The Man in the Red Life Vest

Warning:  This story will probably make you cry.  But hopefully, it will also make you think about yourself and about those you love.  Maybe, just maybe, it will help you notice something you hadn’t noticed before, and just maybe, a life will be saved.  That would be a fitting legacy for Justin.  ~ Eleda


I first saw his picture online while searching for photos of horses being rescued from the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey.  I was setting up our fundraiser for TEVA and needed a photo to capture the situation: something that showed the danger, the fear, but also the hope and determination of brave folks who were swimming through deep water to save the lives of countless stranded horses.  This photo showed it all, powerfully:

 Justin Nelzen and others rescue an Arabian from deep water


When our month-long fund-raising ended, our customers and consignors had helped us raise $933, which helped purchase fuel, medical supplies, food and clean water for rescued horses!  We were deeply grateful.  I went online again for a photo to post with the grand total, and accidentally came across “the man in the red life vest,” this time smiling next to Montego, one of the horses he had rescued.  What a fitting “happy ending” photo after a month of describing the devastation and terrible injuries horses rescued horses were now dealing with (and being treated for, thanks to TEVA).  It warmed our hearts to see the man in the water and one of the horses he saved, enjoying a happy, peaceful moment together.

 Justin Nelzen with Montego


I was so grateful for his courage that I decided to try to find him on Facebook to thank him personally for his bravery, and for inadvertently becoming the face of our fundraising.  His name was given in the article as Justin Nelzen, and I found him easily… Only his Facebook page had been turned into a memorial page.  At first, I assumed something had gone wrong with a rescue and that he’d been lost.  Reading further, though, through posts of friends and family who were missing him terribly, I discovered he had died by suicide. 

My thank-you note to Justin turned into a condolence note to his mother, and as we talked, I learned more about this incredible man, and the idea of him ending his own amazing life seemed nearly unbelievable.  That is why I want to share this story with you… In the hope we can prevent other lives like his from being lost in moments of desperation.

Justin Nelzen was a father, Navy veteran, an athlete, and a horse lover.  He was a world-class equine endurance racer, who competed in races worldwide, including the grueling Mongol Derby.  The Mongol Derby is recognized as the world’s longest multi-horse race, spanning 1000km (650 miles), which usually takes 10 days of 12-14 hour riding over wide-open, empty country.  Two days from the end, Justin and his riding partner Saskia encountered a hail storm and with no shelter at hand, had to ride through it.   When they turned their horses loose to run the last bit to the finish line, he became the first American to WIN the Derby!

 Justin Nelzen Mongol Derby

[Mongol Derby]


He loved horses, particularly Arabians, and was known to be a great trainer.  The king of Dubai used to buy his horses from Justin, and Justin’s favorite mare, Lilly, was given to him by Patrick Swayze, because he was the only one she got along with.

He served in Afghanistan, was a certified SCUBA instructor, played both piano and double base (even playing with Kenny G), and had a second-degree black belt in karate.  He was a well-respected farrier, too, and local vets often called on him when they were dealing with a difficult situation and needed a good handler.  It seemed this man could do just about everything, and enjoyed doing it.  His friends relate that he was fond of saying, “I love my kids, I love my horses, I love my job.  It’s a good life.”  This is not someone we would normally think was at risk of suicide.

Those photos we saw of “the man in the red life vest,” it turns out, weren’t from Hurricane Harvey, but from the floods Houston experienced the year before, in 2016.  A farm that usually has time to evacuate their horses before floods was caught off guard when flood gates above them were opened without warning, sending a wall of water racing through their barn and pastures.  The water was quickly above the fence lines, and panicked horses were getting caught in fences while trying to swim through strong currents.  Justin heard about this on Facebook and immediately drove over.  He saw horses flailing in the water, and a line of people on the shore who couldn’t help.  One man was holding a life jacket.  He stripped off his shirt, grabbed the life jacket, put it on, and jumped in.

“Time after time, he kept going through these raging waters, pulling these horses out, because not only did he have a value for humanity, he had a value for life – all life,” says Bradley Merritt.

He saved around 25 horses that day, including the bay in our fundraising photo, the grey Arab Montego in our grand total photo, and this pretty grey pinto named Hollywood.  He untangled horses from fence lines that he couldn’t even see, stuck with them as they fought the current together, and brought them to shore, one after another.  Someone would yell, “There’s another one over there,” and he was off.

Justin Nelzen horse Rescue


Justin’s mother Tami wrote, “Justin called me that night. He cried about the ones he didn't save. He was emotionally drained.  I'm so thankful everyone saw the good he did. Many of you won't remember his name in years to come but everyone will always remember the hope & love that you felt that day & you'll know it was because of the guy in the red life vest. My son. Thank you.”


Even a man with such amazing skills, accomplishments and such a loving heart will have experienced tragedies and failures.  While it might be easy to think that such heroism and happiness should be able to overcome the negatives, we all know it’s the times you couldn’t help that stick with you.  Military men are trained not to show emotion and to stand by their own team no matter what.  They rely on each other, not just for safety, but for emotional support.  When they return home and the men of their unit disperse to their communities, that support network weakens, and they haven’t been trained in how to rebuild one.  They usually don’t think friends or family can understand what they went through, or they may be too ashamed of the “time they couldn’t help” to mention it to their loved ones who consider them a hero.  This leaves them feeling isolated, and those perceived failures seem to loom larger than life.  PTSD isn’t limited to military personnel, either.  Civilians who have been through life-threatening crises where they were powerless to save their own or someone else’s life, often experience the same traumatic after-effects.

Justin turned much of that energy into something positive:  helping wherever he could.  There are many instances of people relating how they wrote to him for advice regarding their horses, and he wrote back personally with encouragement.  He helped people around the world equally. However, the struggles remained in quiet moments.   He coped well most of the time, but a toxic person in his life continued to call him a failure, a bad parent, and other horrible things that most certainly brought to mind anything he felt he had “failed at” in the past, and made him question his value enough that after one such episode, he took his own life rather than continue to fight with those demons. 

“He was probably one of the happiest looking people that you have ever met in your life.  Every day he wore a smile.  A lot of people had no idea that he was struggling with demons from the things that he had experienced.  So go home tonight, grab your friends, hold them close, ask them all the questions you’re afraid to ask… let them know that you are there for them for the rest of their lives so that they don’t have to fight those demons alone.”  - Bradley Merritt, in a memorial speech to Justin


Justin Nelzen endurance riding in Qatar

[Riding in the Qatar desert, practicing for a race]


We’re posting this story about Justin in the hope that if you’re struggling with your own sense of self-worth, if you are depressed, if you have PTSD, if you are being bullied by someone who verbally (or otherwise) abuses you, that you’ll see this and realize how much good you can do in the world, like Justin.  You’re important to the people who truly care about you.  They’re the ones you may often dismiss because they’re usually quiet about it, but they’re the ones who will themselves have to struggle if you were to make the same final decision Justin made.   Instead, please reach out to those quiet people, the ones who have always been there, encouraging you.  Please seek out a professional to help you develop the skills to overcome the demons that haunt you.  By creating a support network around yourself, you CAN survive, you can learn to thrive, and you can make a beautiful, positive difference in this world.  We know you’d do it for YOUR loved ones, so please do it for yourself as well.

If you know someone who is struggling, don’t keep it to yourself.  Let their loved ones know, and if the person you tell doesn’t take it seriously, tell another, and another, until you’re able to get that person the help they need and deserve.  The brightest lights in this world often fight the darkest shadows.  We need those bright lights here with us, making the world a better place. 

If you wonder why this was important enough for me to share, and if I’m just talking or if this is really heartfelt, I will share with all of you wonderful horse people something I rarely share… that I myself have PTSD from childhood events.  There are days that are difficult, when the events of long ago seem as though they’re happening here and now.  I appreciate and never take for granted the support of those around me.  I try to help others quietly behind the scenes (you know who you are – and I’m glad you’re still here!) when I can, and I know that together, we can each live up to our amazing potential.  We can all be Justins, helping others.  But we can all help ourselves, too, and choose to continue to shine our lights in the world.  I promise that I will, and hope you’ll do the same.

What does Justin’s mom Tami hope will come of this?

“I’m hoping that people wake up. Save a life. I would do it for your family & I pray you will start doing it for others. Confidentiality becomes dangerous when it costs someone their life. If Justin were alive, he would thank you for interfering & saving his life once he got the true help he needed…  Some people need saving from themselves. Please be their hero, not their buddy. Everything Justin did he went over and above to do good, to be there for you. Do the same for others. Speak up, speak out, go the extra mile. Save a life.”

 Justin Nelzen with foal


Some of Justin's family may drop in to read this article, so you are invited to leave a comment of condolence below if you like.

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I met Justin’s dad today at work. He was fixing something in the ceiling, and by chance I asked him to help change a ceiling tile since he was standing on a ladder next to the tile that needed to be replaced. When he left, I gave him some chocolates as a gesture of gratitude and wished him happy holidays. That’s when he shared his son’s story and he and Tami are in my prayers. So, if you meet a stranger, know that everyone has a story to share. Take time to listen and include them in your prayers.

Jennifer Windsor

I never met Justin personally but I was glued to the television, watching him rescue those horses. He kept going back, the currents were strong and the horses terrified. Yet he didn’t think twice.
I looked him up on FB and saw the amazing things he’d done. I reached out and he accepted my FB friend request.
He was incredible and so personable. I was astounded at all he’d accomplished yet he remained approachable and friendly and funny.

Iwas shocked and devastated when I learned what happened; all I could think about was the deep despair he must have been feeling when he decided to die. I cried for days. I thought about my son’s best friend, who’d done the same thing, and how I wished someone would have walked in at that dreadful moment and somehow stopped such a final solution. I still think about Justin. And Joel. It is so devastating for those left behind. And the “if only”s are dreadful.

Anne Arndt

Simply the best, he was simply, THE BEST! 💕

You only forgot one thing in this incredible tribute. The sheriffs told him NOT to jump down into flood waters to rescue the horses. He jumped anyway because that’s what he was trained to do. He selflessly risked his life to save lives. Our hero is on the other side, safe from harm now. But we will always remember his name.

Bernadean Britt

This article left me in tears i survived 11 years of an abusive marriage and I know all about smiling to hide the pain. As an avid horsewoman i commend Justin and the openness of his family. It takes brutal honesty to make a difference sometimes. Thank you for sharing

cara w

I took in Montego 2 months after the flood. He passed away last Thursday after anxiety over heavy rain the night before caused him to colic. He was an amazing horse.

Lori Wilson

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