Sailing saved Ronnie Simpson's life. He was an 18 year old high school senior in Atlanta, Georgia when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in March 2003. Drawn to service by the events of September 11, Ronnie joined the Marine Corps Infantry the day after the war started.
Less than a year later in March 2004, he deployed to Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines.
"I was a .50 cal gunner on top of a Humvee," he recalls. "Four months into my deployment, we were ambushed during a night-time convoy, and an RPG hit the ground near my Humvee. The rocket bounced up and exploded in the air one meter from me. I had broken ribs, detached retinas, a bleeding brain which created sub-retinal fluid, a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a blown-out left lung and my tongue was blown into my airway. I was temporarily knocked unconscious. Because I wasn't breathing and was unresponsive, Marines in my truck thought I was dead. It was actually a textbook blast injury. The Corpsman in my Humvee, Doc David Segundo, was injured too but he got up, cleared my airway, and saved my life."
Simpson, now 30 years old, spent a lot of time recovering both physically and mentally. Most of his TBI symptoms weren't permanent (he credits the helmet technology for that). Despite having burns over 10 percent of his body, many of those scars aren't visible.
"It fucked me up pretty good," he says. "Unless you knew me though, you'd never know I'm hurt. I have no visible scars unless I take my shirt off. Then I have many."
Simpson is legally blind and can't obtain a driver's license. Though his body healed, his mental state took much longer. He reevaluated his life and experiences through a 9,000-mile bike trek across Europe and Asia in 2009 and more than 50,000 miles at sea, both healing counterpoints to his experiences in Iraq.
"My time in theater and my travels have shaped my perspective," Simpson says. "There's a lot of good and beauty in this world, and I want to add to that. Our program is about helping the men and women that are coming back - the veterans - the people we should be looking out for. We in the veteran community have these experiences and while we may interpret them differently, this shared experience can bring us together. We can come together to create profound and impactful programs to help the veterans from these two wars as well as something permanent and sustainable for veterans of future conflicts."
Sailing is the catalyst for Simpson's initiative. Not only his love for sailing but how he changed his life and how he aims to change the lives of others.
"I joined the Marines at 18, was injured in combat at 19, my dad died four months after I got hurt, and by 20 I was medically retired," Simpson says. "By 22 I was a lost soul. I had reached my deepest, darkest point. I'm fearful of what would have happened if I hadn't flipped the script. I broke off an engagement, sold my house, and moved from Texas to California. That move was my re-birth as a new person."
On the California coast, he found his calling. After living so recklessly, he became completely focused on becoming a racing sailor and making the most of his life. Seven years later, Simpson now travels the world as a professional sailor and sailing writer.
"It helped me heal," Simpson says. "These adventures help you positively adrenalize yourself in a sustainable manner. Guys who come back from places like Fallujah have experienced adrenaline like most will never know, and again need to achieve that heightened state of existence. But where will they find it? Drugs, alcohol, or doping the pain away with pills? I can put you on the helm of a racing sailboat in the middle of the night and it will rock your world. This is a healthy way to get that fix."
It's not just about giving people the fix of adrenaline they were accustomed to while in combat. For Simpson and his sailing nonprofit - Coastal and Offshore Recalibration Experience, or CORE (www.medicinalmissions.com/CORE), that community of veterans is the most important result.
"Because that's what it is: a Community," he says. "On a sailboat you can put anyone into a job they can do, regardless of their injury. It's a sport that doesn't care if you have arms or legs. That's a big part of it. Everyone has an assigned, defined role. There's a chain of command, a defined mission, teamwork is critical and constant risk management is all part of the game. The parallels between racing sailboats and combat are incredible. When you combine that with the peacefulness and serenity of heading to sea with your brothers and sisters, it's a powerful experience."
Simpson and his best friend Army veteran Walter Kotecki, created a sailing program within an existing wounded-veteran nonprofit, raised $50,000 through yacht clubs and private donors, and gave a sailing experience to 30 veterans over the course of four clinics in 2012 and 2013.
"There's always a steep learning curve when you start your own thing. We flew vets to San Francisco," he says. "They had the whole range of injuries from PTSD to multiple amputees to blindness. We used sailing, surfing, yoga, nature walks, kayaking, art and more to help these guys look past their injuries and realize that anything is possible, no matter their injury, while re-establishing that sense of camaraderie and community that so many have lost since leaving the service."
It was so successful and the veterans so responsive Simpson and Kotecki decided to strike out on their own earlier this year, forming CORE.
"I had a Vietnam vet hook me up with a racing sailboat and an opportunity," says Simpson. "He passed that torch to me and told me to pay it forward. Here's my chance to hook somebody else up. Let's re-build that community and keep that torch going."
CORE is seeking veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to participate in more sailing clinics throughout California, with the first being in San Francisco in October of this year. They will be accepting applications until August 31. For 2016, CORE is planning six to eight clinics up and down the California coast.
The most ambitious plan for CORE is participating in the 2017 Transpacific Yacht Race - where they will train a full crew of combat-wounded veterans to sail from Los Angeles to Honolulu, the first time ever that such a crew would be assembled.
"Our goal is to help reduce the rate of veteran suicide in this country. Sailing is one of the tools that we use," he says.
Simpson is now featured in a series of short films produced by Craftsman, We Are The Mighty, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), showing how IAVA empowers veterans as they transition back to civilian life.
"It's admirable for companies like Craftsman to reach out to veterans groups to benefit the guys and girls that are coming back," Simpson says. "I see a positive shift in awareness about issues that affect veterans, how we can improve the care of veterans, and how we can achieve a more holistic healing approach instead of pumping them full of drugs."
Craftsman is donating $250,000 to IAVA and from May 25 - July 4, for every new follower of @Craftsman on Instagram, Craftsman will donate an additional $1 to IAVA (with a minimum donation of $5,000).
"I am honored to be part of this and stoked that a big corporation is out to make a difference of stemming the tide of 22 veterans a day," Simpson says. "I'm excited that they believe in what we're doing, and to work on this next mission of saving lives by reaching out to the veteran community."
Now: Artist takes his craft to war and back again