In March of 2016, a 28-year-old husband and father of two small children went missing from his home in lower central Michigan. The man, a marine, had battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. His wife alerted the police and his friends, fellow marines who began searching the woods and lakes. Three weeks later, a state police helicopter spied the man’s blue and white Ford Bronco amid a stand of trees in the exurbs of Detroit.
Geoffrey Bowen was dead from apparent suicide. The local news gently elided the details. The search for Bowen had unfolded in urgent, heart-rending Facebook updates, and his suicide set off another cascade of posts, RIP’s and Semper Fi’s. This digital scroll of grief played out on the phone of Mark Abbott, a 34-year-old PECO lineman living in Chester County. It was familiar, wrenching and insufficient.
On the day Bowen took his life, likely another 20 veterans across the United States did the same. Abbott, who had served with Bowen in the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, Echo Company, had lost brothers-in-arms to suicide before. “I was sick of the two-week pity party on Facebook,” Abbott tells me. “It comes and then it’s forgotten.”
But this time, just as the social media mourning was drawing to a close, an odd post appeared from something called “The Weekly Fight.”
Not half an hour from Abbott’s home, a bunch of strangers were getting together on a Sunday morning to raise money under Bowen’s name. Not one of them was family to Bowen. Not one them had fought for the 2/6. Even more suspicious to Abbott, somehow Crossfit was involved.
On the morning of, Abbott drove to the gym, Crossfit Inspire in Malvern. He stubbed a cigarette out on the stripmall parking lot, and headed in, hackles fully raised.
Heart pounding, breath labored, sweat pouring. Abbott had prompted those sensations. He had activated his body for the purpose of memorializing Bowen. Around him were others who had fought and who had lost friends. Together, their hearts were pounding.
Martin Kenny, founder of The Weekly Fight, had gotten a tip-off through the grapevine. Abbott’s wife, HaLeigh, had seen him leave and sent out a warning. Kenny had retired from the Marines in 2015 as a Sergeant Major after nearly three decades of raising up soldiers. He can read anger in a body. He knows how to approach a Marine.
“Where’s the money and what you doing with it?” Mark wanted to know.
The money was was for Bowen’s wife. A shipment of diapers, a gas card, whatever she needs, Kenny explained. There wasn’t much yet. It comes through donations and The Weekly Fight was only a few months old. Every week, Kenny explained, he dedicated a workout to a veteran who had lost the battle with PTSD, or to celebrate a veteran who has endured to serve others. The idea was that through the shared, positive pain of an intense workout, they would tighten their bonds to each other and reclaim their bodies as a place for life and strength.
Kenny started The Weekly Fight last January, after the suicide of veteran Tristan Clinger in New Jersey. So far, he’s raised $18,000 for 50 veterans and their families. For the last several months, a rotating group of about 12 to 18 participants have been regularly showing up for the workouts.
The next step is unclear, whether Kenny invited or Abbott offered, but within a few moments, Abbott was in the warehouse-turned-gym, standing beneath the five flags of the U.S. Military and surrounded by a dozen vets and their spouses.
They saw a man, solidly built, bearded, blue-eyed and intense, talking about his friend. His face flickered between hard calm and raw hurt. Abbott needn’t have said that it blew him away that suicide could take someone so strong. He didn’t need to explain the bond he and Bowen shared.
Everyone there understood.
Mark Abbott’s Marine Corps service from 2006 to 2010 put him into near-symbiotic connection with the few dozen men of his platoon: 1,500 or so shared nights of sleep, farts and snores mingling; over 4,000 meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs; countless balls busted, loads humped, ammo passed and backs watched; surviving, sweating, getting drunk, getting bored, taking life, risking life, all together.
And all for a purpose. Moment to moment they had duties. Over days, they had operations, objectives. They had a mission that shaped world history. They went through shit.
Take one evening in 2006 at a base in Fallujah, Iraq, when two men from the 2/6 stepped out to meet a resupply convoy. In a moment, a blinding force slammed Abbott against a wall of his post, while 15 feet closer to what was likely a tripped mine, the two men who had stepped out lost limbs.
The bloody and concussive experiences of war are often unspeakable, literally. The sensations of trauma shut down the brain’s language center, known as the Broca’s area, frustrating “cognitive restructuring.” Trauma refuses to fit. In the short term, while you probe ground where improvised explosive devices hide beneath piles of trash, the trauma is useful. It has recalibrated your body to constant danger, helping you and those around you survive.
However, back home, if the trauma persists, it becomes the seed of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The PTSD sufferer has become a organism reacting to the normal world as an unfolding catastrophe.
In 2010, at the age of 27, Mark Abbott got his discharge papers and returned to Chester County. The 2/6 went on to Marjah, Afghanistan, an opium-rich town by mountains, a river and an expansive, arid basin. Right away, the Taliban killed two of Abbott’s friends.
Abbott, meanwhile, began a life with HaLeigh. They had met years before the Marines at a punk rock show for a band called Heidnik, and had gotten close between his deployments. He left the Corps to marry her and start a family. They worked jobs, moved in together and drove the gentle slope of Pennsylvania hills.
The guilt was crippling.
After four years of subsuming himself to a group, to a cause, and doing so in order to survive, every action now felt pointless and selfish. Even the police academy, which Abbott enrolled in, but ultimately decided against. The end of service had orphaned him, cut those near-symbiotic connections. Combat had re-geared his body. In and around the towns between Lancaster and Philadelphia, stress coiled in his muscles, keying him up to danger that did not exist.
To smother the anxiety, shame and isolation, Abbott came home everyday from working security and drank. When the alcohol wasn’t enough, he’d kick around thoughts of a permanent method. The one that would later claim Bowen.
“How close did you get?” I ask.
“It got pretty dark,” he says. “If it weren’t for HaLeigh, I’d be a statistic.”
There’s no quick fix. HaLeigh got him to counseling and challenged him to sobriety. Abbott carefully followed his VA doctors in trials for medication that would even him out. He found good work handling power lines from a PECO bucket truck. Most importantly, he and HaLeigh had a daughter. In five years of hard work, HaLeigh and Mark built a loving family and peaceful life.
Still, “something was missing,” Abbott says.
In May of last year when Abbott walked into The Weekly Fight, he’d come for answers. He stayed for the workout. “I just dove in,” he says. “Before I knew it they had me in the back flipping tires.”
In the years since his last PT session in Echo Company, Abbott had packed two dozen extra pounds on his frame and worked his way up to a pack and half of smokes a day. “I thought I was going into cardiac arrest!” he says with glee.
Heart pounding, breath labored, sweat pouring: symptoms not unlike those of anxiety attack, but here, now, crawling to the chin-up bar in happy exhaustion, Abbott had prompted those sensations. He had activated his body for the purpose of memorializing Bowen. Around him were others who had fought and who had lost friends. Together, their hearts were pounding.
“It put me in that space where I knew I was not alone,” he says. “The camaraderie was really it. If this was a knitting circle, I’d be one knitting son of a bitch.”
HaLeigh remembers Abbott coming back through the door that Sunday. “He was amped,” she says. “He couldn’t wait to go back.”
Abbott, having seen the other spouses at the Fight, knowing that its mission included support for the vet’s families, wanted HaLeigh in it with him. He mounted a campaign of persuasion. “She’s awesome,” he says. ‘She’s about helping me, but she wasn’t about this.” This being Crossfit. “It’s a little intense.”
“It put me in that space where I knew I was not alone,” Abbott says. “The camaraderie was really it. If this was a knitting circle, I’d be one knitting son of a bitch.”
HaLeigh clarifies: “I was nervous. I didn’t think that I could live up to it.”
Around that time, Sports Authority locations were clearing out, so Abbott strolled the half-empty aisles and filled a shopping cart with workout clothes for HaLeigh. “Now you gotta come,” he told her. On the third week, hearing that the Fight was taking a hike on the Chester Valley Trail, she gave in. There she found a community of her own.
“It’s hard to find veteran’s wives,” HaLeigh says. “And to find ones who have been through the same experiences … That’s a big part of what keeps me coming back.”
And for the record, on the day I went out and took part in the Weekly Fight, HaLeigh was killing it. The “Workout of the Day” had 200-meter sprints with a 20-pound medicine ball, weighted lunges and burpees with leaps. I was doubled over with hot stitches. She looked hardly winded.
It’s likely because Abbotts do the Fight more than once a week. As the weather warms, they call their Fight friends, veterans and loved ones, and haul the jump ropes, kettlebells and more out onto the driveway.
The Abbotts will set a timer, and start.Header Photo: Haleigh Abbott works out at The Weekly Fight