chehalis, Washington, and personally thank those who are standing up for warriors.
Join Christina and other supporters in “Running for Ryan” here. Learn how you can support veterans through Carry Forward 5K. Visit Wounded Warrior Project to learn more about programs and services WWP provides for veterans and caregivers.
Contact: Raquel Rivas — Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.426.9783
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.