Heroes and Horses

From CDS Drops to AHC Ropings
When John Tidwell spent a day in Afghanistan sitting on an IED, it’d been a minute since he’d roped, but he and his head horse are AHC-bound in November.
U.S. Marine veteran John Tidwell heads for Kelsey Willis
U.S. Marine veteran John Tidwell heads for Kelsey Willis aboard his new head horse, thanks to Charlie Five. Willis Ranch Photography
Editor's Note — Sept. 28, 2023: Since sending this story to print for the October 2023 issue of The Team Roping Journal, we have received notification that John Tidwell's horse, Gunner, did not survive a case of severe colic. We have also learned that Charlie Five remains committed to sending Tidwell to Charly Crawford's American Hero Celebration in November and to helping Tidwell find another horse. Members of the team roping community who may be able to assist in that mission are encouraged to contact Charlie Five founder Jeremy Svejcar. website: charliefive.org phone: 505.353.1143

John Tidwell has early roots in Florida, but he moved around a lot, too, and found himself working labor jobs and even day working a bit.

“I’ve been riding horses my whole life,” Tidwell said. “That was all I ever did; I did day work before I even joined the Marine Corps, back in high school. Just doing sorting work and stuff like that.”

Tidwell joined up with the Marines when he was 20, and he turned 24 on his first deployment to Afghanistan.

“It gave me some direction and everything. I was tired of just doing labor-type jobs to get by from paycheck to paycheck, and it wasn’t meaning anything. If I look back on my life, and that’s all I did my whole life, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything. So, I wanted to go serve my country and, you know, try to be proud of myself and then make my family proud of me.”

Tidwell’s first son was born before he returned home from his first deployment, but he didn’t miss it entirely.

“I had some buddies of mine that were in Comms, and they let me use the satellite phone,” said Tidwell, who spent most of his first tour building Camp Leatherneck. 

When he returned home, he had five or six months with his young family before returning to Camp Leatherneck and being volunteered with his unit for a temporary attachment detail as a Combat Engineer Group to what’s called a Forward Operating Base.

Tidwell had just months with his firstborn between his first and second deployments.

“So, they would do what they call CDS (container delivery system) drops where they drop pallets from a C130 with parachutes out in the middle of nowhere,” Tidwell explained. “We’d go out there with night vision and go pick them up and put them on a flatbed trailer and bring them back for supplies for all the FOBs and the outposts. Then, my secondary job was as a machine gunner.”

“I got blown up three times.”

Tidwell and his unit were under fire, or “contact,” almost every day on this attachment. Finally, a rotating vacation of sorts was put into play, but on the night his two-week vacation was supposed to begin, he was instead pulled into a mission. Tidwell took his position in the machine gun turret.

“We hit a total of seven IEDs out there that day. I was hit by three of them.”

When the first explosive detonated, Tidwell suffered shrapnel wounds and a concussion. Then, as they were trying to hook up some equipment, they realized they were about to trip another explosive.

“We all froze. We called EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), and we sat on top of an IED all night and the next day.”

Before the mission was over, Tidwell would survive yet another blast and witness plenty more.

“I got blown up three times, and we hit seven IEDs altogether and a couple antipersonnel mines. We started thinking we weren’t going to make it home, and I just remember thinking that I had to because I had a baby boy at home.”

Tidwell spent a few weeks receiving care for his concussion but, when he returned to service on another convoy, he ran into a buddy he’d been in boot camp with.

“I was in his truck, being a machine gunner,” Tidwell said. “And, on that mission, he ended up getting shot and died. And that’s the thing that messed me up the most, I think. It wasn’t even getting blown up. It was him getting killed.”


When Tidwell returned to the States, he found significant and tough changes underway at home. 
“I kind of went into a spiral of depression and not really liking people too much,” he said.

Divorce and a move to Georgia to be near his sons—he has two now—followed, and when he applied for a cowboying position at a state prison, he decided it was time to tune up the old roping skills. 

“I was never really good at roping, so I wanted to practice on it and started roping the dummy and ended up really enjoying it,” Tidwell said. “I reached out to Cord Spradley. His cousin is Kaleb Driggers. I’m learning how to rope at the same arena that Kaleb Driggers learned how to rope.”

The connection was fostered through some mutual acquaintances and, when Tidwell met Spradley—an all-around IPRA athlete—he simply put himself to work where he could.

“I couldn’t ride,” explained Tidwell who was recovering from a broken collar bone at the time. “So, I would come out and turn steers out for him and just built a friendship with everybody.”

Finding the right horse

It wasn’t long before Tidwell was looking for a horse on Facebook. There, a woman suggested he get in touch with the non-profit Charlie Five, whose mission is to match veterans and first responders with horses that can play a role in the person’s continued growth. 

Last year, Charlie Five’s founder, Jeremy Svejcar, found a horse for former Las Vegas cop Greg Ziel to learn how to rope on before sending the perfectly matched pair to Texas for Charly Crawford’s American Military Celebration—now called the American Hero Celebration. 

This year, Svejcar is doing it again, though Tidwell had a good lead on a horse being offered by Steve Pabst. 

Svejcar is based out of New Mexico, so Tidwell took the horse to Kelsey Willis of Willis Performance Horses, who has been working with Ziel since before his horse came and has developed a sincere relationship with the Charlie Five crew.

“I took him to South Carolina to let Kesey Willis check him out, so that Jeremy would be able to have somebody that he trusts put their eyes on him,” Tidwell said. “But Kelsey already knew the horse, apparently, because he and Steve Pat were good friends.”

Then, through a partnership with and the help of a grant from The Charlie Daniels Journey Home Project, Charlie Five was able to secure a deal on the horse for Tidwell, who’s been training with Spradley so much that he gave himself tennis elbow in both arms. 

“It’s been going great. I still get frustrated sometimes, but it’s not [the horse’s] fault at all,” Tidwell said. “I get frustrated at myself. The military mindset is once you learn something, you should know it. I was doing so good at roping there for a little while and then I’d take a few weeks off because the tennis elbow was so bad and, when I came back, it seemed like I sucked. I was pretty down on myself, so I’ve just been practicing and practicing.”

Warriors together

Between raising his sons and his day job as an industrial mechanic for a company that produces cardboard paper tubes, Tidwell keeps plenty busy, but that doesn’t stop him from going to Spradley’s place nearly every evening. 

“He’s my first Palomino,” Tidwell said of his horse. “He’s almost 16 hands, and he’s built like a tank. And, it’s really brought me out of my shell. I would have never met Cord or Jeremy … or anybody that I’ve been roping with here, and I would have not had any friends whatsoever in the state of Georgia. I hung out by myself and didn’t do anything.”

Tidwell’s horse came with the name “Warrior,” but he was known as “Butter.” Neither really worked Tidwell, who has developed a keen interest in leveling up his horsemanship not just to rope better, but to be a better partner for his horse, who he calls “Gunner,” in return.

“I started calling him Gunner because I was a machine gunner whenever I got hurt,” Tidwell explained. “He’s a product of my injuries, so I figured it was suiting.”

And, with a few ropings under his belt as he heads to Texas for Crawford’s AHC and roping school, it shouldn’t be long before Gunner is also a product of Tidwell’s hard work, dedication and success in the arena. TRJ

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