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One Way to Mitigate the Risk of Post-Traumatic Stress

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The following is a guest blog post by veteran and Veterans History Project participant Earl Porter III.  Porter’s VHP interview can be found on our website.

Man with backpack and orange jacket hikes with sign of Appalachian Trail behind him.
Walking the AT southbound through winter. Photo provided by Porter.

On September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I crested Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the start point for southbound Appalachian Trail (AT) “thru-hikers.” The AT is a 2,190+ mile, fourteen state long public footpath stretching from Maine to Georgia that traverses the scenic, wooded, wild, and culturally resonant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. I spent the next four and a half months walking toward my purpose: helping people transmute hardship through nature, community, and leadership. It felt natural.

Admittedly, I walked the AT partially for my own benefit, but the flagship reason was to raise awareness and resources for veteran mental health. In simplest terms, I walked to demonstrate the power of asking for help. The project was designed to reconnect veterans to their local community during the lonely winter following our U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The AT was not my first journey into the unknown. My first journey involved leaving home at 14, persevering the judicial system, and graduating high school. I was nurtured by the presence of my community—my sister and mentors who helped me develop a work ethic to earn both the Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout and a four-year ROTC Scholarship.

Sunrise from high in the mountains
Typical sunrise along the AT. Photo provided by Porter.

 

Unfortunately, a few weeks after graduating high school I lost my father who I grew to love since leaving home. Peaks and valleys.

Walking through the valley of losing my father could have easily led to destructive ends were it not due to the service-minded community I joined as a University of North Georgia cadet. The humility, grit, and determination drawn from my childhood trauma fueled me to become the first of that military college to ever graduate as the number one cadet in the nation.

I then commissioned as an Army infantry officer, graduated Ranger School, and joined the 3rd Infantry Division to lead platoons in both Mosul, Iraq and Kandahar, Afghanistan. After my deployments I taught four platoon’s worth of new infantry officers how to be platoon leaders and served as the interim chief of operations responsible for designing the integration of females into the infantry officer schoolhouse. I applied but was not accepted to the Army’s JAG program due to having relatively low test scores.

Man in blue jacket with backpack talks to people in US military uniform with blue truck behind the man
Porter discussing mental health and veteran transition with 1-110th Pennsylvania National Guard (1-110th PANG). Photo provided by Porter.

Fast-forwarding to 2016, I transitioned from seven years active Army to a civilian life pursuing a legal career. By 2021, the peaks and valleys that I had persevered included law school, bar exams, big law, COVID pandemic isolation, and divorce. My foundation became unstable. Up until then I lived with two very clear purposes: 1) prior to 2016, to bring home every American Soldier assigned to my responsibility, and 2) from 2016, to become a present husband and father. Suddenly, I was adrift as a civilian with no soldiers and a divorcee with no children.

Man crossing the bridge with backpack and flag
Porter walking along the trail carrying a flag for veteran suicide. Photo provided by Porter.

I spent some time thinking of the valley’s that contoured my early adulthood, all involving close exposure to death by suicide and reflecting on how Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) does not require combat, but rather is the gap between our deepest expectations and perceived reality.

After doing some soul-searching, I realized that throughout my life, I had overcome periods of complex grief by serving others and maintaining presence of mind. Slowly, I regained my bearing through healthy methods like therapy, meditation, and journaling. As a veteran who had experienced the suicides of close friends, and persevered through hardship, I set a course to become a force for positive change within the veteran community, specifically targeting the area of PTS and mental health.

My first step was to ask my community for help, and I developed a formidable AT team of supporters who encouraged me to prioritize my mental preparation. We knew that I would often spend extended periods of time wet, cold, and walking isolated. I listened and prioritized mental and spiritual preparation, banking that my military experiences taught me everything needed to physically complete a winter thru-hike.

Two men at the top of mountain with a flag.
Porter summiting Mt. Kathadin to begin as southbound hike of the AT. Photo provided by Porter.

My AT team and I walked on the shoulders of community legends like Earl Shaffer—a World War II Veteran and the first AT thru-hiker who walked in part to reconcile losing his friend in the Battle of Iwo Jima. We invited people to walk with us to beat the drum for the often-unheard-of White Star families (those suffering the death of their veteran to suicide). We even saved a veteran’s life, something we learned six weeks after finishing.  Someone received our message along the AT and felt compelled to call the National Suicide Hotline, check into a veteran’s hospital, and lived to tell their story. The experience remains surreal over a year after completion. Closing my eyes in meditation nourishes me with memories connected to nature, camaraderie, and persevering daily obstacles.

Fog over
The view walking through the Presidential Mountains in New Hampshire. Photo provided by Porter.

My journey now has me on path to foster an expanding community of civilians and veterans alike through wellness, agriculture, and leadership development to help people transmute hardship. Life’s journey is full of peaks and valleys.

See you on the high ground.

 

If you or someone you know is experiencing distress, immediate help is available. Anyone can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988lifeline.org) by calling or texting 988, anytime 24/7, for free and confidential emotional support.

Veterans, military service members and their loved ones can call the Veterans Crisis Line at the same number, and then press 1 or Text 838255.

 

Comments (6)

  1. This is such a compelling story. I am sure you have touched many lives. My husband is a Viet Nam Veteran. I understand the depth of these expressed feelings.
    I am the Chairman of my hospital’s Physician Care Committee. We are looking for a multitude of ways to help our physicians deal with burnout and PTSD to mention just a couple of the issues we face. I would love to share this story with them.
    Is it possible to reprint your story, giving full author-credit, obviously. Does this blog come in a recorded form? Do you make public or Zoom appearances?
    Bless you for sharing
    Barbi Phelps-Sandall, MD

  2. This post generated much mixed feelings. In the end it made me cry. The anti-war activism that i participated in during the time of the Iraq war, one great rally and march in DC. I could not believe the amount of people overflowing DC, I was proud of the event. Glad the writer made it home with all his friends and comrades. It sure was a turbulent time back then, with all the stories in the news of human rights abuses. War is a very sad and traumatic thing for everyone, and it should be once and for all outright abolished and resources should be used for building up and not destruction. Mental health and solidarity among humans is very precious, PTSD is beaten when the soul determines to beat down the forces that generate violence, greed, destruction, hunger and malice. Kudos to the hiker for the changes and helping others, for true service to others is a remedy against depression and PTSD.

  3. Barbi, thank you so very much for you kind words and sharing about your husband. Please relay to him my gratitude for I stand on the broad shoulders of his era. My father was also a Vietnam veteran. I’ll reach out by email shortly. Godspeed

  4. Elba, thank you so very much for your sincere and transparent comment. I share many of your sentiments. War consists of some of the ugliest forms of humanity. I am fortunate to have made it home and strive each day that I wake up on the green side of the grass to do something with my life in honor of those who don’t experience such privilege. Godspeed.

  5. Chico – you have an amazing story and you deliver your strong message so well. I am grateful to know you and to have completed a recent leadership program with you. You and your purpose have left a lasting impression upon me. Peaks and valleys, onward and upward, my friend.

  6. I’m in awe of your life story and impressed with your strong determination to keep being a positive force in moving forward and in helping others to move forward into life.

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