A retired marine who survived a deadly helicopter crash in Afghanistan was at JBER on Tuesday to meet soldiers who helped rescue him face-to-face.

Retired Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Ryan Leighton says speaking to the Alaska Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron was about showing gratitude for their efforts and appreciation for his own life.

“I just felt my whole pelvis snap as I buckled over the gun mount, and then I hit the mountain and then the aircraft hit me,” Leighton recalled.

After the 2012 crash, Leighton spent three weeks in a military medical center, but that was just the beginning of his recovery.

He blamed himself for the two lives that were lost in the accident and has spent the past several years working through PTSD, depression, excessive drinking and suicidal tendencies.

Today, his story has transformed into one of personal triumph and overcoming a tragedy that challenged him mentally and physically.

“I didn't want to be this broke and decrepit guy that was the stigma, that was this dysfunctional veteran that couldn't handle things,” Leighton said.  “I wanted to be that poster boy. When you don't think you can meet that standard, you start looking for alternative motives, but you just have to start somewhere.”

After Leighton spoke to the squadron, he was able to spend time with members on base.

He says for him, a big part of managing suicidal thoughts is wanting to honor those who risked their lives to save his own.

“You want to go up and hug them and let them know that you think about them every day,” Leighton said.

Suicide is a major concern among veterans and active duty military members. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, each day there are around 20 veterans who commit suicide.

Leighton says another reason he shares his story is to encourage others to get the help they need.

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