At first glance, Sterling Dunn lives his life like any ordinary man. Being a fan of the great outdoors, he loves spending time with his wife and son doing anything they can in the woods or in the water. Currently residing in San Antonio, Texas, a home for some of America’s best street tacos and barbecues, Sterling also considers himself and his family huge foodies.
He is the kind of person that you would not mind having hours-long conversations with. He narrates his stories vividly as if you were there to experience them for yourself. His attitude in life evokes nothing but contagious positivity. But dig deeper and you’ll realize that his story is far from the ordinary.
Time in the Military
Being stationed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Sterling lived in Italy for a while where the unit was based. “It was an honor to serve with such a historical unit,” he said as he recalled his fond memories spent with the team that he considers his brothers.
During his time in the military, he was deployed to the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, which at that time, was considered to be one of the most dangerous places on earth. They were stationed in Restrepo, an outpost situated in an area surrounded by insurgents.
It was named in honor of Private Juan "Doc" Restrepo, who died from his neck injuries after a group of local insurgents attacked his unit. With the lack of amenities and contact with the outside world, they only had their sandbags, their weapons, and each other to keep them company.
In such perilous situations, the harrowing realities of war became all the more clear for Sterling. “I watched women, kids, and the elderly going out in 100-degree weather cutting wheat by their hands,” he said. “They were forced to work under such brutal and inhumane conditions. It just saddens me to witness a country living in civilization as if they were 200 years behind.”
He also recalled that there were times when the insurgents would ransack villages to force the people to give them their resources in exchange for their lives. Constantly under attack by the enemies, Sterling had to witness the depressing casualties of war, both their side and the enemies', right before his very eyes. It was even harder to witness the men that he came to treat as his own brothers perish in the middle of chaos. This, in turn, took a toll on him. But just like the brave soldier that he is, he continued to fight.
When he got injured during combat, he was medically retired and had to leave everything behind. But for Sterling, the memories of Korengal would come to haunt him even years after.
Sterling during his time serving in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (Photo: Sterling Dunn)
The Battle with Depression and Trauma
After his time in Afghanistan, Sterling spent two years in just one room in desolation. The memories of war still etched into his mind.
"If there is one thing about trauma, there's always a stigma that you have to be better. That you have to deal with it," Sterling said. "I don't think that's true. There is no fix. It stays with you."
Although the world is now more open to the importance of mental health, people who are suffering from trauma, depression, and other mental health disorders constantly experience discrimination and neglect. Because of this, depression is one of the leading causes of disability. Globally, it is estimated that 5% of adults suffer from depression. But for military veterans like Sterling, it is estimated that up to 14 percent experience depression after deployment.
"I watched a handful of veterans deal with depression and thoughts of suicide," Sterling recalled. “Depression knows no bounds. Whether you’re rich or poor, it knows no discrimination.”
As someone who knew all too well how it felt like to be depressed and traumatized, Sterling emphasized the importance of seeking professional help for people who are suffering from mental health issues.
"But that is not the only solution," Sterling added. "In my case, I feel like dealing with depression is a lot harder because of the things that I struggled with. This is one of the reasons why I keep pushing on an alternative therapy."
Skydiving as Therapy
He had always been in love with skydiving as far as he could remember. It even helped him to conquer his fear of flying after experiencing bad turbulence in terrible storms. But the love and passion that he has for the sport grew stronger during that time when he invited a friend from the military to go skydiving with him.
Sterling and his friend had always been planning to go skydiving together for years. As they usually spend their Alive Day together, him being on October 31st and his friend on November 21st, they eventually found a way to make it happen. You could see the genuine happiness in his eyes as he described the feeling of jumping out of an airplane.
"It felt like everything calmed down," Sterling gushed with an indescribable smile on his face. "The moment you get out of the door and from the moment you land, it's so peaceful. Being able to get other people into it and watching the excitement on their faces before they jump, I know that feeling. The joy is not something that you can easily describe in words."
When he found Jump4Valor and Veterans Skydive For Life, two veteran-founded organizations, it cemented his newfound purpose of helping his fellow veterans find peace in their hearts through skydiving. Both of these non-profit organizations aim to give veterans access to a community that brings them joy and a sense of freedom. Through these organizations, Sterling found a deeper sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.
The Misconceptions about Skydiving
"Do you know that skydiving is statistically safer than being a passenger in a car?" It was astounding and intriguing to hear that trivia when Sterling shared it. Because of the anxiety that the parachute will not open up at the right time, people have developed a fear of skydiving. However, Sterling pointed out that the majority of skydivers use two parachutes: a main and a reserve.
With the recent advancements in technology, makers have also come up with Automatic Activation Devices (AAD) that saved thousands of lives. An AAD is a safety system that is responsible for deploying a skydiver’s reserve parachute in the event that a jumper is unable to do so.
"Skydiving has so many contingencies," He shared. "This is the reason why the sport is getting extremely popular now."
Although he went skydiving to many different places, the Skydive Spaceland San Marcos in Texas would always be his favorite spot. “The people who work and frequent there are amazingly full of love and always treat you like family,” He said with enthusiasm. “They genuinely care not only for your safety but how you are emotionally.”
Sterling at Skydive Spaceland San Marcos (Photo: Sterling Dunn)
An Unexpected Friend
Sterling believes that everything happens for a reason. And that was exactly the case when Tina, a rescued Labrador-Pit Bull mix who has been a part of their family for years, came into their lives. He knew that it was not a matter of an accident but fate.
"When I opened up the door one day, I saw Tina running on the road," Sterling narrated. "She then ran inside the house to chase after the cat."
Tina, at that time, was skinny, skittish, and all beat-up looking. His family also had a Dachshund, which Tina didn’t seem to get along with at first. As they don’t know who the owner of Tina is, Sterling took her to the local shelter. In total, Tina had been through three different shelters until Sterling finally decided to formally adopt her. He also promised himself that he will do his best to give Tina the best life she deserves.
After spending a considerable amount of money to treat Tina’s injuries, they found out that she sustained a 4-inch scar, a telltale sign that she was used as a bait dog for dog fighting. It took a lot of intensive training from a reputable dog behavioral expert to correct Tina’s violent tendencies - but it was all worth it.
“When you hear about Pitbulls, some people will tell you how aggressive they can be,” Sterling said sullenly. “But that’s not true. Pitbulls are one of the most loving dogs. No matter how badly you treat them, they will just forget it and they will still choose to love you unconditionally.”
From the way that Tina lovingly looks at Sterling to how she energetically runs in their backyard, there is no doubt that their bond is unbreakable. In so many ways than one, they saved each other. Being a self-confessed animal lover, Sterling believes that having a pet brings a lot of benefits that could help a person deal better with mental health problems.
Sterling with his Labrador - Pit bull mix rescue dog, Tina (Photo: Sterling Dunn)
His Advice to His Fellow Veterans
War can change people. It can affect even the most resilient person that we know. But in the end, it’s how you managed to bounce back from your struggles that really matter. Sterling, after everything that he went through, found the strength and hope that he need through his wonderful family, the veteran organizations that he actively supports, his dog, his friends, and skydiving.
Sterling (left) with his son (center) and wife (right) (Photo: Sterling Dunn)
When asked for advice that he’d like to share with anyone who is suffering from depression or traumatic experiences, Sterling said, “Never give up. Don’t forget that it’s okay to struggle. Life is tough and we won’t always feel great. As long as you keep getting back up and moving forward, you will never stay down forever. I think time and love heal all, so take time to love as much as you can.”
As a last piece of advice, he also added, “Get outside more often and don’t be afraid to try new types of therapy. You never know what may be the thing that helps you find peace or save your life, so you should try as much as possible. Skydiving helps save my life so I know alternative therapy works.”