Editor’s note: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. When people call, text, or chat 988, they will be connected to trained counselors who will listen and provide resources and support.

This is the fourth in an occasional series of stories about suicide. Read the first one here, the second here and third here

After Brandt McCartney, TCU class of 2022, lost his brother and role model to suicide, he created The 38 Challenge, a nonprofit organization that honors a military veteran who died by suicide rather than on the battlefield.

McCartney, 22, moved to Austin after graduating from TCU in May and serves as the executive director for The 38 Challenge and the military programs manager for the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

McCartney’s brother, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Matthew Brewer, played football at the Naval Academy and wore the number 38. He served eight years in the Marine Corps heavy artillery and special operations, McCartney said. 

The 38 Challenge aims to eliminate suicide by breaking the stigma associated with seeking help and showing vulnerability. The challenge is to exercise for 38 minutes: enduring physical suffering to help people with internal suffering. 

At 38 Challenge events, participants exercise, listen to keynote speakers, connect with the community and mental health organizations present at the event. 

In July 2022, The 38 Challenge hosted a workout with TCU football at Amon G. Carter Stadium. About 350 people of all ages attended the event. About $100,000 was raised, and all of The 38 Challenge nonprofit partners were at the event to connect with participants, McCartney said. 

“We have a 38 Challenge exercise which is a very intense workout,” McCartney said. “But the workout is scalable to anyone – some walk the track, some complete the intense 10 rounds of exercises – the actual exercise isn’t the most important part. It’s the meaning behind it,” he said.

Participants at The 38 Challenge event at TCU on July 16,2022 completed different warrior workouts together for 38 minutes. After the workout, they listened to keynote speakers on vulnerability and had the option to reach out to a nonprofit organization for resources. (Courtesy Photo | Brandt McCartney) 

The first step to seeking help is showing vulnerability and reaching out, McCartney said. Although it may not fix everything, it is the first step toward growth, something he experienced personally. 

“I realized I needed to talk it through and, you know, use his memory and share his memory through helping others,” McCartney said. “I still deal with it (Brewer’s death) and grieve, but not as much as I used to because his story is helping a lot of people.”

McCartney’s healing journey isn’t easy, but he finds purpose in pouring his efforts into The 38 Challenge and encouraging others to embrace their own vulnerability. 

“(Suicide) is taboo, but we need to talk about it. I think a lot of people are embarrassed to talk about suicide,” McCartney said. “When you bottle up your emotions and fight your demons internally, you’re going to lose that battle nine times out of 10.”

The 38 Challenge helps people take the first step to talk about their struggles and thoughts about taking their lives. 

McCartney speaking at The 38 Challenge event at Amon G. Carter stadium on July 16, 2022. (Courtesy photo | Brandt McCartney)

“When people take that first step, they can grow, battle and talk through it (mental health), and in doing so, they can improve their mental health,” McCartney said. 

The 38 Challenge does not have its own mental health program but partners with other nonprofits that do.

Some partners include The Wounded Warrior Project, The Adaptive Training Foundation and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Many of these programs work with veterans or people directly affected by concussions and brain trauma.

Brewer died by suicide about a year and a half ago at the age of 31. Because of his years of football, boxing, wrestling, and other contact sports, along with eight years of brain injury exposure in the Marine Corps, doctors at the Boston University brain bank suspected with high certainty that Brewer had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, McCartney said. 

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a brain disease found in people who have experienced repetitive brain trauma. It cannot be diagnosed, only suspected in people who are at high risk because of repeated head trauma.

It was also suspected that Brewer dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder because of reactions to certain events, movies and memories that caused him to act disturbed or differently, McCartney said. 

“My brother was soft-spoken but well-respected, a devoted Christian and a talented football player,” McCartney said. Brewer served three deployments to South Korea, Japan and Guam, before he retired from the Marines and became a firefighter. A superior called him “the Captain America of the Marines.”

The Impact

The 38 Challenge’s mission reaches a wide range of audiences and resonates with participants, including Derrick Ross, a head trainer at the Adaptive Training Foundation and the DJ for the TCU event this past summer. 

“I’ve been a personal witness to the fallout of what suicide does to military families and our community – it’s so huge and it’s so heavy,” Ross said.

Ross also served in the military but was medically discharged after an explosion in 2011. Years later, a close friend who went through the same explosion died by suicide. 

Ross DJed the TCU event on July 16, 2022. (Courtesy Photo | Brandt McCartney)

“It is not a pain where you can just put a Band-Aid on it,” Ross said. “I think the hardest parts of suicide prevention is doing it yourself for yourself. (The 38 Challenge) taught me that people are willing to get into the waters with you and suffer alongside you.”

Ross shared that being vulnerable and addressing your emotions is important to begin the healing process.

“I learned in counseling that when you don’t talk about things, it still comes out,” Ross said.

The 38 Challenge plans to expand its efforts to host events in Tampa and Los Angeles. “The program will always have an event in DFW because of the community we have here,” McCartney said. He plans to host another DFW event in July. 

The 38 Challenge also is on Spotify at The 38 Challenge Podcast.

“Although I wish I never started The 38 Challenge, for the reason why I started it, it has given me a lot of opportunities to help others, and it has given me a purpose for the rest of my life,” McCartney said. “I have a purpose — and that helps.” 

Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Reach her at izzy.acheson@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Izzy Acheson

Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she graduated from Texas Christian University in 2022 with a double major in journalism and environmental...