Three young men drifted down the river, sunburnt, their beards growing and their hearts soaring. Then an unmistakable sound: the thunder of artillery practice at a nearby fort. Two of the men looked at the third. For a second, his mind was a thousand miles away, years ago, then he leaned forward, dug his paddle into the water, and thought of a conversation starter. The three paddled briskly now; they talked and laughed more loudly. The cannon fire faded.
Photo by Chris Rogers
. A Utica native and veteran of Afghanistan's fiercest fighting, Josh Ploetz, stopped in Winona on a more than 2,300-mile canoe trip down the Mississippi River to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder. His canoe bears the names of four close friends who committed suicide after returning from Afganistan.
Utica native, St. Charles High School graduate, and Winona State University (WSU) student Joshua Ploetz fought in the Marine Corps in one of the deadliest regions of Afghanistan. He led squads in the Korengal Valley where numerous Americans were killed and troops traded fire regularly with the enemy.
When he arrived back home, surprising things would trigger overwhelming memories. The smell of gasoline at the pump sent his mind reeling back to the battlefield. He felt sad, angry, anxious. He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "I was married and divorced," Ploetz said. "Just another statistic."
Four of Ploetz's closest friends from the Marines died in the service. Another four "were PTSD suicides," he said. "It boggles the mind." Ploetz paused. "I've been almost there. You only need one more rock to sink the boat," he continued. One of those dear friends killed his wife and her ex-lover before taking his own life and leaving two children behind, Ploetz said. That friend tried to talk to Ploetz about some of the things he was going through. "I didn't take it seriously. I wish I had," he said.
Now, Ploetz is carrying those names across the country, branded on the hull of his canoe. Inspired by wounded veterans programs such as Walk Off the War, which sends veterans suffering from PTSD hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and a canoeist friend from Fountain City, Ploetz is paddling the length of the Great River. Paddle Off the War, he calls it. Ploetz launched from Lake Itasca this spring and passed through Winona last Friday. The trip is both an opportunity to raise awareness of PTSD and, for Ploetz, a therapy itself.
After embarking, "I didn't have nightmares for 10 days. It was awesome — so peaceful," Ploetz said. On a trip like this, "paddling is your job," he joked, and the rhythm of it was soothing. Good omens seemed to follow him down the river.
As he crossed the massive Lake Winnibigoshish, which many paddlers eschew for fear of being swamped by high waves, the great lake was perfectly still. Every day, Ploetz saw bald eagles gliding overhead or diving, talons first, toward a fish. For the Marine, who bore the corps' eagle and anchor insignia, being followed by eagles "was kind of like I've got my brothers looking out for me," he said.
Ploetz spoke with other veterans — a young man who suffered PTSD from an abusive childhood, an alcoholic who set down the bottle after meeting him. The interactions seemed infused with purpose and Ploetz had many "moments of finding peacefulness."
PTSD is still a daily reality for Ploetz, but he is now vigorously pursuing health and help. Counseling and learning coping techniques has made a huge difference, he said.
Former inmates sometimes stay at halfway houses when they leave prison, but returning combat veterans are too often dumped back into the civilian world, without a chance to learn coping skills to handle the emotions that bubble up from war or to "re-learn how to have those emotions," Ploetz said. During combat, "the Marine Corps tries to take those emotions and crush them," Ploetz said. "Because a normal human being wouldn't pull the trigger on somebody." Ploetz continued, "Everyday during boot camp we would yell, 'kill.' 'Kill, kill, kill! Kill them all!'" Experiencing emotion is not encouraged and "opening up" is considered "girly" by many Marines, he said. "Don't get me wrong, we have to do this to have a fighting force, but after the fighting, we have to make sure everyone is OK," he commented. "If we just did the same thing as we did in the Marine Corps — make sure your fellow Marines are OK," that might make all the difference, he added.
Talking about it is still hard, even for Ploetz. However, on his trip, Ploetz has met fellow Marines who have shared their struggles with PTSD and the impossibility of forgetting the war. "You'll never change your memories," but there is power in combat veterans talking together and watching out for each other, Ploetz said. "I want vets to stand up for vets, especially combat vets. Combat vets share a bond. You've been through the [dirt]. You've been through the grind, blood, sweat, and tears," he added.
Ploetz has been surprised by the support his trip elicited among civilians. "It's just phenomenal to know how much people do care," he said. He encouraged everyone to "seek out vets. Find those people; see how they're doing." Just a phone call and the simple question, "How are you?" can be a huge help.
Ploetz' progress can be followed on Facebook by joining the "Paddle Off the War" group. Ploetz financed his trip himself, but is fundraising to send other veterans on river trips. Information on donating to Ploetz's group is available at www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/AFF/PaddleoffTheWar.