Leslie Zimmerman is an army vet who is hard to miss. She’s a woman. She’s a redhead. And she’s fierce. And even after experiencing horrific events during the Iraq War, she not only faces the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder head on, she is helping others along the way.
Joining the Army
Leslie Zimmerman joined the U.S. Army after high school, following in the footsteps of her sister who was in the Marine Corps.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger,” she says.
The Utah native signed up to be military police, but before entering basic training she broke her collar bone snowboarding and re-signed as a medic. She was awarded Distinguished Honor Graduate from Army Basic Combat Training and Honor Graduate in Advanced Individual Training. Her future seemed bright.
Then 9/11 happened, and the course of her army service changed.
Zimmerman was on the last day of EMT training in Texas when the Twin Towers were hit. She remembers feeling strange that day. Watching what happened on the news and seeing how it affected everyone around her.
“It really hit me—our job just got harder.”
All the military bases were on lockdown, and guards were posted. Soon, soldiers would be thrown into a war they weren’t prepared for, and Zimmerman would be there to tend to their wounds.
She spent her first year of military service in South Korea as a combat medic in an MP unit and was brigade soldier of the year. Traveling to Washington, DC, Zimmerman ran on the USFK Army 10-Miler team. She had proven herself on the field and on the race course. But there was much more to come.
Heading to War
Zimmerman deployed to Kuwait at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Much of her memories of the war still frustrate her.
“We had no protection. Our battalion maintenance company, the 507th, was ambushed during the battle of Nasiriyah while on a convoy. Nine were killed in action. I felt that the war was very poorly planned and executed. Many times, soldiers would get stuck in the sand in the middle of nowhere with no help.”
Since they weren’t to fire until fired upon, they were sitting ducks. “We were always targets. We felt helpless,” she says.
Zimmerman saw things and experienced things that she will never forget.
At only age 19, a medic in the war, she tended to a soldier who was shot and bleeding out. And on and on and on, a series of events happened that just piled up on her.
“We are trained to do our job. And I was good at my job. But we didn’t stop to think or process our feelings. It adds up,” says Zimmerman.
The shooting, bleeding, dying, nearly dying, feeling alone and stranded—it took its toll on everyone.
“Soldiers returned fractions of themselves,” Zimmerman says.
Overwhelmed by Post-Traumatic Stress
Back then, the words “shell shocked” were thrown around to describe a glassy-eyed vet. As Zimmerman returned, she didn’t know it yet, but she suffered from post-traumatic stress. Even in her medical training, she didn’t know all that it would entail.
She received an Army Commendation Medal for her actions, which showcased all she was able to do while in Iraq. But on the inside, she was different. Dreams of a future in the army were dashed.
As a medic on an ambulance ride, Zimmerman was helping a patient who had sustained a head injury. The patient was losing massive amounts of blood. That moment hit her hard.
“It took me back to feeling out of control. I was the person in between whether this patient lived or died, I was in charge of this person’s life. I had excelled at my job, but inside I was dying.”
The depression and trauma got so bad that she even attempted suicide. She was admitted to the mental ward of an army hospital. It was too much for her to continue what she had thought would be a life-long career in the military.
“Army was what I always wanted to do. I wanted to be a career soldier,” says Zimmerman.
But something was very wrong, and it was time to end her time—four years total—in the army.
After an honorable discharge, she returned home to Utah.
After the War
A few years older but a million miles away in experiences, Zimmerman was not the person she was before the war. Back home in Utah, she was in a place where she should have felt most comfortable and secure. Only now, she felt very out of place.
“I didn’t fit in. I was different,” she explains.
With other ailments that are more well-known and studied, there is a plan of action. But not then with PTSD. So much of it was unknown, and no one talked about it. Much like her days in Iraq, the trauma that followed her home made her feel out of control. She was anxious and severely depressed.
Zimmerman recalls, “I had no direction. I had no idea what to do next.”
A glimmer of hope came the day she met her husband, Judd, who was an avid mountain biker—a downhill racer, to be exact.
As they were falling in love with each other, she was also falling in love with the sport of mountain biking. The adrenaline rush, for sure, was a draw. But what really struck Zimmerman was the extreme sense of peace she felt while mountain biking.
“Being on a bike gives me a sense of control,” she says. “I ride pretty crazy trails. The only thing I think about is the trail and the rocks. I have to be present. I get tunnel vision right in the moment, and I have absolute control. All the anxiety goes away. The more I rode, the happier I was.”
Her newfound passion for mountain biking helped her face the effects of PTSD. And she knew others could benefit from the sport as well. She started a free cycling club for kids from kindergarten to eighth grade. The group, Velo Love Youth MTB, rides twice a week from the spring to the fall.
“It’s been so rewarding to help the kids learn and improve, and to watch themselves be proud of what they’ve accomplished,” says Zimmerman.
Mountain biking is very accessible, she adds, since you just need a bike, helmet, and shoes. Zimmerman takes the children on the trails and teaches them proper techniques.
The mountain biking group has continued to grow steadily ever since.
From Surviving to Thriving
In the meantime, Zimmerman got married and had kids. Then in 2015, she participated in the Warrior 100K in Waco, Texas, hosted by former U.S.president George W. Bush.
Then she was invited back to Bush’s ranch for his 70th birthday party, and Bush approached her with his iPad to show her something.
“He had painted my portrait,” she says.
Bush has painted a lot of portraits of veterans over the years, and many are included in his 2017 book Portraits of Courage. Zimmerman is one of the vets on the cover.
“The book includes stories of each vet, including their physical or hidden wounds. We all faced hardships, but we didn’t let them define or ruin us,” she says.
In 2016, Leslie Zimmerman became a children’s author. Her first book, Dream Big, is a picture book about a turtle who is dreaming about what he’ll be when he grows up. She followed with two more picture books in 2018: When Dad Deploys and When Mom Deploys, to help children of military parents cope with their parents leaving. In 2021 she followed with another picture book, The Things You Could Do If You Lived at the Zoo.
Helping Fellow Veterans
Because she empathizes with their struggles, Leslie Zimmerman has volunteered her time with several veteran’s organizations, including having served as a Peer Mentor Coordinator for the 4thdistrict Veteran’s Treatment Court—a role she shared with her Marine Corps veteran sister, Retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant Julia Carlson. Along with her sister, Zimmerman was instrumental in the vision and development of Doc & Gunny’s, a nonprofit organization that gives veterans the opportunity to showcase their art to the community, while highlighting their service.
Zimmerman also created Robin’s Tool Bin, a mobile tool trailer that provides assistance to veterans, first responders, and single parents with home repairs at no cost. She received the George Washington Honor medal for the creation of this program.
Serving Through Mountain Biking
And her mountain biking group for kids is thriving more than ever. It now includes about 140 athletes, including her and Judd’s three kids: Kennedy, Levi, and McKay.
“I feel like there is a higher purpose for this,” she says.
For Leslie Zimmerman, she just wants to let others know that they are never alone. Even if someone has been through a hard time, she is living proof that there is a way through.
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