Life goes on: Stephen Thompson dedicated to helping veterans move past war
MAY 02, 2014 5:00p ET
Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson may be one of the fastest rising welterweights on the UFC roster, but no matter how many spectacular moves he does inside the Octagon, he knows for a fact there are people out there doing far greater things outside of it.
Growing up with family members and friends in the military, Thompson had a greater understanding of what it meant to serve your country, but over the last few years as the United States has been involved in conflicts overseas and troops are being deployed daily, he's been witness to a threat as great as the latest weaponry used on the battlefield.
Thompson got involved with an organization called A HERO, which reaches out to troops as they come home from military engagements, many of whom are in a very dark place after going through war. In over 13 years while the United States has been in conflicts in areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 6000 troops have lost their lives, but the numbers of the troops coming home and then committing suicide is even more shocking.
Just over 8000 veterans take their own lives each year, and according to statistics from A HERO approximately 88,330 fighting men and women have committed suicide since 2003. So what Thompson teams up with the charity organization to do is bring veterans along on outdoor expeditions while providing mentoring and an outlet for the troops to talk or just get back into the world following deployment.
Recently, Thompson traveled with A HERO and a group of veterans to South Africa to get out into the wild, do some hunting and just give everyone a chance to commune. Thompson admits that the experience definitely serves as a wake up call to understand the mindset of the troops after they come home, and it can't help but affect you to see the kind of pain and anguish they suffer going through war.
"These guys are kids. They are 19, 20, 21 year old kids who are in battle and have been blown up, missing limbs, some of them are quadruple amputees and some of these guys aren't injured physically, but mentally. Going out there and seeing your whole platoon get killed, your friends, it does terrible things to you," Thompson said when speaking to FOX Sports.
"It's one of these things where I get to give back to these guys, who have put their lives on the line to enable me, you and everybody what we're able to do. Our freedom. It's just a way of giving back."
While Thompson was there to lend his support to the troops traveling along for the ride, he couldn't help but be affected by their individual stories. It really put things into perspective for the UFC welterweight, who looks at the veterans from the military as the real heroes living and breathing in our world right now.
"Hanging out with these guys, they are true heroes," Thompson said. "You see the UFC fighters and they are fighting on TV and these kids or teenagers thinking that we are the heroes, but we are not. These guys are the heroes. They're out there doing things and putting their lives on the line for us. Being out there and listening to their stories, sometimes it breaks your heart, but it makes you realize the risks these guys take and they are out there doing it."
Following a long flight from the United States to South Africa, Thompson along with his manager and all the troops involved with the project rode for five hours to the campsite where they set up shop for the next several days. In the beginning, Thompson says the troops were more shut off and separate from the rest of the group, but as time moved on and the comradery grew amongst everybody, he saw an immediate shift in attitude and emotion on everybody's faces.
While he's not trying to play therapist, Thompson believes day after day he saw genuine happiness creep across the faces of all the troops who came along for the expedition. It was an amazing sight to see.
"When I first met some of these guys they kept to themselves, some of them came straight from the hospital after physical therapy, and at first we were there for a week and we were hanging out and they were kind of to themselves. By the end of the trip we shared some stories, and thatâs what we were there for to give them somebody to talk to and experience this, and now I feel like we'll be life long friends. I still talk to these guys today," Thompson said.
"My room buddy that stayed in the tent with me, he lost his left leg, his name was Amon and he told me his whole story and it's crazy what these guys go through at such a young age. But just getting out there, hunting with them, hanging out and seeing them smiling, they realize that their world is not over. Some of these guys feel like 'I can't do this anymore'. We get them out there and get them back in the swing of things."
This isn't Thompson's first activity with the veterans involved with A HERO and after experiencing his latest trip, there's no way it will be his last. Certainly, Thompson soaked in the lush atmosphere and beautiful surroundings in South Africa, but ultimately it was the work he did with the troops that makes him committed to this project in the future.
If A HERO, Thompson and the rest of the supporters can cut into this drastic suicide rate among veterans, then it's a job well done.
"It was wonderful. I'm looking forward to doing it again next year. We want to help these guys get back on their feet," Thompson said. "We want to let them know that their world does not come to an end, life goes on, and they need our help. That's the message I want to get to everybody."