PTSD is real. War zones are filthy. Deployments can leave imprints on your brain, body, and soul for a lifetime.
I enlisted as an Intelligence Specialist in the US Navy Reserve and was eventually selected as 1 of 21 females to take part in the Navy Special Warfare’s female engagement teams. I was fortunate to mobilize with Special Operations Forces (SOF) commands for three back-to-back-to-back tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After three deployments, too many ramp ceremonies (the farewell ceremony for a service member Killed in Action before flying them home to the United States), a divorce, moving in and out of storage units, and endless job applications, I knew I needed a temporary escape before re-adjusting to civilian life. My brain and body were feeling the toll of long hours, stress, and minimal sleep. The depression, irritability, insomnia, loneliness, and emotional detachment weren’t going to fix themselves.
I checked out Warrior Expeditions’ website and mission statement and the organization struck me right away. While still in Afghanistan, I applied online and found out I was accepted for the 2017 season. I was selected to paddle the Mississippi River.
Ninety-one days of paddling will teach you a lot about yourself. There’s no one else in your boat to paddle your miles. There’s no maid to set up camp and cook dinner. You put in whatever amount of effort you decide, and you do it at your pace. It may sound lonely, but just when you need a boost, there are wonderful reminders along the way that we are not alone in this healing process. From Day T-1, we are teamed up with fellow combat veterans that we can lean on. Every week or so, we were greeted by VFW and American Legion Posts who would provide us with warm hearts, hot showers, air conditioning, and cold beer. These veterans’ organizations, along with endless “River Angels,” renew your faith in humanity and only ask for stories about your journey in return for their hospitality.
I departed Lake Itasca, Minnesota in summer, 2017. The Mississippi River is 2,300 miles long and is so shallow and narrow for the first mile that we had to walk and wade alongside our canoes. The first month was so serene; you’d stumble upon animals in their natural habitat that would look at you like you were from outer space because so few people pass thru their waters. I spent most of my days solo, but always met up with the group for lunch and camp. We would talk about anything and everything. What body parts hurt that day, the animal sightings, the food we were craving, the upcoming grocery run and community support stop, and stories about our day.
I was doing something not many people will ever experience, much like why I deeply value my time in the military. I was proud of myself. I felt unstoppable. Every day, I got in my canoe, set goals, gathered my life experiences and skills to maneuver every obstacle thrown at me, and accepted help from complete strangers, many of whom I still keep in touch with online. I celebrated mileage milestones, locks and portages, river confluences, entering a new state, and crossing massive lakes. I sang a lot of Proud Mary. I wrote to myself. We were all privately doing what we needed to do to get us down that river all while healing and planning our transitions to the new world that awaited us. I took over 1,500 pictures, kept a travel journal, and was fortunate enough to have a combat camera veteran alongside me who documented our trip with videos and drone footage. When I feel stuck in a rut or want to be reminded of this accomplishment, I turn on the videos or read through my journal for instant memories.
Warrior Paddle with Warrior Expeditions was a journey I will never forget. Fresh air and sunlight aren’t just good for your soul. Being outside is scientifically proven to increase your creativity, mood, and ability to problem solve and think critically, while reducing stress and negative thoughts. Combat veterans need new tools in their toolbox and a long-distance expedition is a great place to start.
Since finishing my expedition, I continue to work diligently on my mental health and remain involved in my veteran community. I am living proof that programs such as these can help you take a healthy approach to gaining control of your life after the military.
- Annie Ferguson