Expedition Recovery: Riding Out the Demons of War
A soldier's plan to outride PTSD on a motorcycle
I did the wrong thing 9,085 miles ago. I left late in the day, on little sleep, and on a time crunch. I waved goodbye and headed north from my home to the extreme northern end of the Americas at Deadhorse, Alaska. By a little after midnight I was camping in the Arctic Circle, and all alone with my thoughts. Surprisingly, I had an actual dream, something I’d rarely done since returning from combat in Iraq in December, 2006.
That shakedown run would take me three days from my home in North Pole, Alaska, to the Arctic Ocean at Deadhorse, and back in just a little over a thousand miles. The motorcycle, a 2015 Honda CB500X I modified for off-road with parts from Rally Raid, performed flawlessly, and the trip allowed me time to get used to the solitude of long days in the saddle with my thoughts.
Time alone to think is often my worst enemy. My transition from the U.S. Army Infantry after six years of service appeared to everyone as being smooth and trouble-free. I got surgery to fix my damaged shoulder, went right to work learning a new trade, and finally followed through on my lifelong plan of becoming a municipal police officer. The smooth appearance of my life was a lie.
Like many young men returning from war, I thought I had to be the tough guy from the action movies of my youth. I heard the Veterans Administration talking about things like Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and figured that since I felt fine they were clearly wrong. All the while I kept slipping in and out of depression that was further spurred by my father’s suicide in the fall of 2007. All of it built to a head in March of 2013 when I was placed on administrative leave from my police position, then ultimately laid off as a result of medical circumstances due to PTSD.
In the years that followed I fought a running battle with the VA for proper medical and mental health care, and generally coming out on the losing side. Depression began to win and I thought more than once about killing myself. After a near suicidal low last winter, I decided that I needed to fix what was wrong instead of just dealing with the symptoms. That meant moving up the schedule on my plan to ride the Americas by motorcycle after graduation: The plan is to graduate from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, with an Occupational endorsement in law enforcement operations, an Associates in Construction Management, and a Bachelor’s in Journalism in spring, 2018. But I decided I couldn’t wait that long.
Time on motorcycles has always been like dreaming for me. I recover so much mentally through the focus and attention I put into riding while the rest of my mind simply mulls over the things too large to process in whole. This is even more important as dreams had become more and more fleeting as time passed.
My decision was made. I was going to take this trip and work on me regardless of what it took. I had lost my dream career and too many friends to PTSD, depression and the like. I would not add myself to that statistic.
Moving forward, I knew there had to be a better way than the VA for vets to get help. A little searching found The Soldiers Project, which provides free mental health counseling to post-9/11 service members, veterans, and their families, without any limit on care and with total anonymity. While The Soldiers Project has only seven chapters and wouldn’t have been able to help me, their mission was exactly in line with my desire to help others. I made contact and started to help get their word out and to try and get some financial support for them as well.
Since that three-day run north, I have crossed two countries from north to south and made it halfway across the United States from west to east before heading south again into Mexico. I have met many old friends, and made new ones. At one point I let my guard down enough to be startled by a waiter; thanks to the presence of a good friend and fellow veteran, I didn’t shut down because of it. I have even entered my first crowded market since Baghdad.
With new friends around me, I’ve found the strength to begin pushing out the fatigued memories of combat with new and healthy replacements, where the swirling mass of people speaking another language no longer sets me on edge, but frees me of fear, anger, and discontent. The ride goes on.
For more information, visit TheSoldiersProject.
More by Zachary Sherman