Legionnaires take PTSD message to top of the world

Six Ohio American Legion members who have known the depths of post-traumatic stress disorder and the threat of suicide are sending a message in the opposite direction, to the highest point on the planet, Mount Everest.

“You can go, as a veteran who struggles with mental health injuries or issues, from lying in a bed with a gun in your mouth to taking on the biggest achievements, accomplishments or challenges that come your way,” says former Navy corpsman Mike Fairman of Columbus, an Afghanistan war veteran who tried to take his own life three years ago. Today, Fairman wears a tattoo that expresses four figures: 22 for the number of veterans who commit suicide daily in America, 60-80 for the minutes that pass between each self-inflicted death, 8,000 for the annual tally of such tragedies, “and the minus-one is for me,” he explains, studying the ink on his forearm.

Fairman and other post-9/11 era veterans have built a growing network called Summit for Soldiers with sponsorship help this year from The American Legion’s Department of Ohio. The group’s purpose is to encourage healthy outdoor activity and provide veteran-to-veteran support for those who suffer and may be at risk. Activities have included winter treks through national parks, bicycle rides, hikes, fishing trips and other experiences in central Ohio and across the country. The group has conducted about 30 major outdoor adventures at such places as Yellowstone National Park and Alaska’s Mount Denali, along with dozens of smaller outings since 2009.

“It doesn’t have to be Mount Everest,” Fairman says. “It can be just doing something. The analogy behind Summit for Soldiers – climbing a mountain – is the therapy we get from this. It’s very utilitarian. It’s teamwork. There’s no cell phones going off. There’s no busyness of the world. Summiting a mountain, there’s all these objective hazards that you have no control over, just like in dealing daily with mental health issues. You get to the summit, and what do you do? You go back down and start over again. It’s a daily struggle. That’s the analogy behind Summit for Soldiers. For me, it’s to show you can go and take on big challenges.”

Five Summit for Soldiers Legionnaires who describe themselves as “re-abled” plan to trek to the 17,565-foot Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas in late May, delivering supplies to Nepalese earthquake victims along the way. Fairman, as part of a separate team, will climb beyond that in advance of the Legion group, to reach the 29,029-foot summit, carrying a flag bearing the names of veterans he calls the “silent fallen,” those who have taken their own lives after wartime service. A member of Post 276 in Columbus, Fairman will make the ascent wearing The American Legion emblem on his parka.

“As Legionnaires, we’re all here to make a difference,” Fairman says. “We care about getting things done.”

Since its inception seven years ago, Summit for Soldiers has evolved from “an exciting project to a responsibility,” says co-founder Steve Redenbaugh, an Army veteran and Legionnaire whose PTSD arose out of the dramatic shift from intense daily combat vigilance in Iraq to the comparative calm of stateside service.

“My story is similar to many others,” says Redenbaugh, who has been a recreational mountain climber since he was 19. “The stress of deployment, the exposure of deployment, regardless of the individual, is an adjustment issue. After being exposed to that kind of life for month on month on month, coming home is where the trouble begins. The intensity and the life you are living overseas feels right, (when you are) there. The way your brain is organized to help you survive (at war) makes you an outcast when you come back, an anomaly.

“After 9/11, we spent most of our time on deployments and surrounded by the trauma from those deployments, not only in our lives but in the lives of everyone around us. It seemed at the time the issues were epidemic. We knew from our own experience that the power of the outdoors is magical. We knew that friends of ours, and the people we were stationed with, could use that exposure. So, it started off just getting people into the outdoors.”

Mountaineering and vigorous outdoor activity were the best medicine for him. “Why is the outdoors so therapeutic? I think it’s the world’s biggest mystery. I don’t know if anyone has the answer figured out. We just know it’s true. I’ve seen it change life after life.”

Dietrich Stallsworth is one such life. He came to Columbus three years ago after PTSD and TBI, along with a suicide attempt, forced an unexpected early medical retirement from the Army. He had been an infantry platoon sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division and had two tours in Iraq. Nine years into what he hoped would be a 30-year military career, he was suddenly a 100-percent service-connected disabled veteran. “The determination was made that I could no longer play the game. I was told that I was done. I was hurt. I was angry.”

Stallsworth went to Columbus to start college. An outdoorsman who had found PTSD relief as a recreational climber around Fort Campbell, Ky., when he was on active duty, Stallsworth was drawn to a Summit for Soldiers flyer he saw in an outdoors store. He emailed the address on the flyer and that evening he had a three-hour phone conversation with Fairman. “Up until that point, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Stallsworth says.

Now, Stallsworth is packing for the Himalayas where he and four other Ohio Legionnaires – Steve Downey, Andrew Oakes, Rick Amoroso and Anna Pelino – will hike to Everest Base Camp and deliver supplies to villagers who have endured a major earthquake and a deadly avalanche in the last two years. Fairman’s first attempt to climb Everest was ended by the 2014 ice fall that claimed the lives of 16 Sherpa guides. The 2015 earthquake there suspended his plans for another climb until this year.

The Summit for Soldiers American Legion team is working with local guides and relief groups to determine the most useful supplies for the villagers. The ability to provide support for them, Stallsworth says, is cathartic to the veterans. “Part of the mission (of Summit for Soldiers) is the reconnection outside of yourself. We want to fully show that you can reintegrate into a society. How you do that is not just how you help people at home but how you help people outside of your home. So, the Nepalese are like our neighbors. If we lived in a subdivision, the U.S. is our house. I can help people in my house every day. How do I show I can be that good neighbor to those outside of my home? This is a way to do that.

“Some of my problems come from things that we did in combat, things that we saw done in combat, things that you felt bad about in combat. Well, this is a way, instead of going overseas and deploying somewhere to go take down a wall, we’re going to go help build a wall back up. We’re going to not tear down and kick in somebody’s door. We’re going to help them rebuild and make sure that their family is safe. It’s still working inside of the same commitment we went into the military for. You go into the military – whether you say you are going in just for college money or not – you’re going in because you want to help other people. In wartime, that sometimes means going and kicking down the bad guy’s door. I was in the infantry. That was my job. That’s what we did. But now, I get to deploy and do the same type of aid and help, but I’m not having to kick in the guy’s door to do it. I get to walk up to him, as another man, and say, ‘What can I do to help you?’”

The Ohio American Legion was the title sponsor of a “R.O.C. for Veterans Music Festival” April 2 in downtown Columbus to promote the coming expedition and to attract more veterans to the cause. Earlier that day, the group had a “Run Down the Demons” 5k run on the Ohio State University campus. The Legion and other local organizations set up information tables at the music festival, which was attended by U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, an American Legion member and colonel in the Ohio Army National Guard who received a Bronze Star for leadership as a combat officer in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“This kind of stuff is under-appreciated by a lot of medical professionals,” Stivers said as young veterans flowed into the Park Street Complex in Columbus. “The young guys don’t care so much about a building as they do veteran-to-veteran contact.”

Events like the 5k run, the music festival and outdoor adventure activity “get people engaged in exciting ways,” said Stivers, a supporter of The American Legion’s push for wider acceptance of alternative PTSD and TBI treatment (he has introduced legislation to pilot a VA program offering dog-training and handling as a therapy for PTSD-TBI-diagnosed veterans). “Hopefully, this will bring some veterans in… The reward is reaching out to veterans who might otherwise not have access to a support network and might fall into that silent fallen group. These guys are literally saving one life at a time.”

Ohio American Legion Department Adjutant Tom Simons, Jr., was impressed by the first annual R.O.C. Music Festival put on by Summit for Soldiers in 2015. He approached the group before this year’s event to see how the Legion could help, not only because the cause matches the organization’s values but also to help bridge perception gaps between the Legion and post-9/11 veterans, he says. “The biggest thing we need to do is engage a demographic that doesn’t necessarily see The American Legion as an option,” Simons said. “It’s a matter of getting to know the new generation of veterans and seeing what makes them tick. What we are trying to do is effect a culture change and get new ideas. We need to get out into the community, whether it’s adopting a highway or having a rock concert. What’s the worst thing that can happen?”

“The most dangerous place for a person with PTSD to be is alone,” Redenbaugh explains. “How important is it? It’s imperative. It’s the difference between living and dying.”

Together, on the slope of the highest mountain in the world, the group of veterans will soon celebrate what it means to be on one side of that difference while paying respect to those on the other.

Legion.org and National Headquarters social media channels will follow the group’s trek in May and June. To learn more about Summit for Soldiers, the group’s website can be found at www.summitforsoldiers.org and its Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/summitforsoldiers.