Excerpt from Freedom Run: Running Toward Recovery
While the naked man's roadside striptease provided me with some humor, his actions led me to believe that he was suffering from stress or was dealing with some mental issues or addiction. That got me to thinking about our vet­erans who are commonly affected by mental anguish and stress, commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whenever mention­ing that my desire with this run was to help wounded veterans, the images that typically came to people’s minds were soldiers suffering from ailments such as lost limbs or physical scars that are visible. But the mental anguish many veterans experience can often be just as painful and difficult to re­cover from.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 20 percent of the veterans returning from serving in Iraq suffer from PTSD. In my home state of West Virginia, which has an extremely high participation rate in the military per capita, the percentage of veterans suffering from PTSD is even greater. Dr. Joseph Scotti, a professor of psychology at West Virginia Univer­sity, conducted research that revealed that for West Virginia veterans who have recently returned home from Afghanistan or Iraq, nearly 50 percent show signs of suffering from PTSD, yet only 15-20 percent seek treatment for their mental health.

Richard “Brett” Simpson is someone who not only overcame his own struggles after serving in the military, but now helps fellow veterans deal with the same issues that he endured. Brett, a 2000 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, spent his entire life after high school serving his country whenever and wherever he was needed.

Brett spent more than a decade in the military in various leadership positions. But the only life he knew was gone when he was honorably ser­vice-connected medically retired in 2011 as a Major in the U.S. Army after undergoing a lengthy process with the Medical Evaluation Board and a brief time in the Warrior Transition Unit in northern Virginia.

Brett always planned on making the Army his only career until retire­ment. Yet, still in his early adulthood, those plans had to change.

“Making the transition from military life to civilian was extremely difficult and frustrating,” Brett told me months after the conclusion of my run across the US. “I served a non-profit, helping veterans, but the work was spo­radic. Leaving behind a way of life where your day is consumed with duties, it was extremely difficult for me to have so much free time. I didn’t know what to do with myself and the lack of structure, regimen and certainty in my life was driving me nuts. I couldn’t find solace or peace within myself, yet at the same time, I knew I wasn’t helpless. I could think, move, walk and, as I eventually learned, run.”

Brett stumbled upon a story about my run across America. Much like everyone else who first heard about my run, he initially thought I was crazy. But when he learned more about the purpose of the mission, he was intrigued that I was able to take something I was passionate about—running—and use it to make a difference for veterans.

He admitted to despising running, “but looking to fill a void, and fill time in my day, I decided to give it a try, because that’s one of the things I knew I could do. What I found was that running, or any type of physical activity, was helping my sense of awareness, focus and mindfulness while also get­ting me in better physical shape than I had been in a long time.

“Above all, however, running made me feel good about myself,” Brett continued. “I finally looked forward to getting up in the morning and seeing if I was going to get my personal best time, be able to run farther without feeling fatigued or be able to run eight miles instead of six. Running became a passion. I began running at least five times a week. I was feeling better, thinking more clearly, enjoying life again and recognizing things about my­self and my surroundings that I hadn’t noticed in a long time.”

Brett followed my progress daily via Twitter or Facebook and as I pro­gressed across America, he, too, began to push himself further than he pre­viously thought possible.

“Seeing how you were progressing provided motivation for me in my personal journey,” Brett told me. “It made me realize that pushing myself through what seemed to be the impossible was, in fact, possible.”

Now that Brett had found a new purpose as a civilian, he began to thrive in his position as program manager of Operation Welcome Home, a non­profit organization that assists veterans in north-central West Virginia. Through that organization, he helped spread the word to fellow veterans of just how therapeutic exercise can be as they attempt to acclimate themselves to a different lifestyle. Brett’s message to all who will listen is simple.

“There are forms of physical fitness that are beneficial and suitable for veterans who have suffered short- or long-term physical injuries, including amputations, for those who are battling PTSD and for veterans dealing with just about anything else imaginable,” Brett says. “Wheelchair sports, water aerobics and specialized treadmills are just some of the ways veterans can remain physically active and regain their sense of self-worth.

“The bottom line is that while times may seem tough or even hopeless, they are never too tough to fight through. Veterans are tough enough to fight through anything. The first step, literally, is to get up and move. I firmly believe that physical activity can make all the difference in the world for those going through some of the same struggles that I faced. And the great thing is that it’s not something that has to be overcome alone. There are organizations to assist veterans, there are plenty of fellow veterans who are trying to overcome similar challenges and there are ‘battle buddies’ who can help those in need take that first step toward recovery.”

Excerpt from Freedom Run by Jamie Summerlin. Come hear Jamie read from his new book at Holabird Sports on Saturday, July 13, 2013. Get all the details about our Freedom Run event.

Photo credit: Tiffany Summerlin