Inside the Stronghold Transition Program

Gravel crunched under boots on a cool, misty morning. Clean mountain air is breathed in and out. A group of special operations veterans and former NFL players, and physicians rucked up a ridgeline near Sunnyside, Utah, on a mission. 

Everyone experienced a range of emotions as they approached the massive American flag perched at the top of the ridgeline, slowly waving in the wind. At the center of the group stood a veteran of the New York City Fire Department, retired FDNY Lieutenant Harry McMaster.

He had responded from home over two decades ago to Ground Zero. He arrived right after the second tower fell and spent the following 18 hours searching for survivors. McMaster said it’s difficult to talk about the details of that fateful day while speaking to everyone at the top.

“I was an instructor at the fire academy and taught like 660 people,” McMaster said. “I know probably a hundred or so people out of the 343 that died that day. […] It’s just a really tough day for me.”

McMaster usually spends the day away from the public on the anniversary of the attacks. But over two decades after that fateful day, McMaster joined the Best Defense Foundation for Stronghold Transition Program 003. He was invited by his friend Alex Buggy, a former Navy SEAL and one of the masterminds behind the Program. 

Buggy had recently returned home to New York City following an Iraq deployment when the two met in 2015 when the two met while Buggy and other veterans toured McMaster’s firehouse. What do an FDNY firefighter and a Navy SEAL have in common? Mutual ground to stand on.

I was able to meet Harry [McMaster], and it really resonates — hits home — when you meet a guy who was there on 9/11,” Buggy said. “On that day, and the morning after, he lost brothers, and there is a connectivity there.”

It was a full-circle moment for everyone gathered around the flag pole that morning. Thousands of people joined the US military after seeing people like McMaster fearlessly take on the horrors of 9/11. McMaster said he has a lot of respect for the veterans standing around him because, “If it wasn’t for guys like you, I might not be standing here today.” The respect is mutual, though.

The Program is designed to introduce transitioning special operations soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to a network of resources to help them as they transition out of active duty and back into the civilian sector. Veterans, physicians, and former NFL players come together are all like-minded in their tenacious approach to work and life. 

In 2019, Donnie Edwards and Buggy put their heads together to come up with the concept of the Program. Edwards, the founder of the Foundation, brings his network of NFL players and specialty physicians together with SOF veterans or active duty personnel transitioning out of the military. Those attending can range from people clearing the military to those who have left the military in weeks, months, or years. 

The goal is to bring together people at varying stages of transition so they can discuss current issues and offer experience-driven discussions in a retreat-based setting. The same goes for the NFL players. Everyone can learn from each other and grow together. Some may wonder what a group like this has in common for them to learn from each other. 

The most tangible quality in this group is their drive as high performers, just from varying careers. Their communities face similar problems like high divorce rates, career-ending injuries, and the perceived loss of purpose following retirement. The Program brings together elements of fun, camaraderie, and healing to give people a break from the daily grind while building from each others’ experiences. 

During the Program, each day starts with a morning ruck, varying in length, elevation gain, and terrain. It’s more of a hike than what most guys will picture when reading the word “ruck.” It’s meant to get everyone into the outdoors for fresh air and get warmed up for the day. But those hikes do a lot more than just warm everyone up. 

Duane “Flo” Flores, a former Green Beret assigned to 7th Special Forces Group, attended the Program for the first time. He said the morning rucks, skeet shooting, three gun stages, and the tribe environment that exists in the Program had re-lit his internal fire to get after life again like he did while in the military. 

“So getting back out here with like minded folks, with fellow guys like us. It’s made me put the excuses back away and just get out and go for a walk, man. Do something good, bust your lungs, stretch the muscles, you know, get the mind rolling again,” Flores said. “Up here in this high country like this reminds you of being out in the box, man. The smells, the sights, the camaraderie. I mean, fuck, mind, body, spirit, all that shit is just super refreshing. “

Everyone is housed at the Atlantis Lodge, which had its grand opening the day before the Program started. It’s a massive log cabin made of hand-hewn logs that came right off the mountainside. Everyone at the lodge has endless views of the desert, canyons, and beautiful mountain landscapes of Utah, thanks to the lodge’s location at about 10,000 feet of elevation.

The lodge is located at Bruins Point, about 3,000 feet below the tallest summit in Utah. The lodge is run by a dedicated staff that handles a lot of the logistics for the Program as far as arranging transport to and from the airport, meals throughout the Program, and much more. Following the morning ruck, the lodge chefs serve five-star meals. 

After breakfast, the group gathers for a discussion tailored by the physicians on a variety of topics, including alternative therapies, a holistic approach to health, and suicide prevention. Each topic is covered by one of the three physicians in the Program, and it’s important to know that they are optional. 

Death by PowerPoint and the traditional classroom setting is not how these discussions go. The physician presents a bit of information, and then the room discusses it. Some in the group shared deeply personal stories, while others stoked the conversation with thought-provoking questions. 

Dr. Kate Pate is a military medical researcher, and she discussed alternative therapies and unpacked head injuries and workarounds. Dr. Bronner Handwerger is a naturopathic physician who prescribes holistic treatments to address the issue instead of band-aid solutions. Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti is the Vice President of NFL Wellness and Clinical Services and discussed suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, how to prevent them, and how to intervene.

That is a gross understatement of the wealth of knowledge all three of the physicians bring to the group. They volunteered to partake in the Program to provide a wealth of knowledge to everyone in attendance. But, the physicians also share in the healing process during the Program. 

“As somebody who likes to look at things holistically, I started realizing that nobody’s broken, that nobody is broken. But we are all suffering and struggling with issues that may have nothing to do with military service or playing in the NFL,” Dr. Handwerger said. “Many of us are struggling with our own internal drives, our histories, our past traumas, that may have nothing to do with what the job was.”

Dr. Pate felt like she was able to walk away with more tools and more in-depth knowledge on a variety of topics like endocrinology and suicide prevention. But there was something that the twinkle in her eyes verified what she was saying and thinking. 

“The other side of that is also the connections, relationships, and the friendships,” Dr. Pate said. “The bonding that we were able to experience this week, I mean, I feel like I’m walking away with, like, a new family in some way.”

Anyone who attends the Program walks away feeling better, having gained more tools, career advice, in-depth knowledge, and strong bonds. For those who served in any special operations unit under the umbrella of the Department of Defense, ‘quiet professional’ is beaten into their heads. 

Kurt Gamache, a former Marine and Navy SEAL who served within Naval Special Warfare’s elite Development Group, feels differently because he almost withdrew from attending the Program. The only person he knew who was going to attend couldn’t make it. 

“I was borderline about to pull myself off the train just because of that alone. But, I figured I’d stick it out,” Gamache said. “I wanted to see what it was about. One, to help myself, and two, to see if it could be a resource that I could use to promote to somebody else who needed help.”

Gamache said he was most excited about the alternative therapy discussion because it’s something he’s considered but never did out of concern over what the results of the therapy might do. But what was meant to be a one hour discussion turned into a three hour discussion because so many of the veterans resonated with what was discussed. 

Gamache said it seems like a positive tool that can help guys with mental health and other items they may struggle with. But what caught Gamache off guard was how fast the group clicked. 

“What was unexpected out of this was just the instant camaraderie between all the different guys here. There’s no trying to see who was the bigger dog — everybody was here for a sole purpose. And we just wanted to come together, share each other’s stories, and figure out a solution for helping each other out. Find common ground.” 

As much as the veterans who attend benefit from the Program, they enhance it via the tools and life experience that is beneficial for the whole group.

Justin “Hoagie” Hoagland is a former Naval Special Warfare Operator, better known as a Navy SEAL, who shared his own story about suicide and talked about his job as the ​​Manager of Mental Health Services at the SEAL Future Foundation

Flores brought his wealth of knowledge on the SOCOM Care Coalition to the group. Though Flores and Hoagland were there in attendance, true to their nature, they wanted to share their knowledge to better equip guys in the process of transitioning out of the military. 

Everyone coming together and sharing their knowledge and tools allows for everyone who attends to become a force multiplier in their community. From the NFL players to the veterans to the physicians, the tools people walked away with a better ‘compass’ that will lead them towards their goals, help them heal from any prior traumas, and overall help veterans transition from the military to the civilian world in a way that they land on their feet, not on their face. 

The Program finished its third rotation, and historically, there is only one per year. But, thanks to the State of Utah, Sig Sauer, and Born Primitive, the Foundation plans to host at least four Programs annually starting in 2024.