Marine veteran Mike Waldron was desperate to learn why he felt like he was dying every day. It took a lot of study for him to figure out the problems he faced were related to his military service, even though he'd been out for years.
Once he was able to help himself, he decided that he needed to help others.
To do that, he looked to experts, developing a program for veterans based on both his personal recovery and methods developed by professional psychologists in the field.
The nonprofit 23rd Veteran was the result of that journey. Chances are good you've seen photos of its now-famous Nearly Naked Ruck March. But a healthy dose of patriotism and physical activity is just the beginning of what it does.
23rd Veteran uses a 14-week reconditioning program that pulls together a dozen or so veterans to rebuild their sense of purpose and create the esprit de corps of a unit.
"We have a boot camp on the way in, one that teaches us how to be successful in the military," Waldron said. "And that changes our brains. Then if we go to combat or deployment, our brain has changed even more. But when getting out, it's a five-day class on how to be a civilian again, after years of training on how to be military. It just doesn't make a lot of sense, when you look at it that way."
Waldron served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2004. He was part of the ground force of the U.S.-led Iraq invasion, rolling across the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border just a few days shy of his 21st birthday. He left the Corps at age 22 and, by 27, he was struggling with the effects of his service.
His struggles began ten years after he saw combat. Like many veterans, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and didn't even realize it.
"I was having panic attacks every day," he said. "I always felt like I was dying. I went to the VA and used medication and counseling but, about five years after the symptoms started, I had to find my own way to overcome it."
That included a dynamic fitness regimen and community engagement. These are now the principles of 23rd Veteran's realignment program.
"I went back and forth a number of times before I realized that fitness and community were helping more than anything," Waldron said.
As soon as he realized the changes that had happened within him, he began to notice his old friends in the Marine Corps going through the same struggles. In true Marine fashion, he decided to do something about it, bringing in an Army fitness specialist and a psychologist to help develop his retraining regimen.
Together, they created 23rd Veteran's 14-week program. It starts with taking veterans out of their comfort zone into an unfamiliar geographic location. For seven days, the team learns how to trust one another and redevelop the leadership abilities inherent in them.
"We come back with a completely renewed sense of purpose and self, along with a team that we haven't experienced often since the military," Waldron said. "So not only do we feel comfortable going out in society now, we want to, because we finally have this trusting team that we've been missing for a long time."
Once back in familiar territory, the newly formed team works out together at a gym three times a week, the idea being to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein in the brain that helps memory. After the workouts, the team practices positive psychology, which includes some memory retraining or trigger retraining.
"Using those common negative triggers from combat and other traumatic instances of the military, we can retrain our brains to relate to new positive events rather than having our brain relate those to the old negative events," Waldron said.
Experiencing the triggers together in a fun environment with a trusting team does the "retraining.” Gradually, the team builds up to facing more and more severe triggers in order to train their brains into associating traumatic experiences into enjoyable ones.
The teams they built and the friendships they made will become their new, more positive experiences.
"We start with a restaurant where we have a lot of people around us, a lot of noises in a crowded place," Waldron said. "Instead of associating the experience to a negative place in combat from years ago, our brain can now relate it to this new, fun, trusting event with these people that we know."
From there, the group may go to a trampoline park, with the ground shaking and kids screaming all around them. Next, they'll hit up a bowling alley, filled with sudden movement, pins rocketing around and maybe even reverberating shocks. Eventually, they will go to a shooting range.
Just 14 weeks before, the veterans of 23rd Veteran may not have been able to get anywhere near a shooting range, but they are now able to go have a good time with their new friends.
23rd Veteran will soon celebrate its five-year anniversary and has been able to help more than 50 struggling veterans, 12 people at a time.
While that may not seem like much to outsiders, 23rd Veteran has taken in people who were barely able to get on a plane, those who never thought they would be able to work again, and even struggling alcoholics. Five years later, the same people are fully integrated members of their community, enjoying full-time careers with a home and family, who continue their fitness regimens and spiritual activities -- all because Waldron wanted to help his buddies free themselves from the struggles he faced.
Waldron began 23rd Veteran while he still had a day job, and the journey has not been easy. The Minnesota-based nonprofit has run fundraising events in six cities, and in each city will run its program based on that fundraising.
23rd Veteran also supports education and training on how human brains are wired after combat and how to create a more veteran-friendly environment in your university or workplace.
"We are not a program of last resort or intervention," Waldron said. "But we know a lot of veterans tend to isolate themselves after their service. That's really dangerous for the mind and leads to things like substance abuse, negative habits and suicide. The first thing we do is combat that isolation. We want to give every veteran a path to hope and happiness."
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