Marine Veteran Finds Community and Purpose Through Mountain Biking

By OSD Communications Specialist Bailey Patton Brackin

The Dirt Therapy Project (TDTP) was born on the trails of San Antonio. It was an idea that came to Jonathan Hagerman as he reflected on his transition from the Marines. He was searching for a positive outlet for stress and wanted to rebuild the community he lost when leaving the military, TDTP was the answer.

From a young age, Jonathan knew he wanted to join the military. After all, military service is in his blood. Both of his grandfathers served and his father and stepmother were in the Air Force during the Gulf War. He was young when 9/11 happened, but says that day “solidified his choice” to join. He actually tried to join the Marines early at 17 but needed both of his parent’s permission to do so. He was forced to wait, eventually enlisting at age 21 out of Salt Lake City, Utah.

He went to boot camp at MCRD in San Diego, then to North Carolina for school, and was finally sent to a non-deployable unit in Miramar. Jonathan explained, “I was kinda bummed out. You don’t join the Marines not to deploy.”

So when his unit started asking for volunteers for an upcoming deployment, he jumped at the opportunity. He ended up attached to the now infamous 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment, known as Darkhorse. As many might recall,  3/5 suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the past 10 years of war. They lost 25 Marines in just over 3 months. Jonathan says, “It was intense. 3/5 was all over the news. After every death, they would shut down outbound communication for a time. I couldn’t even get a hold of my wife to let her know I was ok.”

Jonathan returned home from Afghanistan in the Spring of 2011. At his wife’s encouragement, he began attending night school on base and eventually earned an associates degree. He was the first in his family to get a college education. The intensity of that deployment with the 3/5 and his pursuit of education eventually influenced his decision to leave the Marines. He explains, “I began to realize just how important education was.” In May of 2013, he left the Marines to pursue his undergrad full time in San Antonio, Texas.

Like most veterans, Jonathan found the transition from military service to civilian life difficult. He explained, “I felt like I was doing it alone. For a few years, it was just me working through my deployment experiences, my service in the Marine Corps, and trying to figure out what it’s like to be back in the civilian world.” It wasn’t until he finished his undergrad, got a job in corporate America, and was knee deep in graduate school that he realized he didn’t have an outlet to manage his stress in a healthy way.  

It was that need for an outlet that would eventually lead to the creation of TDTP. TDTP was born on the trails of San Antonio after 3-4 months of Jonathan reacquainting himself with biking. After that, he started to invite anyone and everyone to come out riding with him. One of those people was a co-worker, running buddy, and a retired Marine Corps Lt Colonel. Jonathan started bouncing ideas off of him, discussing the military transition, and how to better support veterans. As he says, “The rest was history.” About 6 months after buying his bike on Craigslist, the idea for TDPT was born.

Jonathan quickly fell in love mountain biking. He recalls, “It did wonders for me. It provided the physical adrenaline rush a Marine requires and the physical activity that a veteran craves. When I first got on the bike it took a lot of concentration because I hadn’t ridden in so long. My mind didn’t have time to wander because it had to make sure I wasn’t about to eat it. It was a great outlet for stress.”

TDTP exists to help Veterans manage life stressors – whether that is related to PTSD, military transition, school, work, or other life events – through mountain biking. They introduce veterans to mountain biking in hopes of providing an alternative method of stress management/mitigation and provide all the equipment needed to do so.

It is a multi-pronged approach. Mountain biking provides a healthy outlet to manage stress while still providing the physical intensity and rush veterans often crave. It also provides a sense of community that is lost after leaving the military. Jonathan explains, “After I left the Marines, I felt like I was floating through life. TDTP provides veterans the opportunity to hang out with like-minded people and helps give a sense belonging to a community again.”

On average, TDTP hosts a ride a week, if not more. Veterans that want to join those rides just need workout clothes. TDTP provides the rest – bikes, helmets, and safety equipment. Jonathan says, “I didn’t want cost to be a barrier for veterans. If you have never been biking before, you can show up get an introduction and use our equipment. No cost.”

Most of the weekly rides are local, but in March TDTP hosted their first multi-day event. They spent four days traveling to Big Bend National Park. They stayed at a big group site and enjoyed biking, hiking, camping, and even swam in the Rio Grande. Jonathan said, “It was absolutely awesome. We are looking forward to gearing up and offering a number of these types of events. Ideally 3-4 times a year.”

With a passion for serving veterans in a relevant and relatable way, TDTP seemed like a natural partner for OSD. Jonathan was introduced to OSD CEO and Executive Director, Glenn Banton, from a mutual connection on LinkedIn. The two hit it off and found the mission of TDTP and OSD to align perfectly. TDTP is now a Regional OSD Strategic Partner for Mountain Biking and will work with OSD San Antonio to host TDTP rides for OSD Chapters. Jonathan is also being trained to join the chapter as an Activity Leader

Glenn Banton said, “We are excited about this partnership with Jonathan and TDTP. Like OSD, they believe in serving veterans and the military community through relevant and engaging programs. It is a great match.”