The former Navy rescue swimmer’s battle with PTSD nearly ended in suicide. Blessed with a second chance, Taylor Grieger is using his struggle to illuminate the dark truths facing America’s veterans. He and filmmaker friend Stephen O’Shea sailed a small boat from Pensacola, FL around Cape Horn to raise awareness for veteran suicide, a journey that is the focus of the new documentary, Hell or High Seas, which we wrote about HERE.
INTERVIEW BY MATT TUTHILL
RI: Your ship was so small and ill-equipped for the task at hand. Were you at a point where you felt, “If I die, this is a good way for it to happen”? Because I couldn’t help but think that there might have been part of you that maybe wanted that at that point in your life.
TG: I don’t know… I didn’t really care how I died, man. At that point in my life, I had already tried to kill myself. So I didn’t really, in all honesty… I didn’t really give a shit how I left this planet at that point. Out there, I mean, I definitely didn’t want to die, right? Especially because I had Stephen and John on the boat. That was pretty stressful for me. I was constantly making sure the boat was fine so those guys didn’t die.
RI: What was so compelling about this particular journey for you? Because again, it was just so dangerous. And you guys got pretty lucky considering the hurricane, the pirates, and all the complications you experienced.
TG: We definitely got lucky. There’s a lot of times where we should not have made it out of it. I didn’t want any of my buddies feeling like I did, honestly. That’s what kept me going. I didn’t have anything else left to lose. But to make sure that nobody else getting out after me felt like I did. And I thought the only way we’d get their attention was doing something that dangerous, sailing around Cape Horn.
RI: Had this always been an idea in your head as something you wanted to do?
TG: Yeah. Sailing and being in the Navy, you always hear old sea stories about people going around The Horn and the kind of seas they faced, and how rare it is for people to actually do it and live. So that was always in the back of my mind. When we tried to think of something that would grab people’s attention, that was a no-brainer. Cape Horn’s notorious on the waters. If you have anything to do with the water or work on the water at all, you know about it. I knew about it for a while and I had no desire to go down there, man. When I got out I wanted to sail the trade winds around the islands and stuff and sail over to Australia again because it’s just beautiful. That’s what I wanted to do.
RI: What made you think The Old Lady might be able to make it? I’m assuming that even the horror stories you hear about Cape Horn, people are probably in bigger boats than that.
TG: Yeah. They’re in container ships. The Old Lady, I knew if we were going to be in those big seas, we’d need something with a pretty wide beam, a tank. We’d have to sacrifice some speed for stability. So she was really slow, man. We would travel about four knots, three knots, which isn’t what you want when you’re trying to outrun a storm. You want a boat that can go about seven or eight knots.
So that’s what narrowed down the search for the kind of boat she was. Just a real beamy, thick, heavy tank on the seas. And when I found her, she was not in great shape. So, I brought her back to Pensacola where I was living at the time. Pretty much rebuilt her from the ground up. The only thing left was the shell, her hull, that’s original. Everything else we had to replace.
RI: During the film you talk about the veteran suicide rate and what we’re doing about it and you ask, “Well, what if we did something to make sure it didn’t get to that point? What if we had a more comprehensive out boarding process from the military?” How do you feel about the prospects of that, realistically? Humans generally are bad at taking preventative measures. Add in military and government bureaucracies and it seems like a very steep hill to climb.
TG: That’s true. Throughout the whole expedition and then about a year and a half when I got back, I was pretty jaded towards it all. We felt like we’d tried everything. Speaking to our representatives, emailing senators, our governor, anybody that we could get a hold of. We got laughed at a lot—how ridiculous that concept would be. But since we’ve started screening the film, there’s these pockets of people that show up that actually give a shit and want to help in their community. People come. You can tell how interested people are by the questions they ask and if they get it.
We wanted it to be a call of action. Not like a, “Oh, feel sorry for us,” kind of thing. But, “This is what we can do and this is what we can start working on.” So when we go do these screenings, those people show up. And it gives me goosebumps talking about it. The questions they ask are, “How do we implement these programs in our community? How do we get these programs here to help my son that comes home, or my nephew that comes home, or my niece that comes home and she’s having a hard time or he’s having a hard time? Where do I send them? What can I tell them and how can they get the help they need?” So that’s amazing. It’s honestly re-lit a fire in me.
I’m still definitely jaded towards the government pulling any strings and making stuff happen, but communities are going to start building these programs on their own with or without the government.
RI: And then you run into the British sailors doing the adventure therapy. What are the chances that you run into those guys doing exactly what you ought to have been doing when you left the military?
TG: I mean, of all the entire world, for two boats to meet in the middle of the Panama Canal—the odds of that happening are just insane. I won’t ever be able to describe that. And them doing the same mission we are—actually running it successfully—was incredible. It gives you hope. These programs already exist inside of militaries around the world. It’s just our military and our country hasn’t caught up yet. So that in itself is motivating. Because it’s pretty easy to say when somebody asks you, “Does this work?” and you can say, “Yeah.” Israeli Defense Force has been doing it for years, UK military has been doing it for years. We haven’t even started.
RI: There was that moment late in the film when you leave port without Stephen and John. Explain what was going through your mind when you decided to do that.
TG: Winter was coming in hard by that time, and we could have left the boat or sold it in Valparaíso for winter time. And that decision to come back North… I reached out to this guy, he pretty much invented and created expedition sailing down in Patagonia. His names Skip Novak. So, legendary sailor down there. He actually got back to me and him and I had a couple long phone calls about sailing down there during the wintertime. And he was like, “That’s not even worth it.” So during the summer you get 90, 80-foot seas once a month. But during the winter, you get 90, 80-foot seas every week. The storms are just that consistent down there. So it’s really dangerous.
Stephen said it, he was like, “Well, if we die then all of this will be for nothing if we can’t come back and keep telling the story.” So we knew we needed to keep on going and staying in Valparaíso [Chile] was just way too expensive. It was going to be about 2,500 bucks a month just to stay there. And that’s funny. I mean, we were, I’m sure you saw that in the film, we were pretty broke the whole time.
So Valdivia’s this little pocket where sailors go to winter their boats. It’s about 500 nautical miles south of there. I made that decision pretty easy. The boat couldn’t stay. The boats got to go to Valdivia. The condition of the boat was terrible. I mean, we just caught on fire and we didn’t have electricity on the boat and everything was pretty much shredded to bits.
And if we were going to bring the boat down there, I couldn’t do it with them on the boat because I’d just be watching the next storm roll in and think it’s my fault that I killed Stephen and John. They weren’t happy about it at all. They still fight me to this day about it. But yeah, if I was going to do it, I had to do it alone. That way I didn’t kill them. The decision was pretty easy to make, it was pretty black and white. And that’s what we had to do to keep going.
RI: Stepping back and thinking about it from their perspective—and knowing that veterans in crises tend to push people away—do you understand how frustrating it must have been for them?
TG: Absolutely. I’d be just as pissed if I was in their shoes… Another man doesn’t make that decision for me in my life. But… it would hurt a lot if they got hurt and it was my fault. By some miracle, if I made it out of that situation I’d never be able to live with myself again.
RI: How did you feel about presenting a few key moments as animated sequences? I’m sure being at the center of this film, you would’ve preferred to have those moments on film.
TG: Well, when we were in storms and things were really bad we wouldn’t pick up a camera just because we couldn’t, we were trying to stay alive. So going back and telling those stories with Chayne [Gregor, the producer] and Glenn [Holsten, the director] to make this film, they really wanted those sequences to be in the film and animation I think was the best way to do it. I think if it was on film it wouldn’t do it justice. It wouldn’t make as much sense as it did. And in a way, those moments still belong to us because they’re not on film… I like the animation a lot more than I ever thought I would just because I think it tells it accurately and the film doesn’t get in the way of it.
RI: What originally drew you to the military life?
TG: I was raised in Texas, which is pretty patriotic. People that serve in the military and police officers, firefighters are kind of the top guys, the guys that you respected and that your parents made you stop and tell them thank you and try and buy their meals when we could. So I had this notion that being in military, that’s the right thing to do. If you live here, you’ve got to serve this country in some way.
RI: The film does a brilliant job of dispelling the myths surrounding PTSD. Can you relate that to your own experience and tell me what was going on in your life?
TG: This is what Stephen helped me out with a lot whenever I first got back to the States… For no reason at all, adrenaline would just start running through my body and I’m not even doing anything. That was the first sign. I was like, “All right, something’s wrong. My body never used to do this and never did it in the military.” Sure didn’t do it before the military. But when I got back, I would just be sitting in the house or I’d be driving, doing nothing at all and my body would start ramping up on its own. Like I’m about to fight someone.
That’s what it felt like. My senses were all that way, adrenaline would start pumping, I could feel my blood vessels expanding, the blood run into my face. And if you don’t know why that’s happening. You’re like, “What the hell’s going on with me?” And then when you’re that depressed, man, it just compounds into a really dark place. And you find yourself on the phone calling Stephen, it’s probably 3:00 AM his time in Scotland when he was working over there.
I’d call and be like, “Dude, I don’t know what’s going on with me. This is freaking me out.” And he was the first one to say, “Everything you’re saying is exactly what the guys I interview are saying. All this research I’m doing, it’s the exact same thing. You’re not the only one going through that, and here’s why.” And he broke down to me what that animation in the film did. He’s like, “This is how your body’s changed. If it’s under stress that long, on a physiological level of your body changes.” And once I understood that there was a problem and a reason for it, that’s when we started delving into how to heal, how to make it better and how to live with it. And the news there was good.
RI: How are you today? Was this trip enough adventure for you? Do you need more?
TG: It’s kind of part of the deal. People who suffer from PTSD, I like to tell them that you find a way to live with PTSD. Those experiences don’t ever leave you. But once you’ve started an adventure therapy program you hold onto these beautiful moments that you see out in the world. So instead of living in a world where you’re only seeing the worst things, the darkest things that this world has to offer, you can pull on those memories of sailing in the middle of the night with the full moon and the sky full of stars and reflecting off the water. It’s just some of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. And that—a lot of the time—is reason enough not to kill yourself. Because you have that in the back of your mind, the knowledge that his world can be that beautiful again.
The concept I try to explain to people is, instead of prescribing pills to balance the chemicals in your brain, you prescribe adventure therapy instead of pills. So I can still feel myself when I get pretty stressed out and depressed, I’ll need to go sail. And Samantha [Taylor’s wife] knows now. She knows I’ve got to just go sail for a couple days and kind of flip the switch and reset. I still need it. That’ll probably happen every couple of months. I do work on the water, so I sail quite a bit. But if I get in some situation and I’m not sailing I’ll know I need to take off and then come back and I’m healthy as can be dude, every time. It’s amazing.
RI: So you will still have days where that adrenaline comes out of nowhere and it’s unrelated to anything that’s going on at that moment?
TG: Absolutely. I started wearing this thing called a whoop strap. It calculates your HRV and your heart rate and stuff. I’ll be at Home Depot and my heart rate will be at 180, man. And I’m not doing anything. I’m buying wood and I feel my body running away like it did back then. And I’ll look at my phone and heart rate’s at 180. So on a physical level, your body still reacts that way, that doesn’t stop. But knowing why it’s reacting that way, you can be a little more patient with yourself and you know what you need to do to get better. And in those moments, I’ll just go for a run. But it really helps knowing that when it happens it goes away and I know how to deal with it in a healthy way.
RI: You’re a veteran. You know guns. What are the odds of a bullet not firing?
TG: Oh man… So, we would do gun shoots regularly. Hundreds of thousands of rounds I’ve shot from the helicopter. We had a 50 cal, a GAU-21, and then we had a M240 that shot a 7.62 round. Anybody that’s in the military that is around guns shoots hundreds of thousands of rounds. And to get a misfire, I had two misfires my entire time of shooting. So when I saw that firing pin hit the primer I was like, “That’s not real. That doesn’t happen.” It doesn’t happen. I still haven’t been able to process that or know why, but yeah. That doesn’t happen. You’d get jams if your ammo’s dirty or something, or you get dirt in your weapon. But you don’t get the firing pin striking and not igniting. That’s pretty rare. Sometimes you get an audible pop if there’s not enough gun powder to get the brass through the barrel. But yeah, you don’t just get a dead round. That’s pretty rare.
RI: What led up to that day and what you were feeling as you went to do that/
TG: I don’t know, man. I just had one of those days. The whole day was just all… Everything from overseas and I was just… Another thing Stephen told me to best help me understand it is, whenever you live in moments where you’re about to die or you’re in stressful scenarios and your adrenaline’s running, memory recall is directly correlated with adrenaline. So if your adrenaline’s running and you’re in a pretty bad situation, that moment is burned in your brain. And that’s why you see the worst things like you’re there. Like you’re actually living it. You can feel it happening in front of you again. It’s that vivid. It’s the most vivid memories you’ve ever had.
So I had one of those days, man. My body was running away from me. And I was broke and felt like I didn’t have anywhere to live for. I was like, “Why do I want to stay in this world where I don’t have anything worth living for? And this worlds the most disgusting thing I’ve ever been a part of. I wouldn’t want to live in this world anymore. There’s no reason to.’ It’s just nasty and dark and painful man. And I didn’t have anything. So there wasn’t really any reason for me to stick around.
RI: Where were you?
TG: I was in Pensacola.
RI: Now you’re married. When did you meet Samantha?
TG: After my boat caught fire and we came back. I met her in San Antonio. We met on a dating app. And we went out and had some drinks and went to a place in San Antonio that does turtle races, which was pretty fun. The rest was history after that.
RI: And you work on the water now.
TG: Yeah, I work for a charter company down here in Galveston. So I’ll sail families for a couple of days or a day at a time during the summer. And then during the winter I deliver sailboats. So when somebody buys a sailboat somewhere in the world and they need it where they are, they’ll hire me to go sail it back to them.
Grieger works with the American Odysseus Sailing Foundation, which gives adventure therapy to vets. Learn more at amodsailing.org
Buy or rent Hell or High Seas on VUDU, AppleTV, Google Play, and YouTube. Learn more HERE.