Surviving Self: The Shane Kruchten Story

By Joseph Santoliquito Apr 2, 2017
Some days were good, and some days were bad. This was one of the bad days. Actually, it was the worst day. Shane Kruchten could not shake it from his conscience no matter what he did, so he sat there in his personal abyss -- a tilting, rusted black 1992 Ford Mustang GT in a San Diego ocean-side parking lot. The former Marine’s blackened, hollowed eyes stared down at his self-imposed last meal, a two-week-old stale slice of pizza lying there in a greasy cardboard box on the passenger’s seat. Everything he owned was crumpled into a ball in the backseat of his car, which leaned right because of two flat tires.

That balmy Sunday, June 14, 2009, Kruchten decided, “Yep, it’s time.” The fresh $700 direct deposit from the Veterans Administration was going to be used for everything he could do to end it, to get the images and the voices and the screams out of his head, to have rest without torment. About 12 hours later, he woke up handcuffed to a bed at the UCSD Medical Center-Hillcrest, angry he was still alive, plagued by survivor’s guilt. Remembering that purgatory is enough to send a chill through anyone but not Kruchten.

“The War Rhino,” a lanky, 6-foot-1 featherweight with a 12-3 record, speaks openly about the day he tried to commit suicide. There is no restraint when it comes to expressing himself. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, having served a tour in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps. Kruchten was given a medical discharge on June 25, 2005, along with nine different medications to try and cope with PTSD, including Xanax and Quetiapine, an antidepressant for major depressive disorder.

A huge panacea in dealing with PTSD has been his love for mixed martial arts and his extended MMA family, which includes Pat Speight and Joe Duarte, whom Kruchten credits as a few of the instrumental people who saved his life. That he is alive, let alone fighting at a high level, is an amazing story in itself. They say cats have nine lives. “Kruch” may have double that.

There was the kid that enlisted in the Marines at 17, the young foolish man who tried snorting away his life and the man he is today. His avatars include being a Purple Heart recipient, a blown-up 262-pound dolt ravaged by despair about the loss of his Marine Corps buddies and an illicit, crazy vagabond seeped in a life of drugs, alcohol, motorcycle gangs and violence. He made a gradual climb in the disciplined world of combat sports, and in January, he was seated at one of President Donald Trump’s inaugural balls and got engaged.

Some stories involving Kruchten include everything from being shot at, stabbed and driving a car off a cliff to gorging himself on a small mound of cocaine.

“You realize through the years that Shane is crazy. I mean a good, zany crazy who did far more harm to himself than he would think of doing to anyone else,” said Duarte, also a military man who met Kruchten and Speight at the Unleashed Fitness Center in San Diego around 2006. “Shane used to get beat up every training session when he first came in. No one thought he would last, but every time, he kept coming back. We knew Shane didn’t have a lot, but he always volunteered to drive guys home from the gym. I remember visiting him in this shoebox of a room he was renting. He had this pizza box. He would basically buy one of those $5 Hot-N-Ready pizzas and make it last a week.

“As far as Shane’s toughness, I remember I literally knocked him out so badly that he was convulsing,” he added. “I was training for a fight and my coach was there, and he got on me for not hitting that hard. I remember hitting Shane with a right hand to the body, and he actually fell against the ropes [and] then slid down. It was pretty crazy. He always came back. He was one of those guys. I was the first one Shane called when he first got out of the hospital, because he kind of disappeared for a little while there. He called me and Pat, and we told him to come back to the gym, that he always would be welcome. Then he told us everything that went wrong.”

Welcome to Problem World

There was actually a lot that went wrong. Kruchten could not cope with the thought of his dead comrades. He let his life spin out of control. He ballooned to over 260 pounds. Alcohol and cocaine were his magic elixirs.

There is a certain mentality needed to be a U.S. Marine. You have to self-insulate, and you have to be a ruthless bastard when the situation calls for it. It is not always easy, considering we all have blood coursing through our veins and a conscience to which to answer.

“We did a lot more city work in Iraq, clearing houses and clearing buildings,” Kruchten said. “You do have to have a special mindset in being a Marine, and I always credited the Marine Corps for this, because they have a very good way of teaching that mindset. They break you down in boot camp and rebuild you the way they need you. I always credit my senior drill instructor, who was a recon Marine, but he knew what we were about to go into. You have to have the mindset to shut it off and not have emotion. You have to be an asshole, more or less.

“I grew up a church boy, going to church, singing in the choir, everything,” he added. “The Marine Corps had to bring out a side of me that was not there. We all have a dark side. It’s why I credit my senior drill instructor, because he brought it out. It’s why, I think, so many people flush out of the Marine Corps, because they’re not willing to bring that side out. I was able to embrace that side of myself to benefit my country the way I needed to. You have a duty to do, and you better go and complete that mission, because if you hesitate, you can be dead and you could jeopardize others.”

Kruchten was deployed as an infantry marksman in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, and he played the role. He hid what was really there, a scared kid just out of North High School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, entering a world of you-know-what. Reality came when an explosion happened near his face and impacted the left side of his head, blood coming from his ear and left eye. The explosion came from an ambush during a mission. It was nothing life-threatening, though Kruchten did have a concussion. However, there were soldiers killed in his original unit. These were guys he considered close friends, the kind that leave their faces, their voices and the way they talked and laughed with you.

“They were my brothers there that depended on me,” said Kruchten, a hint of emotion in his words. “Seeing really close friends killed in action, I was at some of their funerals and carried their caskets. Not being able to do anything about that, not being in the right place at the right time, you deal with the ‘Why them and why not me?’ question. It’s probably why I decided to go back for another tour. I made a commitment not only to the United States Marine Corps but to the people of the United States.

“The first Marine I saw killed in action, it didn’t affect me the way I thought it would,” he added. “Marines are taught that if it happens, it happens. You have a job to do and move on. You’re a warrior and you know what can happen to anyone at any time. I was 17 years old, and I actually wrote my own will. To this day, I have my death letter that I carried with me every day in my vest, just in case I was killed in action. You can’t just let it go. It never leaves you. Those guys are always there and will always be there.”

It haunted him. His anxiety -- and lifestyle with a girl he met in Wisconsin -- reached such a point that he had put on massive weight and needed an outlet to untangle his twisted insides. He became edgy and unpredictable. He could not sleep. He had no routine. His introduction to MMA came through an impromptu brawl in a Wisconsin bar for a $500 tab. Kruchten won and became convinced he could do well with MMA. He quit his $20-an-hour job as a crane operator for Oshkosh Truck, stuffed some money in his pocket, took a chance and pursued the MMA life, beginning at Unleashed in San Diego, where he met Speight, Duarte and heavyweight Wade Shipp. Kruchten in 2007 was introduced quite harshly to the real MMA world. In his first two fights, he was blasted out by Gerald Meerschaert and Luke Zachrich. Whatever Kruchten was looking for was not readily found. He began to sense that he was not finding solace in this new emotional outlet. Channeling MMA and jiu-jitsu was not making the ghosts go away.

“I didn’t know how to use anything, to be honest,” Kruchten said. “I was a mess. Jack Daniels and Coke worked pretty well then. I’d snort an eight-ball of coke without a problem. That was my way to get through the day. You think you can walk away at any time [and] then you become hooked. I wasn’t proud of myself. I don’t even think I knew who I was. I was homeless. I lived in a car. I was eating out of trash cans, but the bottom of everything came that day in June 2009. I’ll remember the date for the rest of my life: June 14, 2009.”

Kruchten had a choice to make that day while sitting in his depilated Mustang with both passenger tires flat. His $700 disability payment arrived, and he figured to blow it in style.

“That was my last hurrah, at that moment,” Kruchten said. “I could do positive things or end all and be all. You’re talking years of mental abuse to myself. You’re talking survivor’s guilt. I was missing my brothers, missing the guys I served with. I decided it was time. I rented a room. I bought cocaine and alcohol and started to ingest. I was snorting cocaine until I couldn’t snort anymore. Then I started to throw it down with alcohol.”

He does not have a clear grasp of the time frame, but police later kicked down the door to his hotel room and found him face down in a pool of his own vomit. Doctors told him he had flatlined. They resuscitated him and pumped his stomach. He woke up the next day handcuffed to a hospital bed. A police informant, according to Kruchten, snitched him out to an undercover cop.

“That informant to this day saved my life; I actually have stayed friends with the DEA agent that kicked my door down. He kicked in the door and they found me,” Kruchten said. “I remember waking up and I felt really bad. I was almost pissed off that I had woken up. I thought I was dead when I collapsed; I hurt all over. I remember coming to and I had a tube down my throat. I remember it being the worst feeling in my life, handcuffed to a hospital bed.

“I couldn’t talk. I didn’t know what the next move of my life was going to be,” he added. “When Pat Speight and Joe Duarte found out about it, they were pissed. They were irate that I tried to do this to myself. There were guys from my gym that got me, and they never let me go. That, to me, was the biggest step in my recovery. I think it was the guys taking me under their wing and more or less threatening me that if I ever went near drugs they were going to [expletive] whoop my ass. They got me in the gym and made me very active in the gym. They helped me lose weight and get back to the weight I should have been fighting at all along.”

Walking in a Good Direction

Kruchten defeated Jeremy Mahon at World Series of Fighting 34 on New Year’s Eve at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was not the most aesthetically pleasing fight, but “War Rhino” got the job done. It marked his 12th victory in his last 13 fights, and he hopes it marks the start of another lengthy winning streak: Krutchen’s had an 11-fight run snapped by a Mike Corey rear-naked choke at WSOF 9 (online sportsbooks).

“Shane says he’s going to do something and does it,” Speight said. “He says he’s going to run a marathon; he ran a marathon. He says he’s going to win a belt; he won a belt. He wanted to fight on TV; he fought on TV. He was once the head guy in a San Diego motorcycle gang; that’s not that easy in itself. I don’t know what medication Shane is on now, but they had him on the wrong stuff for a while. You have guys with tons of talent who don’t use any of it. Then you have someone like Shane. He has an ounce of talent and he gets every drop of that ounce out.”

Speight then relayed a quick story about his friend. When Kruchten was heavy, they were doing a sprint workout on an inclining treadmill. You go for 30 seconds and then hop off for a minute. You hop back on for 30 seconds and so on. Kruchten tried so hard to keep up with Speight that he fell off the treadmill and yanked the arms off the machine, cutting himself up in the process. He got back on, abrasions and all.

“That’s Shane,” Speight said. “I’m absolutely amazed he’s alive, and I hope it lasts. Shane’s thing is for everyone to think and know he’s absolutely the most hardcore, on-the-edge, not-afraid-of-death person there is, and Shane backs it up. He had his parents sign the papers so he can kick doors in in [expletive] Iraq and Afghanistan. He didn’t have much guidance growing up, and he was basically raised by the Marines. He’s just not a house-and-white-picket-fence kind of a guy. He wants to fight.

“Shane thinks he can beat anyone in the world,” he added. “He puts in the miles and the lifting. He outgrew a lot of the other stuff. The best thing I can say about Shane is that at any point in my lifetime if I gave him $10,000 in a bag and asked him to hold it for me for a week, I know I would come back and all $10,000 be there. ‘Kruch’ is a good kid; he lives and dies the Marine Corps.”

Kruchten still keeps in touch with Duarte and Speight. He also wants to be involved with the Marines again and has worked to try and clear the drug charges against him. On his back, Krutchen wears his most distinct reminder of where he was and where he is going. There are 19 names tattooed there, with the rank and date each one died from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Arced about the names is the slogan, “Only the good die young.”

“After 2009 when I tried to kill myself, I figured that I was always thinking about my brothers and that’s what led me to get the tattoo,” Kruchten said. “If I was going to move forward, I needed those guys to have my six (back). I decided one day to hit up my tattoo artist, Trevor Tomlinson, and at first, he was a little leery about it. I laid on my back for 15 hours. He charged me a whole $30 for what would have normally cost $1,500. He sat for the entire one sitting, going the entire time until it was done. That’s them, 19 names, their rank and the day that they were killed in action. I owe a lot to them and Norbie Lara and the Wounded Warrior Project for getting me through this. I’m on the road to recovery. I need to press more and need more people behind my back; I figured what better people to back me than the brothers on my back.

“No one is able to touch me or hurt me in a way that I hurt myself,” he added. “I use it as motivation every day I wake up. I also look at it as motivation of being a father. I’m able to tell my 3-year-old daughter that daddy lived almost every life a person can live. Eight years ago, I was eating out of trash can. Now I’m fighting at Madison Square Garden. It took me a number of years to talk about all of this. If my worst day was when I tried to kill myself and that is someone else’s saving grace, I know that every bit of my struggle is completely worth it.”
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