A Veteran’s Venture: Raising Awareness

He’s a cowboy on a mission to repay an organization that helped him get his life back.

Leslie Fender is a stroke survivor who wanted to raise money for the American Stroke Association.

He decided to do that by riding a horse across the country.

9&10’s Veronica Meadows caught up with Leslie about why he’s now in Cadillac in this special report.

“I was getting Reuben sandwiches and fries, and I had just ordered it, and all of a sudden I couldn’t move.”

In a split second on an afternoon in 2004, Vietnam veteran Leslie Fender’s world changed forever.

“I was paralyzed on the right side. That’s all I remember from that day, and I spent months of going to the hospital every day for physical therapy and speech therapy,” says Leslie. 

Leslie spent the months following his stroke in a deep darkness, wondering if he would walk again, until a doctor performed an experimental surgery.

“It put a stint in my brain to my carotid artery and there was so much of the clot still there and my tubes were just really thin when they opened it up, everything just came back. It was just a great thing,” explains Leslie.

When the surgery worked, Leslie decided to do something to give back to the organization that paid for it– the American Stroke Association.

“I said, ‘My God, I can feel my face, I can see it, I can feel it.’ I couldn’t feel it before, I just couldn’t, but after the surgery I could, and I think later that night I kind of knew I was going to do something like this,” says Leslie.

He went to Texas, where he would eventually meet his best friend, a horse named Angel.

“I paid $1,000 for her before she was born. Two months before she was born, and she just came out and it was like when both my sons were born, it was the same thing,” explains Leslie.

The pair set off on a journey through every state east of the Mississippi, visiting veterans and touching the lives of stroke victims.

But Leslie says after four and a half years, 10,500 miles and $800,000 raised, Angel could go no farther.

In an act of unconditional love, Leslie decided to sell her.

“She will never be far from my mind, and she will always be there. It’s like having your child taken away from you, have to sell a horse because you had to but you never get them off your mind,” says Leslie.  

The cowboy came to Cadillac, looking for a new horse to finish what he and Angel started.

“It’s so wonderful, the places we’ve gone, and the things we’ve done, and the money we made, that everything was done for a purpose. We haven’t made a million dollars, but we’ve done darn close. Hopefully with the next horse, when we go out west, we can make a million dollars or more,” says Leslie.

But support was in short supply.

For months Leslie spent his days walking the streets, hanging out at local restaurants and riding buses around town trying to find an apartment.

“People will sit there and judge you by what you have and what you’ve done. That’s not how it should be. If half the people I’ve met here would have found out I’m homeless they wouldn’t talk to me,” explains Leslie. 

At night, making his way to the New Hope shelter.

“When I first got here I was staying in a hotel, charging me $40 a day, every day, so the $2,500 went really quick and that was gone. The money I had saved for a horse until it went down, and down, and down, and down, and then I called Dave at the VA and he set up for me to stay in the shelter,” says Leslie.

It was on a walk one September night after our first meeting with him when Leslie’s world once again went black.

He had another stroke, lying just out of sight for hours, until a woman found him and got him to the hospital.

“I just freaked out and couldn’t believe I couldn’t’ move. It just freaked me out. I could talk, but that was it. I couldn’t do anything else, move anything else,” says Leslie.

At first his whole body was paralyzed, but now his left side works, with his right side not far behind.

“I can move my leg and my arm, I can do that. My hand, not doing too good, but I can. There, I made a fist,” says Leslie.

 Leslie does physical therapy and practices walking in the apartment that he moved into last month. The whole time thinking about Angel and his goal of giving back to those who have helped him.

“I’m still doing it for the American Stroke Association and AMVETS, VFW, but I want to do it for me,” says Leslie.

Leslie is saving up for a horse while he continues to get better.

He hopes to buy one and get back out on the road by 2018.