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Lee Benson, Deseret News
VETPAW founder Ryan Tate.

SALT LAKE CITY — Ryan Tate hates bad guys. Absolutely despises them. He especially dislikes it when they prey on the innocent and defenseless.

Two visceral reactions to bad men doing what they do set the course for Ryan’s life.

The first was in 2001 when he was sitting in English class at the beginning of his junior year of high school in Tampa, Florida. Someone opened the door and said Miss Rodriguez should turn on the TV. She did, and Ryan, along with his classmates, watched as the second airplane hit the World Trade Center.

That very week he joined the Marine Corps. A little over a year later he graduated high school three months early and was in boot camp when the rest of his class was cleaning out their lockers.

He deployed to Iraq and was stationed in the city of Ramadi when Ramadi was considered the most dangerous place in the world. He was point man on his infantry unit, meaning when the door got kicked in he was the one kicking it. “Nonstop adrenaline,” Ryan says, remembering those days weeding out the insurgents. “Adrenaline just pumps through your veins day and night. It was brutal, nonstop firefights and explosions and bombs, mortars, everything you can think of. It was the worst time of my life and the best time of my life at the same time.”

In 2008 he came home, satisfied he’d done his part fighting terrorists, and now … well, that was the problem.

“They do a great job of teaching you how to be a Marine,” he muses. “But they don’t do the best job of teaching you how to act like a normal person when you get out.”

He got a job working security for the U.S. State Department in New York City, making sure diplomats were safe going to and from the United Nations, but it was a little like taking an NFL running back and making him a crossing guard.

Then came the second momentous visceral reaction of Ryan’s life.

He was watching TV when a documentary came on about poaching in Africa. He watched in horror as a rhinoceros had the horn hacked off its face.

“These poachers tranquilized this rhino, darted it, put it down, then hacked the face, it takes three hacks to get that horn off. Then that tranq wears off, the whole nasal cavity is exposed, there’s bleeding, flesh everywhere, the rhino drops down on two legs, then one, then falls down and she dies.

“I cried like a baby. It was a straight punch to the stomach. All these emotions of war, these PTSD emotions I’d shoved into a jar and screwed the top on, that rhino unscrewed them. It wasn’t a building getting hit by an airplane but I had a 9/11 moment again.”

The question was what to do about it.

Which led to Ryan’s epiphany.

Why not apply the soldiering skills he’d put to good use going after terrorists and use them to go after the bad guys destroying animals? And better yet, why not recruit other vets with similar skills — and their own transitional issues — to help him?

So that’s what he did.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t without obstacles, but when a Marine puts his mind to something, doors open. Figuring it out as he went, Ryan put together a full-on, bonafide 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization he called VETPAW, an acronym for Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife.

Skeptics saw a fly-by-night operation unlikely to last a season.

That was six years ago.

Some things that look good on paper look even better in real life. This was one of them. What Ryan thought might work did work. In all the ways he hoped.

“VETPAW is such a good transition for veterans getting out of the service,” he says. "It’s therapeutic, it’s healing. You’re not in a war for anything political, but to save a defenseless voiceless animal. That’s powerful. That’s a feel-good mission.”

Not only has that enabled combat-seasoned vets to put their warfighting skills to use in a worthy cause, but they’ve been able to pass on those skills to park rangers at the nature preserves in Africa.

Ryan and his fellow vets teach the rangers about risk assessment, intelligence, battle tactics and how to think like a criminal “so you predict what they’re going to do before they do it.”

After starting out in Tanzania and Kenya, VETPAW (on the web at vetpaw.org) is now concentrated in South Africa, where Ryan is proud to say, “Not a single rhino or elephant has been lost in our preserves since we started.”

Ryan spends over half the year in Africa, the other half conducting training camps, meeting with his board of trustees in New York City, and doing CEO stuff at the apartment he shares with his fianceé, Lauren Buckhammer, near Big Cottonwood Canyon here in Utah.

Lauren is a flight attendant with Delta who is stationed in Salt Lake City; Ryan joined her recently and plans to make Utah his permanent U.S. home.

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“It’s so beautiful,” says Ryan, who has taken up skiing. “We love it; we’re not ever leaving here.”

He’s not getting rich. He and Lauren share a car. His salary last year was $28,000. “I’m not one of the typical nonprofit scumbags who make a million a year,” he says. “You don’t get into this for money; what I get out of it is so much more than any money I could make.

“If we can take down al-Qaida and ISIS we can take down poachers. This is making a difference in the world.”