- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Sheep dogs: To most of us, the words bring to mind the large, fluffy breed that has traditionally been used to herd livestock.

But to men like the United States Marine Corps‘ Sgt. Maj. Lance Nutt, it means something else, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2q1Grsa ) reported. The term is shorthand for first responders: those people who have made a life out of protecting us, their human “flock.” These members of the military, police, fire and emergency departments are people who, to paraphrase the old adage, run into burning buildings as others are running out.

“Some people process things differently,” says Nutt. “Especially some of us who appreciated that this is who we are early in life. That we’re warriors, that’s what we’re here on earth for. Sheep dogs have made this a lifetime of service. For some of us, it truly is what we knew we were born to do.”

Nutt will retire from the USMC next year after 35 years of service that included three tours of duty in Iraq. But Nutt’s story goes beyond just his service to country. It extends to the founding of Sheep Dog Impact Assistance, a nonprofit that seeks to help those who have retired from a sheep dog career - including those who were injured in the line of duty - continue to find their purpose after they’ve left their former lives behind.

Nutt was born in Crossett, but his life became transient once his father joined the USMC when Nutt was still an infant. The family would move every year - on occasion, every six months - until Nutt was 13, when his dad was stationed in Japan for three years. While the move to Japan marked the first time he and his family had lived outside of the States, it was far from the only time they had traveled overseas.

“In the military, you have what is called ‘Space-A,’ or ‘Space Available’ travel,” he explains. “We could go up to Dover, Del., and get on a military hop there and go anywhere in the world. It’s a major military hub, so they would put cargo on a plane, and then whatever space was left, they would ratchet down passenger seats. So you would be sitting in a large jumbo jet, with 30 pallets of military equipment and gear. I would climb up on those pallets and read comic books or sleep.”

Nutt’s father, a Marine naval aviator, was interested in finding the parts of foreign countries that tourists commonly avoided.

“When we lived in Japan, we went to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan - anywhere in the Pacific that we could go, we did,” he says. “And when we would get there, my dad would say, ‘OK, let’s see which direction the tourists are going, and we’re going to go the opposite way.”

Nutt thinks this exploration of the world may be why, as a child and teenager, he wasn’t easily swayed by the usual difficulties that often plague adolescents.

“I think, because a lot of my life was adventurous through my dad, that I didn’t feel this need to go and be adventurous on my own. I got to experience things that kids my age typically weren’t experiencing.”

Which is not to say Nutt’s adolescence was completely trouble-free, as evidenced by an experience in Japan that he chalks up as one of the most influential of his childhood and on his later life as a Marine. As punishment for a run-of-the-mill infraction, Nutt had been sentenced to walk the three-and-a-half miles between his school and his off-base home. Trudging home from school, he saw an abandoned bicycle, leaning up against a telephone pole.

“I thought, ‘This will make my trip home a lot easier,’ and I took that bike and I rode it home,” he says, wincing. “And then, the next day, I was told to walk to school again, and I thought, ‘OK, that bike is out there still,’ and I got on that bike, and halfway to school, the Japanese police pulled up next to me.”

Nutt was taken to the police station, where he waited, horrified, for his father - who was now the commanding officer of the base - to come and get him. He told the police that the bike had a strong resemblance to his sister’s bike, and he got the two confused. His story was plausible enough that he was released without charges.

His father, however, was still furious - whether the story was true or not (spoiler alert: it wasn’t) he had disregarded the rules by biking instead of walking. Nutt, who knew he was in for a pretty serious punishment once they arrived home, had to ride in the back of his father’s pickup truck from the police station to the base, where his father needed to pick up some papers.

“We came to a stop sign on base, and there were three trucks that young Marines had gotten in and were racing down the strip,” recalls Nutt. “They didn’t have their headlights on, and my dad almost pulled right out in front of them. He chased those Marines down in his truck. I was (still) sitting in back going, ‘Oh, my Lord, this is the worst possible night for this to happen. I am a dead man.’ I hear my dad just chew these Marines out. He’s taking their ID cards. I mean, this is a potential career ender.”

Nutt was all too well aware that an officer’s family’s behavior could affect his fortunes in the military. Now he was seeing a clear example of how careless behavior could affect the career of a young Marine.

“This was one of those really powerful times in my life when I said, ‘I don’t want this to happen again. I don’t want to go through this again,’” he says. “When I was a Marine, I looked back at this, and I said, ‘I don’t want to be those Marines,’ so even when there were opportunities for me to be wild and crazy in the Marine Corps, I was usually the one speaking up, saying ‘No’, and I used that story as an example.”

When it came to making post-secondary plans, Nutt considered the French Foreign Legion - something his dad had also considered - but by his senior year, he had decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. The USMC it was.

“As soon as I told my dad what I was doing, he said, ‘OK. Be home tomorrow at 1600 hours, standing tall in the living room. The Marine recruiter will be here.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’” Nutt’s father swore him into the USMC the next day, and within two weeks, Nutt had completed his physical and taken the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

“The Marine Corps gave me a true focus,” says Nutt. “I thrived in the Marine Corps. I excelled at boot camp. I excelled through most of my training. I joined as a combat engineer, and I immediately knew I was where I was supposed to be.”

Nutt had entered the service at a relatively quiet time on the world stage. Within a year of his enlistment, however, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and Desert Storm had begun.

“The next thing you know, I’m flying into Saudi Arabia, and we’re immediately in a convoy to the front lines,” he says.

There were a lot of uncertainties: No one knew the strength of the opposing army, or the efficacy of their Russian-supplied weaponry. The young Nutt remembers the terrifying and dramatic address to the troops the night before combat started with bright clarity.

“General (Walter E.) Boomer came out and spoke to us,” says Nutt. “He said, ‘A lot of you are going to die tomorrow. You’re going to get hit with chemical weapons’ because Saddam had been using chemical weapons on his own people at that point, and we found a lot of chemical weapons when we went in. We were carrying atropine needles - my combat buddy and I both hated shots. If you got hit with nerve agents, you had to hit yourself with atropine, so we had a pact: If we got hit with nerve agents, he was to hit me, and I was to hit him with our atropine needles.

“So General Boomer said, ‘It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when you get hit with nerve agents, and no matter how many of you die, you have to keep going.’ And we’re both sitting there saying, ‘Is this for real?’”

The next day, though, revealed a distinct imbalance of power between the two sides, and the conflict was over in five days - with Nutt and his fellow soldiers returning home to great fanfare.

“We came home to a heroes’ welcome,” says Nutt. “This country was trying to make up for the Vietnam-era troops that came home and were treated horribly. They never got a homecoming. They never were thanked for what they did. This was the country healing, and it was us proving to the world that we were a force in readiness to be reckoned with.”

Nutt completed his first three-year stint then went into the reserves so he could go to college. As a child, he had spent each summer helping his maternal grandparents work their farm in southeastern Arkansas, so getting back to his roots at the University of Arkansas at Monticello was a natural choice. He returned to active duty in 1995 and was assigned to be a recruiter in Northwest Arkansas. The job was a good fit for him. He had majored in business and minored in communications, subject areas, he says, that were perfect for a USMC recruiter. He won the “Recruiter of the Year” award for two years running.

“As one of only four active duty marines in the area, we were always going places in our dress blues, and we were always having meals and drinks bought for us,” Nutt notes, adding, with a laugh, “and the ladies liked us.”

He got married during this time, but his wife was not a fan of the military. He had been offered a civilian job while still on active duty, and when his time was up, he decided to take it.

Like most Americans, however, September 11, 2001, would change the trajectory of his life forever.

“I had been out for less than a year when 9/11 happened ,” he says. “I immediately said, ‘I have to go back.’ My wife said, ‘No, you’re not,’ and I said, ‘The Marine Corps was here before you were, and the Marine Corps will be here after you’re gone. If you can’t respect me for who I am, it won’t last.’”

It didn’t. Meanwhile, Nutt spent two years trying to work his way back to active duty.

“The first year, they weren’t letting prior service come back,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to sit this one out. I learned through one of the recruiters that they were starting to activate reserve units. This was 2003. He said, ‘I heard 3rd Battalion 24th Marines out of St. Louis are deploying, and they’re hurting for staff (non-commissioned officers). He connected me with someone, and they told me they were deploying in three weeks. I said, ‘OK. I’m your man.’”

By this time, he had met his second wife, Sarah. Though they were not married prior to this second deployment to Iraq, by the time Nutt got back, he knew they would be.

“We’re married today because she loves the Marine Corps and supported me through that whole time and supported me through multiple deployments after that,” he says. “It was a really hard deployment in 2003-2004. We were in Al-Taqaddum, and it was a nasty time. We as a Marine Corps lost a lot of Marines. I saw a lot of Marines die in combat. I came home in a tough spot, and (Sarah) was beside me the whole way.”

It was while Nutt was back stateside after his 2003-2004 deployment that the idea for Sheep Dog Impact Assistance took root. He felt helpless as he watched news reports of hundreds of people frantically climbing on top of their houses to plead for rescue during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Helplessness is a foreign feeling for Nutt, so he gathered up some buddies and headed down to Louisiana to help clean up in the wake of the destructive storm. He then realized the benefits of an organization that would assist members of the military and first responders in the transition to civilian life.

“When you’re younger, you think mid-40s is old,” he says. “You get to this point in your life and you think, ‘I’ve finally gotten my act together and now you’re telling me ‘We don’t need you anymore’? My dad really struggled with it. When he left the Marine Corps, he also left my mother for a year. He said, ‘I’m going to change my name and start a new family.’ Fortunately, he got his act together, came back to my mom, and now they’re happier than ever. But it was definitely an identity crisis, and it happens all the time.”

A recent analysis estimates the suicide rate among veterans to be about 30 per 100,000. Post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent in veterans, especially among those who have seen active duty. First responder careers often experience high suicide and PTSD rates, as well. It is not uncommon for veterans of such careers to self-medicate, resulting in drug and alcohol addiction. As someone who had been around the military his entire life, Nutt was all too well aware of these pitfalls plaguing those who had given their lives to public service, and he saw a way he could help. When SDIA was first created in 2010, its sole mission was to dispatch veterans and first responders to areas hard hit by natural disasters like floods, tornadoes and hurricanes in order to help with the clean-up.

“Sitting around, waiting on something bad to happen was, in itself, depressing,” says Nutt. “So we added the outdoor adventure piece. We realized then there were several different dots to connect - it wasn’t just the helping aspect, it was also the camaraderie, the being together and doing something challenging together.” SDIA outdoor adventures include hunting and fishing, skydiving, scuba diving and participating in grueling obstacle course races.

“We had found a reason for all of us to get off the couch,” he says.

Fred Lawley, a friend of Nutt’s and a former sheep dog himself - Lawley served both in the Air Force and in Fayetteville as a firefighter - says the benefits of joining SDIA are huge.

“My life was wasting away,” says Lawley. “I found out about (SDIA) and I started seeing the changes it made in other people’s lives and the changes it made in mine, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life - reach out to these guys who think their lives are over. I want to let them know, ‘You may be injured, but you can still give back to the community and show them that you still have that heart of a sheep dog.’”

Today, SDIA has 23 chapters, teams in 17 states and boasts more than 5,000 members. Growing to this size is not without its challenges, the primary one being funding. The organization is almost entirely run on volunteer man hours, with only two paid positions - and Nutt’s is not one of them. If it’s to grow larger, that has to change.

“We could implode or die on the vine if we can’t find a way to fund ourselves,” he says.

Considering Nutt’s career and all he has accomplished, failure seems unlikely, if not downright impossible. He reached heights not many see in the USMC: He’ll retire as a Sergeant Major, a position that, for enlisted soldiers, has only one rank above it. There are only two such positions in the USMC Reserves, and only 10 in the entire USMC.

“When I walk away, I will walk away knowing that I did everything that I could do,” he says.

Saying goodbye to his life-long career will not be easy, says wife Sarah.

“I know that this is so much a part of who he is, and until he retires we don’t really know how it’s going to feel for him,” she says. “Not matter how much you prepare, you just don’t know exactly how it’s going to hit you.”

In the end, SDIA may end up helping Nutt in his transition in the exact way he envisioned it helping his fellow sheep dogs.

“He sacrificed the majority of his whole life, and instead of kicking back and getting a life in the private sector and enjoying his leisure time, here’s a guy who is going to take the second half of his life and dedicate it to helping more people,” says close friend Josh Duggan.

“(With SDIA), I know I have something that will give me the ability to continue serving my fellow Marines and service members, policemen and firemen,” says Nutt. “It will give me the ability to continue interacting with them. I’ll still be a part of that family.

“I’m at peace with that.”


Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.nwaonline.com

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