Outdoor Driven, based in Bay County, combats PTSD by channeling the healing power of nature

After 13 years serving our nation in the U.S. Marine Corps, Andrew Comtois found himself in a challenging place as he tried to return to society and build a family. Fortunately, his experiences led him to consider the struggles faced by other veterans and first responders and to create a nonprofit targeted at supporting them.

Comtois entered the Marines after graduating from John Glenn High School in 2005. During his years of service, he saw seven deployments: three tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, and two on Navy ships. Though he started as a machine gunner, eventually he became a Marine Scout Sniper and rose to an E-5 ranking as a Sergeant.

Marine veteran Andrew Comtois turned his personal struggles and successes into a nonprofit, Outdoor Driven, designed to help other veterans and first responders.Despite having a strong portfolio of awards, combat experience, and training in 16 different schools, Comtois’s career was cut short of his goal.

“I wanted to make a full career, but I had a thing called service limitations. After 13 years, if you don’t pick up E-6, you are honorably forced out of the Marine Corps. The reason I didn’t pick up E-6 is because the Marine Corps wants you to go outside of your job … be a drill instructor, a recruiter, or to teach Marines,” Comtois explains. “I was constantly deploying, which ultimately ruined my career. There were hundreds of us with tons of experience who didn’t pick up E-6, Staff Sergeant, that were forced out.”

Comtois then found himself back in Bay City, trying to get a job to provide for himself and his wife, Kayla, while also trying to build a family. The couple painfully experienced seven miscarriages before ultimately getting pregnant with their rainbow baby who is now 2 years old.

“So, here I am, forced out of the Marine Corps, I can’t start a family, I am struggling to find a decent job, and I was going down a very dark road. I was drinking alcohol a lot. I no longer had my shield. When I got out of the Marine Corps, I lost my shield, and that’s what had been keeping me sane. Everything unraveled. My PTSD was at its peak.”

After years away from the hobby, Comtois decided to go out hunting one day. During this sit in the woods, he had a revelation, of sorts. A doe walked by and he silently observed, letting the world and its stresses go quiet.

“I truly felt at peace for the first time in years,” Comtois says. “That’s when my life turned around. I realized that I was going down a dead-end road, and at the end of the road it was bad. I started caring more about my mental health, my physical health, and trying to get my family back in order.”

Comtois was introduced to a nonprofit based in Ohio, Ultimate Veteran Adventures (UVA), and he went on a hunting trip with them. The experience was so meaningful that he decided to get involved and eventually became a Michigan representative for the group, as well as a board member.

One day Comtois was talking about UVA to a fellow combat veteran, Trent Gonyaw, owner of Tri-City Tactical, when Gonyaw posed the question, “Why don’t you start your own? If you get the right people involved and you focus on this community, it will work.”

A saint medal is taped around these dog tags.After some consideration, Comtois decided it was time to create his own nonprofit that would assist veterans and first responders locally, and eventually throughout the state of Michigan. Outdoor Driven Inc. will focus on giving these individuals experiences in the great outdoors, and fortunately Michigan’s natural resources have a lot to offer.

“These trips are designed to give them an escape from their everyday struggles. I want to take them into the outdoors and provide them with the same sense of peace I got,” Comtois says.

Currently Comtois is awaiting his 501c3 status approval, but he is hard at work planning and fundraising. Outdoor Driven will provide hunting and fishing experiences for certain, though Comtois is entertaining any ideas that can give people an escape or skill in the outdoors, including horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, blacksmithing, trigger therapy, riding side-by-sides, and even barbecuing and smoking meats.

Comtois hopes that spending time in the outdoors, such as aboard this duck boat, will help veterans connect with each other and experience peace.In order to make these things happen, securing funding is a critical piece of the equation. Comtois intends to hold sponsorship events and apply for grants, but he will also rely on donations from individuals and corporations to make Outdoor Driven successful.

“Every penny that comes in will support this community, and eventually other Michigan residents,” Comtois says. “We are a brand new nonprofit, and I am trying to get us started, and how we do that is through finances and donations. Every dollar we raise will help a veteran and first responder.”

Monetary donations are accepted through the website but are not the only type Comtois is seeking. Securing property to hunt on, boats to fish in, and proper equipment are all part of preparing to offer events as well.

This piece of metal came from a rocket during one of his two tours in Afghanistan.“A farmer may want someone to come on their land to kill a bunch of does. They may have crop damage permits and need 20 to 30 deer killed. I can take veterans and first responders to go out for their first deer,” Comtois says.

In addition, Comtois is seeking people to take groups out on boats or to donate kill tags, firearms, and equipment.

“It costs participants nothing. We will pay for tags, food, lodging … I want to get to the point where financially they don’t have to worry about stuff. Why not lessen that burden? That is a big intimidation factor for a lot of individuals who want to get involved in the outdoors. It can be very expensive.”

Though Comtois wants to set up every veteran and first responder for success, the reality is eing in nature and building connections are the real goals behind the trips.

“These trips aren’t just about killing an animal. That’s a big bonus, but it’s about getting them away from their everyday stresses and letting them forget about the real world. We can give them camaraderie,” Comtois says.

Comtois served seven deployments, including three tours in Iraq. He brought this piece of a mortar round home from Iraq.This piece is extremely important to Comtois. Not only did Comtois and many of his comrades deal with PTSD, but his wife’s cousin ultimately took his own life after returning home from deployment, a fact that visibly still affects Comtois to this day.

“When I came home, they told me I needed to talk to him. He loved hunting and fishing. But I didn’t act fast enough; three weeks later he took his own life. If something like this existed then, maybe he would still be alive. That is what drives and motivates me. I want to be that escape for these veterans and first responders.”

Comtois has surrounded himself with a Board of Directors that also support the mission of Outdoor Driven, with Gonyaw serving as president and Tim Sodini, Jodi Wolff, Paul Gaiser, and Thomas Peters rounding out the team.

Once insurance is secured, Comtois is ready to hit the ground running, possibly taking out his first group for a walleye fishing trip in his duck boat within the next few weeks. Once trips become available, they will be posted on the nonprofit’s Facebook page and website. Comtois is relying on the community to help get the word out and to put him in contact with veterans and active-duty first responders who may need an outdoor escape.

Comtois can be reached by email and is eager to get community support behind the people who protect and serve us all.

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