I learned firsthand how essential it is to have the right gear for extreme conditions while serving overseas in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Ounces turn into pounds if you're carrying them for long durations, and obviously you can only fit so much into your pack. The decision of what's a necessity and what’s an accessory is always challenging.
That's why I love that Coalatree takes size and weight into consideration when designing their products. They have always been willing to help out with both my personal needs, and the nonprofits, by supplying us with quality gear for every adventure. Thanks, Coalatree, for all the love and support!
This is my story....
When I first got out of the military after serving five years on the front lines, it was difficult to figure out what to do with my life. The transition can be difficult. The social norms of the military are drastically different than that of the civilian world (or at least that was my first impression). After feeling lost upon returning home and questioning what I wanted to do next, I decided to take a few years to enjoy the freedoms I fought for and redirect my attention back to what gave me happiness as a kid growing up in Idaho. I grew up whitewater kayaking, so I dedicated the next few years of my life pursuing personal clarity and searching to find some much needed direction in life.
It wasn’t long until I met a hard charging individual by the name of Davis Gove, who was already paddling challenging white water at an elite level. He was a massive help in my own personal progression in the sport. I vividly remember him taking me to run my first stout waterfall, located in Eastern Idaho, called Lower Mesa Falls on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River. The waterfall consists of primarily two lines. River left is a double drop. The first drop roughly 20ft into an immediate 35ft drop. The second was an intimidating 65ft river right line that has a protruding rock shelf sticking out about half way down the drop. I opted to run the safer left line, and Davis stepped up to running the technical right. I would go first and set safety below for Davis.
I paddled frantically and excessively over the two drops and had a pretty decent run. I remember the feeling of being so gripped and totally locked in the moment and an immediate overwhelming rush when I reached the bottom of the falls, and looking back up river and the feeling of pure bliss after coming out of such chaos. I set safety for Davis and waited—then watched him take a massive hit on the protruding ledge half way down, tossing him over the nose of his kayak and auto ejecting him on impact.
When he surfaced, I paddled over to him. His facial expression told me he was in pain. It became apparent when he managed to make out the words, “I BROKE MY BACK…”. We formed a plan to get Davis mobilized and med-evaced to safety. We made a makeshift back splint out of his broken paddle to support him upright, placed him back in his kayak, paddled him a grueling 5 miles to the nearest bridge down river, and then carefully loaded him up in my car and drove three hours to the nearest hospital.
This was a turning point in my life. The raw intensity of kayaking expeditions when you are locked deep down in a canyon with nothing but class 5 whitewater on the horizon, and a team so tight knit that you can trust them with your life reminded me of similar scenarios from past missions in the military. It was an eye-opening moment in my life when I decided to stop running from the idea that this was who I am now, and instead embraced it.
The intense lifestyle of serving multiple tours as an Infantry grunt overseas has undoubtedly shaped my life. I realized that I thrive under heart-pounding conditions, and instead of trying to flush that out me, I adopted the lifestyle and channeled it into something positive and progressive. It is something that has allowed me to turn the chapter on my life and move forward from the military, keeping my thoughts on the next adventure and not the traumatic past experiences that constantly replayed in my mind.
The camaraderie is almost exactly that of the military. Friends from all different walks of life coming together for one common love of kayaking, and it doesn’t take long before those friends become family. The river is your battle field, and your objective is to safely navigate the rapids. Just like in combat, shit can hit the fan. You’re holding on with everything you got, and praying you make it out alive. When things go from bad to worse and your life is on the line, you know damn well that the people on that mission with you will do everything in their power to save you. Even if that means risking their own life, because they know you would do the same for them. This type of support is essential for the human mind, and something myself and a lot of other struggling veterans didn’t know existed outside of the military. Something that I knew could help so many veterans move forward with their lives.
After that trip I started an awareness campaign to share the therapeutic possibilities that the great outdoors and action sports possess to the veteran community. One thing myself and all the veterans I have met along the way agree on is that if more veterans could access this sense of lifestyle, it would better them both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, the wakeup call would hit when one of my best friends that I grew up with, and who also served in the military, lost his battle to post traumatic stress and took his own life. I fully understood that an awareness campaign was simply not enough. After doing a good amount of research, I found that a staggering 22 veterans take their own lives every day. I knew the solution and decided to dedicate my life to helping other struggling veterans find the same lifestyle that helped me so drastically.
In 2017, with the help of my best friends, I created the 501(c)3 nonprofit Professional Transformation Sports Development (PTSD), an organization dedicated to helping struggling veterans find a new positive passion in life through outdoor action sports. PTSD allows veterans the opportunity to participate in a fully funded two-week introduction course to the following sports: skiing/snowboarding, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. PTSD covers every expense from flights, accommodations, food and beverages, and all the necessary gear required for their new chosen sport. PTSD take veterans from knowing nothing at all to having the knowledge to fully pursue the sport to the best of their ability. PTSD then gives each veteran who participates all the necessary gear upon completion of the two-week course. What good is it to give someone a glimpse into a better lifestyle and then take it right back? PTSD also brings veterans together in groups of 5 to 10 so that veterans can meet others who share similar struggles, and are also eager to get involved in that sport. This allows veterans to find a support system essential to forming meaningful bonds that last a lifetime.
I have to admit it wasn't easy to get started, and attaining the funding it requires is no easy task. I was also a little concerned that maybe this doesn't work for every veteran… what if the transformation I experienced wouldn't have the same impact on other veterans? However, three years later and after helping over 100 veterans, those worries have disspated. PTSD has been tremendously successful. I've now witnessed firsthand so many veterans completely transform their mental and physical health for the better.
I can't even begin to express how rewarding it truly is to watch veterans turn their entire life around. I see veterans all over the country competing in elite races and competitions just months after walking through the PTSD doors. Going from novice to expert so rapidly, it truly astonishes me. I have had several veterans express to me that this program has saved their life. I have always said, "You don't need to make a million dollars to be happy, you just need that one thing that makes you want to get out of bed every morning." We all have struggles, that is part of life, but if you have that one thing you are passionate about then you have all you need. I can't take all the credit. I have an amazing team, and veterans make great athletes! They already know how to mitigate risks and push their bodies to extremes. All it takes is a little guidance, and the fire is lit.
Ultimately what I'm getting at is that the outdoors undoubtedly saved my life and so many others. Don't take it for granted, every day is a new day! I've been fortunate enough to have the help of sponsors like Coalatree help me go adventure all over the world. But if you simply just make money off doing the things you love, then you're not doing anything to progress the sport. We all started with the help of someone! Reach out and try to influence others to get involved. Take them under your wing and show them the fundamentals. Help change lives. You never know, you may actually be saving someone's life. You already know how much the great outdoors means to you, go out and help others find the same sense of joy, freedom, and love. If you know a struggling veteran that could benefit from our program, then please send them to our website and encourage them to register at www.ptsdveteranathletes.com.
Keep the stoke high, keep charging, keep motivating, keep exploring the elements, and I'll see ya out there! Cheers.
Learn more about Russell's work at www.ptsdveteranathletes.com