Fellowship Leads Veteran Out of the Desert and Onto the Mountain Top

David Daly

A U.S. Marine reflects on how the Clay Hunt Fellows Program changed—and maybe even saved—his life.

In December of 2018, I found myself in the middle of a desert, strategizing my own end. I’d served a decade in the Marine Corps and, after many war tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD had taken its toll. As my wife, Daphne, put it, we were in “PTSD hell.” If not for her actions that December—if she had not reached out and gotten me help—I would not be here today. 

I had joined the Marine Corps in 2001, right after graduating from the Naval Academy and just months before the attacks of 9/11. Over the course of my career, I’d spend four tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan before returning to civilian life. The journey from active duty to civilian has been a difficult one, where many times, I felt depression was the only companion at my side. Each day, both the good and the bad, has taught me new lessons to help challenge and strengthen my resolve to push forward.

For many of us, it is instilled in our minds at an early age not to be “weak” or show any sign that things are difficult. As a Marine, that message was reinforced: Don’t show a sign that things are difficult. The unit is more important than the individual. As a former Marine Corps officer, I feared failing my Marines more than death.

While this way of thinking might have a purpose on the battlefield, it tends not to work out so well in the real world. We think so much of others that we often neglect our own needs. We don’t realize that taking care of ourselves makes us better for everyone else we want to help.

I discovered and joined Team Rubicon in 2019, about a year after Daphne pulled me out of that desert. It would be another two years before I discovered the Clay Hunt Fellows Program. Daphne and I started a magazine in 2021 and, in our first issue, we told Clay’s story. It was then, while interviewing Michael Davidson and learning about Clay’s story, that I began to feel the commonalities in our journeys. There were the Marine Corps backgrounds; the parallel war tours in Iraq and Afghanistan; the challenges with PTSD. Clay had devastatingly taken his own life. I’d barely been stopped from taking my own. 

David Daly and other Clay Hunt Fellows during Base Camp 8.

As I talked to Davidson for the story and learned about the Clay Hunt Fellows Program, I began to feel as if it was exactly what I needed. And so, in 2021, I applied for the CHFP and was accepted into Base Camp 8

After my fateful day in the desert, I had worked through many programs to help deal with PTSD. Most were through the VA or the Wounded Warrior Project. While they helped a great deal, they were unlike the CHFP in one significant way: I never felt like it was alright to work on myself. It was always just about beating PTSD.

When I heard about the Clay Hunt Fellows Program, it was surprising to me that the focus was on you. In the CHFP, the focus was on me, the individual. Me, the veteran. I loved the analogy of climbing up the mountain—the fellowship cohorts are called base camps, like those you’d find at Mount Everest. As Fellows, you get strong at base camps and then you scale the mountain. It was at my base camp that, for the first time in my life, I felt it was alright—even best—to take time to figure out who I was, what my strengths were, and how I could apply them to the mountain I wanted to climb.

That experience as a Clay Hunt Fellow was unlike any other. I joined a group of people who were very different in many ways, yet we were held together by a common desire to serve. Along the way, I learned who I was more than I ever had before. I was given tools to apply my strengths to challenges that I think I would have never faced—including having the courage to self-analyze and learn how to grow from that analysis—prior to the CHFP.

The CHFP is a beautiful opportunity to take time to become a better you, unapologetically. I credit this experience with allowing me the time to discover my true purpose: to dedicate my life to actions that reflect a net positive; to leave this world knowing that my presence made the world a better place. 

I’m ready now to take on that mountain and help others along the way.

If you feel like something keeps you from climbing your mountain, this program is for you. You are worth it. You deserve it. Join me, and the 200-plus alumni of this program, to become the best you that you are meant to be. I hope to see you on the mountain.

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