We at Pathways can think of no greater honor than to work with the soldiers and soldiers’ families who have made such great sacrifices for us. This article is one of a series of first-person accounts from the brave men and women who serve our country: what their experience was before Pathways, during and, ultimately, their dreams and hopes afterwards.
Meet Shawn Peterson, Sergeant First Class in the 12th PSYOP Battalion. In March of 2010, Shawn entered the Pathways Weekend training wearing a back brace from a paragliding accident and an attitude that reeked of “stay away from me.” Shawn was the first to admit “I don’t like people,” and his demeanor shouted what he didn’t need to say with words.
As a 16 year, active duty soldier, Shawn was combat-seasoned, having already deployed to the Gulf, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon returning from Afghanistan the first time, a senior non-commissioned officer remarked that he was showing signs of PTSD, to which he replied, “I’ll deal with it.” He then deployed to Iraq 18 months later, in what was to be the worst deployment of his career. Everything was a struggle, and he found himself having an increasingly hard time holding it all together. On the outside, of course, he put up a great front. He was the strong soldier, courageously doing his job. His mask was so good, in fact, that he had everyone convinced that he was “fine,” even himself. It was when he returned from that deployment that his life turned upside down.
Over the next 4 months, he started showing suicidal signs that no one in his command was able to identify. As he struggled with his personal and torturous descent into anguish, he felt alone and increasingly desperate. On the one hand he was trying to deny what he was feeling, and on the other hand he was being consumed by it. His final saving grace was when he met one person who really “got it.” Finally, a man who had been through Pathways, who had the heart and courage to talk straight with Shawn, who had been through exactly the kind of Hell Shawn was going through. Here was someone who was able to identify, name and point out Shawn’s issues in a way that Shawn could no longer deny.
The good news was that once Shawn could no longer hide from his issues and himself, he was finally ready for help. The bad news was that he now needed a “safe” place to work on himself. As Shawn relayed in a letter he recently wrote to a colonel in his unit, “the Army offers programs to help soldiers, but many soldiers don’t pursue them because of the fear that it becomes a mark on their records, something that could damage their careers. If you are diagnosed with PTSD you are a useless Soldier to the army and are put in a ‘program’ that is supposed to help. But now you’re isolated, struggling and everyone knows your problem. So we avoid these programs.”
Shawn didn’t want to end up in the same place he had seen other soldiers: stuck between trying to be open enough about their issues to heal and battling a stigma that kept them from getting help. “They are not allowed to be the wounded Soldiers they are,” Shawn said. “They are still held to a strong disciplinary regime that is detrimental to healing.”
Although Pathways is not therapy and doesn’t replace medical treatment, for soldiers like Shawn who are just starting to show signs of PTSD, it provides the perfect combination of acknowledging the reality of your life, accountability, tools and support. As a self-help program, there are no records, no notes, no weekly meetings or groups. No one tells the soldier what his or her goals should be. The power is in the group and in the strong internal motivation for change created by being completely honest with yourself and talking from the heart.
Listening to the man now with his infectious grin and quick humor, it’s hard to imagine that just one week before the Weekend training Shawn was, in his words, “ready to eat my pistol.” For Shawn, Pathways ended up literally saving his life. “In Pathways I got the tools to help myself, and others that are screaming silently for help. I got the tools to identify and see the signs of anger, withdrawal, sadness, helplessness, fear, and the look of desperation. All of these are minor signs that by themselves look just like daily emotions. These kinds of emotions will start to collect, and then they soon spiral out of the soldier’s control.”
Shawn is passionate about paying this forward and helping other soldiers. He is currently undergoing a personal campaign within the Army to help get funding for soldiers to attend Pathways. Because it isn’t an officially “Army sanctioned” program, Shawn paid for his training out of his own pocket. Like other soldiers stationed outside of Dallas, that means that in addition to the tuition, food and hotel, he had to pay for his own flights.
“I believe it was worth every penny if not more,” Shawn says. “Pathways has given me the tools to live an outstanding life! My family and friends have noticed a huge change in me. I am happier now than I have ever been.” On Mother’s Day this year, for example, for the first time ever, Shawn sent his mother flowers. He connects to people in ways he couldn’t imagine before. “I feel and believe that there is nothing that will ever get in my way again. I am able to relate to and understand people on a whole new level. Some of my friends and fellow soldiers that I have pushed away are excited to get to know the new me. I look forward to helping soldiers experience and have the same happiness I have.”
“I have become a better man, Soldier and leader for it. Pathways has opened my eyes to what is wrong with myself, and it showed me how I can truly take care of and help other soldiers effectively.”
Thank you, Shawn, for your dedication in your military service, your sacrifice and your commitment. Most of all, Shawn, thank you for your open heart and courageous example of true leadership from the heart in the Pathways training rooms. You may never know how many other people’s lives you have touched and changed for the better.
As told to Patti Villalobos