By: Debbie Ward, Mother of Cpl. Anthony Clay Ward, USMC
(December 16, 1981-June 13, 2009)



June 13, 2009 was the worst day of our lives. Beginning as a normal Saturday, our day turned tragic. Our son, Cpl. Anthony Clay Ward, died by suicide. But let’s begin at the beginning.
Clay joined the Marine Corps and served from 2004-2008 with three deployments, the last to Iraq. He returned to Alabama and settled in to a normal routine. He was stable, successful; we had no idea what conflict he battled in his mind.
Sure, he was different when he returned home. He didn’t like fireworks. Or crowds.  And sometimes he dodged small objects in the road, such as a paper bag. But that isn’t so very different. Is it? Or is it?
The few days prior to Clay’s death shed some light on his thought process, which was fragmented. He had slept little and was struggling with life issues and military issues. He believed he was responsible for something that happened in Iraq.
As family members we discussed the possibility of PTSD, and on the evening of June 12, 2009 Clay was taken to the ER of a local civilian hospital. It was recommended that he see a psychiatrist and he was given a prescription for antidepressants.  He died by suicide three hours later. On his refrigerator hung a pamphlet: How to recognize the Signs of PTSD.
Clay left behind a fiancé, parents, siblings, and a multitude of Marine brothers. Loved ones fractured, left behind to live in the wake of trauma. 22 veterans die each day by suicide. Each and every day. PTSD is real. Many of those who paid the price for our freedom once are paying yet again. This time, paying the ultimate price. While they return home in body, their hearts and minds remain in ‘the sandbox.’  There are many hidden, invisible wounds of war: traumatic brain injury (TBI), depression, anxiety, and sexual trauma, just to name a few.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is difficult under any circumstance, but dealing with death by suicide is catastrophic. It is a unique, special kind of grief. So many unanswered questions. Many whys and what-ifs. In addition to Clay, we have two sons and a daughter. Each of us dealt with Clay’s death in our own time and own way. Even while very strong in faith, depression and PTSD reached out and further threatened our family.
In 2012, our hearts still broken, but on the road to healing, our family was introduced to The Red Barn.  Our daughter, Abi, participated in a class there. She entered their riding program as a Red Barn student with ‘special circumstances’ and her healing journey began. Abi was given a chance to grow, to be herself, and she flourished. The Red Barn is a place she calls her own. It offered all of us faith, hope, and love.
Another program offered at The Red Barn is Take the Reins. This program is available to active or inactive military personnel, and their families to work with and learn about horses. Opportunities for recreation, relaxation, and family bonding are presented. On any given day, you may see veterans and their families or veterans groups doing art work and grooming and learning about horses. For veterans with PTSD, working with horses can increase coping skills as they seek to regain self-assurance and adjust to the ‘new normal’ of their lives.  
Our family experienced firsthand the Take the Reins Program in 2013 when one of Clay’s close friends and his family came from Boston to visit. We took them to the Barn where we watched our daughter participate in a riding lesson. We enjoyed the tranquil atmosphere as we ate lunch by the pond; then we all ‘painted a horse.’ That sounds a little crazy, but in truth it is very therapeutic!  It was the anniversary of Clay’s death and each of us wrote about our journey over the previous four years.  A healing time for all of us. Take the Reins at its best.
We’ve enjoyed many restorative aspects of The Red Barn. Although time does heal, the sorrow of such loss never leaves you. You simply learn to live with it. While the pain will forever scar our hearts, we have experienced many beneficial things too. We became acquainted with Clay’s Marine brothers. They reached out to our family and became ours. They offered a glimpse of the funny, kind man they knew. A crazy MacGyver type guy who could fix anything with duct tape and bungee cords!  They made us laugh and sometimes cry, but they are a joy to our hearts. Last year these men committed to come to Alabama on the anniversary of Clay’s death and run 6 miles, one mile for each year since his death. On June 13, 2015 The Red Barn is hosting the Take the Reins Cpl. Anthony Clay Ward Memorial Run! Our family will be welcoming these young men and their families to Birmingham. Please show your appreciation to our veterans and The Red Barn’s Take the Reins program!  Please help us give these Marines a warm southern welcome! The Marines are coming! Don’t miss it!