From Air Force Veteran to the Middle of the Atlantic

Veteran Chad Miller smiling for a photo with his service dog at Bryant & Stratton College

At Bryant & Stratton College, we take immense pride in our students and their extraordinary journeys. Today, we shine the spotlight on Chad Miller, a United States Air Force veteran who has embarked on an incredible mission to raise awareness for veterans’ mental health and suicide prevention. Chad’s story is one of resilience, dedication, and unwavering commitment to making a difference.

A Military Journey of Camaraderie

Chad Miller served in the United States Air Force, where he specialized in security. He had deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the challenges and sacrifices that come with military service. His camaraderie with fellow service members forged bonds that would become instrumental in his future endeavors. When Chad got out of active duty in October of 2012, he said he was done completely. The transition back into civilian life and his appreciation for his military camaraderie had him back in the Reserves by November.

It was during his time in the Air Force that Chad met the individuals who would become his rowing teammates: Nick Rahn, Tommy Hester, and Will Janssen. These four veterans, all United States Air Force members, served together in Iraq in 2008 and developed a strong friendship that extended beyond their military service. Chad and his teammates decided to take on a unique challenge that would not only test their physical limits but also raise awareness for a cause close to their hearts.

When Chad first proposed his plans to his wife Cynthia, she “thought he was nuts,” but the couple’s strong bond has always included supporting each other’s goals and aspirations. Chad transferred his GI Bill educational benefits to Cynthia, also an Air Force veteran, so she could complete her master’s degree in psychiatric mental health and open her own practice. Their children, Blake, Hannah, and Madison, were seven, four, and two respectively when Chad decided to take on his next challenge.

The “Fight OAR Die” Team and Taking on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge

In 2020, Chad learned about the “Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge,” a grueling 3,000 nautical mile, 43-team, rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean. The “Fight OAR Die” team decided to enter this event and dedicated their efforts to raising funds and awareness for veterans’ mental health and suicide prevention, a cause that deeply resonated with Chad and his teammates.

Their journey began with a vision to make a difference in the lives of veterans who have struggled with mental health issues. Little did they know that this adventure would take them to the brink of human endurance and resilience. They aimed to become the first veteran team to row across the Atlantic Ocean in this challenging race.

A Battle Against the Elements

Setting sail from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on December 12, 2022, Chad and his team faced the unpredictable forces of nature in their 3,000 nautical mile rowing quest. However, they were determined to push through and achieve their goal. Their journey was marked by the vastness of the ocean, the beauty of starlit nights, and the awe-inspiring marine life they encountered along the way.

But their path was far from smooth. The team encountered brutal storms, 50-foot waves, and sleep deprivation. They rowed tirelessly, with each member taking two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. Their boat capsized, leaving them stranded in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 867 miles into their journey.

For 18 harrowing hours, Chad and his teammates clung to a life raft that had been punctured by a knife during their escape, battling the elements and uncertainty. The darkness of the open sea surrounded them, testing their resilience and mental strength.

The Heroes of the Rescue

Their distress signal reached the crew of the “Hanze Gotenburg,” a Dutch freighter, which embarked on a perilous mission to rescue the stranded veterans. The 19-member crew of the 700-foot freighter showed immense courage and skill in successfully rescuing Chad and his teammates from the unforgiving sea, suspending a rope ladder down 45 feet to the life-raft bobbing in the stormy waters below for each rower to climb to safety. The ship’s skipper was a 35-year-old Ukrainian, first-time captain, and the remaining crew were Filipino and Croatian. The extraordinary rescue was a testament to human bravery. The crew has since been recognized with the Maritime Achievement Award from the Philippines for their efforts in the rescue.

Documenting an Unforgettable Journey

What started as an epic adventure has now become an incredible documentary. Scott Bieler, the owner of West Herr Auto Group, New York State’s largest automotive group, funded the $80,000 entry fee for the Fight OAR Die — Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, and subsequently also funded the production of a documentary film that chronicles their journey and remarkable rescue, serving as a source of inspiration for many. The tally for funds raised was over $120,000.

The documentary captures the essence of the team’s camaraderie, strength of human spirit, and their unwavering dedication to a vital cause. It is a testament to the power of veterans supporting veterans and the impact that such initiatives can have on individuals and communities. Production is expected to wrap next spring with a planned early-summer red-carpet premiere.

Support Along the Way

Chad and his team received invaluable support throughout their journey. Hilary Epes-Oballim, Head Coach of the Buffalo River Rowing Club, provided pro bono training, preparing them for the rigors of the Atlantic row. Her dedication and expertise were crucial in their preparation.

Another pillar of support was Haji Shareef, the founder of Musketeer Canine LLC and PTSDogs 4 VET's. Haji trained Chad and Cynthia’s service dogs, Gunner and Remi. Haji’s program also raises, trains, and provides service dogs for donation to veterans suffering from PTSD. These individuals and organizations played a pivotal role in helping Chad and his team overcome the challenges they faced during their remarkable journey.

Extending Another Branch of Support

Chad, Tommy, and Will recently launched a non-profit recreational therapy program for veterans to provide the type of collegial camaraderie and therapeutic excursions that were part of the impetus for their involvement in the Atlantic Row and an integral part of their preparation and training before they set out to sea. Heroic Expeditions, Inc. will offer therapeutic excursions in the form of skydiving, scuba diving, rowing, hiking, and mountain climbing to allow active-duty and veteran military to participate in challenges with like-minded individuals who have firsthand knowledge of the impact of service on mental health.

Bryant & Stratton College: A Catalyst for Success

Chad Miller’s decision to pursue a degree in Medical Billing and Coding at Bryant & Stratton College was driven by his determination to support his wife, Cynthia, in opening her mental health practice, Strong Minds, LLC. Strong Minds, located in Williamsville, NY, was born of Cynthia’s desire to support the veteran community in addressing and improving their mental health.

The Medical Billing and Coding program is a two-year associate degree program. However, Bryant & Stratton allowed Chad to transfer credits from his previous education, so he will complete the program sooner and is anticipated to be graduating early, in May 2024.

Bryant & Stratton's practical, hands-on learning approach allowed Chad to immediately apply his skills in overseeing the practice’s medical coding and billing, as well as conducting oversight of the practice’s certification processes and seeing to it that, after a year of providing pro bono treatment to veterans, care within the practice was ultimately covered by TRICARE, the uniformed services health care program for military service members, veterans, and their families.

Bryant & Stratton College values its veteran students and provides accommodations to support them in their educational journey. Chad’s service dog, Gunner, has been an integral part of his educational experience and is allowed to join him in class.

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