SHERIDAN — Jonathan Hancock had hit a low point.
More than five years after his service in the Marine Corps ended in 2009, Hancock still suffered.
“Two DUIs and a suicide attempt later, I’m laying up in a VA hospital, like, ‘I’ve gotta fix myself,’” Hancock said.
Part of that fix came from walking across the United States for one year, three months and one day. Hancock started in College Park, Maryland, Sept. 11, 2015, and ended in Camp Pendleton, California, in December 2016, traversing a total of 5,807 miles. He walked through 19 states, meeting the fellow veterans he served with in Iraq and the families of his fallen brothers.
Hancock walked about 30 miles per day, carried about 70 pounds of weight and slept in hotels once per month. The rest of the time, he camped on the side of the road.
“It just became a healing process for myself,” Hancock said. “I learned that was my thing. My process is to go hike very long distances, and that’s what I use to help heal myself.”
Almost three years after setting out across America, Hancock was one of more than 30 veterans who attended the WYO W.E.S.T. Warrior Foundation event over Labor Day weekend in the Sheridan area.
W.E.S.T. stands for Warriors Empowered Standing Together. The event is meant to bring veterans together to celebrate their service and, ideally, help heal any lingering wounds from their time in the military. This is the third year the event has been hosted in Sheridan around Labor Day but first of the nonprofit foundation’s existence.
It was previously done under the umbrella of the Halo for Freedom Warrior Foundation.
WYO W.E.S.T. Warrior Foundation board President Kent Sherwood said it took about nine months for the eight-member board to organize everything. The board handles the logistics of lodging, transportation, food, equipment and gear for the visitors from all across the country, in addition to organizing sponsors.
Sherwood said veteran Dana Bowman inspired him and others to start the event. Like he has done before the Sheridan WYO Rodeo, Bowman jumped with the American flag into Don King Days Sunday afternoon at the Big Horn Equestrian Center, with many veterans in attendance.
“Dana Bowman is the man behind the scenes that we got to know and love and he has helped form our organization and been an integral part of it,” Sherwood said.
Veterans from various military branches arrived Thursday afternoon with friends and family and left Monday morning. The weekend was filled with camaraderie, action, emotion and relaxation.
On Friday and Saturday, most of the festivities took place at the Dow Ranch in Big Horn. People had the option to take rides on a helicopter and shoot AR-15s at steel targets, rappel on a crane and test their aim at multiple shooting ranges. A large food tent provided shade, refreshments and an area for veterans to meet and talk with one another.
The veterans spent most of Sunday unwinding at the Big Horn Equestrian Center. There were also dinners, an auction and a live band during different evenings at the Best Western Sheridan Center where the veterans stayed.
Sherwood said the event has built on itself over the past few years. This year brought nearly twice the number of veterans as last year, he said.
“These veterans will inspire you to want to be part of something bigger than yourself,” Sherwood said. “If you get to spend an hour around us and these guys and gals, you’re going to see some special moments.”
Veterans journeyed from all corners of the country for the event, while others came from nearby.
Chris Ferguson, a WYO W.E.S.T. Warrior Foundation board member and Sheridan resident, has attended all three events over the years. Ferguson served in the Marine Corps as an infantryman from 2003-13.
He deployed on three tours to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.
Ferguson said the toughest obstacle for the five-day event is the unpredictability of Mother Nature. For example, skydiving was delayed Friday due to high winds.
Besides small weather issues, the weekend went smoothly. Ferguson said it is therapeutic to hold the event in a relaxed setting. The days were low-key and the fairly unstructured schedule allowed the veterans to partake in as many— or as few — different activities as they preferred.
Ferguson said meeting other veterans and forming connections is the best part.
“You need that camaraderie together,” Ferguson said. “When you’re deployed, you’re fighting with your brothers to your left and right. When you’re out, the hardest part is your brother to left is in Florida (and) your brother to your right is in California.”
Bobby Henline traveled from Sanford, North Carolina, to attend the event for the first time. Henline served two separate stints in the Army from 1989-92 and 2001-11.
In April 2007, Henline was injured by a roadside bomb during the Battle of Baqubah in Iraq. The bomb killed the other four soldiers with him. Henline spoke about his military experiences and performed some stand-up comedy over the weekend.
He called the event a healing weekend for everyone involved.
“The mental wounds are the hardest to deal with,” Henline said. “These events help.”
The foundation and veterans also honored a Gold Star Family who lost a loved one in combat. Hancock and Ferguson invited the family of Travis Layfield, with whom they served in the Marine Corps. Layfield was killed in April 2004 in Ramadi, Iraq, at the age of 19.
Travis’ mother, Dianne Layfield, quickly accepted when Ferguson and Hancock extended the invitation. The family members traveled from the Sacramento area and it was their first time in Wyoming. They relished the open spaces and communal atmosphere.
“This is true America,” Dianne Layfield said. “People are friendly, nice and courteous.”
This year marked Hancock’s second year attending the event. He said he didn’t know what to expect last year but immediately felt at ease around other veterans. This year, he served as an event ambassador to help first-time attendees feel comfortable.
Hancock enjoys the support network provided by non-military citizens.
“This is their thank-you letter to us,” Hancock said. “It’s this really cool way of bringing people together and having a blast.”
For people like the Layfield family, Hancock, Ferguson and Henline, the weekend provided an outlet to acknowledge the past, enjoy the present and hopefully move forward in a healing manner.