Sheep Dog Impact Assistance gives heroes new purpose
By Aprille Hanson
Christopher MacKay served 10 years in the U.S. Army’s Airborne infantry as a recon scout. In the process, he sustained a variety of injuries from an IED explosion in Iraq, plus subsequent memory loss and seizures. He was told by the military “to go home, sit on the couch.”
“I was suicidal and just didn’t want to be here. It wasn’t because I was weak or felt weak, it just didn’t feel like I had a purpose. Everything was blank to me, you know. It’s like food with no salt,” he said.
His local veterans center recommended Outdoor Adventure, hosted by the national nonprofit Sheep Dog Impact Assistance. At the end of January, he traveled to Yellowstone National Park and then later to Arkansas’s Buffalo River.
These were more than just adventures – they were his lifeline. MacKay, of Princeton, Ind., now serves as an SDIA team leader in his city, leading fundraising efforts with the goal of creating a new chapter.
“The way Sgt. Maj. [Lance Nutt] talked to us, he didn’t treat you like you were a kid; he didn’t baby you or anything,” he said. “It reminded me of being in the military, so it kind of sparked me up real quick, it got my attention.”
Nutt, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 30 years before retiring in 2018, founded SDIA in 2010. The Rogers-based nonprofit works with military veterans, firefighters, police officers and emergency responders to provide an outlet for continued service and physically challenging adventures in the outdoors.
The organization’s name hints at its protective and service-oriented mission, taking the nickname Sheep Dogs from Lt. Dave Grossman’s 2004 book, “On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.”
Speaking by phone from an SDIA Outdoor Adventure in North Carolina – an event that included whitewater rafting, a Spartan Race and a tour of the Biltmore Estate for 45 veterans, first responders and some of their families – Nutt told Arkansas Wild he founded the group to help veterans get off the couch.
“All of it is geared around the same premise – giving our men and women a chance to get up off their butts and re-engaged in life in a positive way, whether it’s through a disaster response mission or a scheduled outdoor adventure,” Nutt said.
The founder had himself been where many SDIA members find themselves. Back in 2005, he was sitting on his couch healing from emotional and physical injuries sustained in an IED explosion while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Watching news coverage of Hurricane Katrina spurred his desire to serve, and he rounded up a group of veterans to assist in New Orleans.
Coming off that experience, he joined a variety of organizations, but could not find anything that matched his personality for both wanting to do good and be active outdoors. Today, the SDIA program centers around three goals: disaster response missions, holiday assistance, and outreach and adventures.
“The way that we talk and the way that we cope with things is completely different and nobody really understands that unless you’ve been in,” said Scott West, Outdoor Adventure coordinator and an Army veteran who was injured performing recon missions in Iraq. “It’s literally just the camaraderie of being with a bunch of other guys.”
Twenty-four Outdoor Adventure events are held annually in various terrains and weather. Popular activities have included snowmobiling, whitewater rafting, skydiving, hunting and fishing trips, and canoeing excursions. Most Sheep Dogs are monetarily sponsored, but the impact these events create goes far beyond what money can buy.
“I’m a double-amputee myself; I’m missing both my legs below my knees,” West said. “I was struggling with addiction, had gotten clean, but still found myself sitting at home in front of the TV. [Sheep Dog] found me and asked me if I wanted to go skydiving. Of course, I was all like, I would love to but I don’t think I could do that again.
“They said, ‘I don’t think you understand; this is exactly what we do. We make this specifically for you.’ If you can get off the couch, that’s the very beginning of everything.”
Sheep Dog Impact Assistance boasts 18 chapters, including Rogers and Little Rock, throughout 15 states, with more than 10,000 participants. A one-time, lifetime membership fee is $80 ($75 for Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association members.) To join, volunteer or sponsor, visit sheepdogia.org.