Soldiers climb Longs Peak to combat post-traumatic stress disorder
July 28, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Inside Bob Mullen's living room Thursday, a small band of soldiers hailing from across the country put their life stories down on paper.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ed Blecksmith wrote about the combat fatigue he carried home from Vietnam. He described how he hid the symptoms because they were unfashionable for an officer.
"I had to bury it," he said about post-traumatic stress disorder a few hours later in front of a small crowd at Bud Werner Memorial Library. "There was nothing called PTSD when I left Vietnam."
Mullen, a platoon commander during the Vietnam War, wrote about the disease that spurred him to fall to the pavement of a parking lot when he heard the harmless "whoosh" of a helicopter overhead years after the war ended. He sometimes mistook the bees that buzzed by his ears as bullets.
It took him decades to learn to trust again.
Marine John Augustine wrote about the disease no man in combat can hide from.
"It takes something from you," Augustine said about war. "When you see your buddies getting killed and maimed, it affects anyone no matter how strong you are."
As the men polished the speeches they would deliver at the library, Augustine and his fellow veterans exchanged crude jokes.
The humor helped numb some of their darker subject matter.
They also made sure to make room to write about the good things they did and the benefits of serving one's country in uniform.
But after all the jokes and revelry, the soldiers instantly grew somber and serious when they described what brought them all to Steamboat Springs.
"We're here for a real serious purpose that involves a lot of pain," said Augustine, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 and traveled to Steamboat from Austin, Texas.
He and the other veterans were preparing to climb Longs Peak early Sunday to raise money and awareness for soldiers suffering from PTSD. The disease kills too many people, the soldiers said.
Inside Mullen's home office are stacks of books about the brain.
The brain is plastic, he said, and it can be modified to replace the bad "neuron bundles" that accompany men home from war and cause the symptoms of PTSD.
He said he managed his own PTSD from his bathtub through meditation and mental exercises.
"The first thing I had to do was convince myself I wasn't responsible for the Vietnam War," he said.
Before Mullen embarked on his mental quest to control his PTSD, he had to prove his quest could be successful.
To do that, he changed a long-standing driving habit. Instead of becoming "pissed off" and angry when cars would cut him off, he gradually learned to let cars merge into his lane. He used that breakthrough to begin controlling his PTSD.
In 2010, Mullen launched Out of the Shadows, a weekly support group for soldiers grappling with the disease. He said didn't want other soldiers to have to go down the long road of fighting the disease alone.
This summer, he and four or five veterans, most of them Vietnam-era, meet on his back porch each week for the program.
"PTSD is difficult," he said. "Some people don't want to deal with it. It's like, 'OK. I got it, but it's a hard thing to get rid of, and getting rid of it takes hard work.’"
In May, Mullen invited his veteran friends to come to Steamboat last week to speak about the disease and to climb Longs Peak. He also had the Steamboat Springs City Council declare July 29 as PTSD Day.
The soldiers who came to Colorado to climb the 14,259-foot peak said they considered Mullen's invitation another mission, a chance to help the young soldiers who are grappling with hardships as they return from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of the veterans in Steamboat were flatlanders in their 60s who weren't sure they could handle the altitude. But the mission was too important to pass up.
Talking it out
Taking turns at a podium at Bud Werner Memorial Library on Thursday night, the soldiers praised Mullen and his work to aid combat veterans.
They also described how they overcame their own PTSD symptoms to become the men they are today.
Blecksmith, who traveled to Steamboat from St. Helena, Calif., said it was war that caused him to attack a refrigerator in the middle of the night that he thought was an enemy combatant inside his room at a Virginia airbase.
He said it was his friendships and continued connections inside the U.S. Marine Corps that helped him to heal and remove his brain from combat.
Years later, Blecksmith had to turn again to his faith and his Marine Corps training to cope with the loss of his youngest son, JP, who died in 2004 fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, as a 24-year-old.
"I'll never get over it," Blecksmith said about his son’s death. "I keep his name and his spirit alive. That's the reason I started doing these talks. He'd want me to, to keep living."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com