October 12, 2010
Greetings from Base Camp! It seems like it's taken forever to get here, though it's actually just been a year of planning and a week of trekking. Now we are finally poised to climb our mountain. Getting this far has been a true challenge for everyone involved with the hardest work about to begin. While we all know that we are taking on huge adversity, with that risk comes even bigger rewards.
Let me introduce you to another one of our valiant soldiers. Ashley has been a delight to have on our expedition. While she doesn't bear physical scars from serving our country, her time in the Army has taken its toll.
Ashley joined the Army in 2001 when she was 17, only 3 days after graduating from high school. Right after basic training, and while waiting to start advanced training as an OH-58 Kiowa Scout helicopter mechanic, 9/11 happened. When it became apparent that our country was in a state of war, her class was cut short by two weeks. Ashley was stationed at Fort Campbell, KY as part of 2/17 CAV, 101st Airborne Division. In her first month, she was sent to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana for a month of intensive field training.
Ashley’s first deployment was to Iraq in February of 2003 as part of the initial invading force. Her unit was on the front lines every day, attached to whatever infantry unit was leapfrogged forward. They were a part of every major battle, from Karbala to Baghdad to Mosul (and everywhere in between), and made a name for themselves as having the most flight hours of any other unit in country.
After returning home, Ashley’s unit had just a year to regroup and get their fleet and troops ready for the next deployment. In September of 2005, they were sent back to Iraq for peace keeping missions. Once again they were moved from place to place as their mission changed. Once again, they distinguished ourselves in battle and returned home.
After six years of service, Ashley left active duty and went into the Utah National Guard as a UH-60 Blackhawk mechanic so she could be closer to her family. However, she didn’t adapt well to civilian life and soon volunteered for deployment in February of 2008. They were sent to Kuwait this time, running missions on the border and up to a prison facility in Iraq. That’s when the years of stress started catching up with her.
As Ashley describes it, “The pressures of war were starting to get to me. After a seemingly endless train of losses and unfortunate events, I finally cracked on Christmas Day. In a state of panic I sought out the services of the mental health clinic, just looking for someone to talk to. But only a half an hour into the conversation it was decided to hospitalize me that night. By New Years Day I was on my way back to the States.”
Currently, Ashley is attached to the Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. For the past year and a half now, she has undergone treatment for PTSD and depression. Recently, she started her medical evaluation board to determine whether or not she is fit for duty. According to Ashley, “I started off with high hopes of recovering. But as treatment after treatment has failed, I've had to look elsewhere for relief from my symptoms. The initial three months here were extremely difficult. I coped by refusing to leave my room except for medical appointments, avoiding contact with anyone else, and drinking heavily.”
Things started turning around for Ashley when another soldier invited her to go on a 100-mile bike ride to Gettysburg, an annual event sponsored by World T.E.A.M Sports. She recalls, “I hadn't been on a bike in over a decade and thought that I couldn't possibly enjoy it since it wasn't something that I did regularly as a kid. He talked me into it though and soon I was hooked. The camaraderie was something that I hadn't experienced for far too long. Watching able bodied riders jump off their bikes to push amputees on hand cycles uphill, I was reminded that I could still help others even when I could no longer help myself.”
Since then, Ashley has ridden over 2,000 miles, including another Gettysburg event, and lost almost 30 pounds. She still struggles at interacting with other people and resisting the temptation to self medicate. “But I'm getting there. I've been hospitalized for physical ailments that are stress related, I've lost my marriage, and I still don't sleep most nights. But I'm learning to live for those that still need help and, more importantly, for those that are no longer with us.”
Ashley now has a dream of going back to school to eventually work in adaptive sports with disabled soldiers. The road to recovery began with tough physical and mental challenges and they are still her best therapy. As Ashley puts it, “Every day I set new goals for myself and find new things to look forward to. My latest goal is to climb a Himalayan mountain. And I still hold out hope that everything's going to be okay.”