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PTSD Awareness Adventure 2012: Across the US by Bike


     My name is Thomas Skinner; I am a US Army veteran who is battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) every minute of every day.  PTSD is “a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after seeing or experiencing a traumatic event involving the threat of injury or death.”    It is my mission to use my experiences to help other veterans understand and recognize the signs, symptoms and effects of PTSD, and then to help them find the resources they need to cope with its effects and live happy, productive lives.

     While visuals and writing can never really capture the sheer terror and panic I feel sometimes, putting these emotions into my art and writing helps me release some of them. Scrubs, my service dog, helps me with most of the rest.

     My video, “Understanding PTSD,” a visual interpretation of my PTSD emotions (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6WOoz-_mHg&feature=player_embedded), and the following  snippets from my journal and posts will, I hope, provide some insight:

     “18 people commit suicide every day because of PTSD…18 a day…18 the next day…end of story.”

     “Some friends, my family, my doctors and things I have read all talk about avoidance.  For the last 20 years I’ve been always on the move, state to state; I have lived in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Louisiana and Indiana…I think that’s all.”

     “PTSD keeps me away from most of my friends and the things I want to do. Waves of anxiety and worrying about having a bad anxiety attack in public are still enough to keep me home or just riding the bike.”

     “Last night was long and almost sleepless. When I did sleep I would wake up soaking wet with sweat.  Scrubs was on the job, working full time at keeping me company – and calm.”

     “PTSD is always waiting to attack me.  I have such a need to do something extreme, like go for a hike across the country.  I need to just get out of my safe place and walk and walk and walk.  I need to get away from everything that I use to hide behind.  I want to force myself to face my PTSD head on.”

     “Yesterday something happened that I was not prepared for and it hit me really hard.  First, the minister who initially came out to help the family and me when I had my first bad flashback PTSD attack was the minister this week at my church.  I do not remember that day or him but I was really embarrassed and ashamed and tried to say I am sorry.  As I was talking to him in the parking lot I could feel a lot of bad emotions from that day all come rushing back; I just stopped talking, let him talk and hoped the conversation would end.  I went and sat in the church and just tried to stay calm.                         ‘

     “A man come up to me with tears in his eyes to say how much we have in common and thank me for the presentation I gave last Sunday.  I could see the PTSD in his eyes, hear it in his voice.  The tears started falling and he walked away.  I was not prepared to see that sort of pain on someone else and I never want to again.  I know exactly what he was feeling as he shook my hand and it hurt bad.  PTSD is one of the most painful, lonely, scary, things I have had to deal with in my life.”

     “No bedroom to hide in, just Scrubs and me, walking and sharing our story.  Would I be able to do this?  Where should I hike?  My PTSD feels like it is ready to attack me if I move too fast.  Well, if I am going to feel this way sitting at home tweeting, blogging, updating my three Facebook pages, then I need to feel this way while making a difference in other people’s lives.  How do I do this?  What is it that I really need and want to do?  Do I just grab the cameras and do a local hike?  Is this the way I will share my story one step at a time?”

     “What comes after welcome home?” is what I will be talking about on my way across the country on my bicycle. I have not picked an exact start and finish yet but it will have something to do with my church or PTSD or, hopefully, both.”

     On March 10, 2012, my son Parry, Scrubs and I began a one hundred and seventeen day journey from La Mesa, California to White River Junction, Vermont, home of the National Center for PTSD.  Along the way I will be giving my presentation “What Comes After Welcome Home,” which covers my personal experiences of having service-related PTSD, as well as a variety of issues related to welcoming returning veterans into your community.  As service members return in large numbers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we are seeing that a staggering number of them suffer with PTSD.  There is too often a stigma projected onto to these men and women that says PTSD is a sign of weakness.  Raising awareness about the reality of PTSD and helping to reduce the stigma attached to it are the main focus of my journey.

     I hope my journey helps you with your journey.

Thomas Skinner

Hitting the Road

     Tom, Parry and Scrubs “hit the road” March 10, 2012, sent off in grand style by the people of the United Church of Christ of La Mesa.  Here is the story of that exciting day.  Future reports will share their further adventures. 

     There was about the morning of March 10, 2012 the very spirit of Hebrews 12.  Tom Skinner, his twenty-one year old son Parry and Tom’s service dog, Scrubs, “compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses,”1 were being sent forth by the members of the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (UCCLM), “pioneers who blazed the way…veterans cheering (them) on.”2   Their mission?  To bike from La Mesa, CA to White River Junction, VT to raise awareness of the prevalence and horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder Tom’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Bill Peterson, noted may even have beset one of the Bible’s great warriors, King David.

     The morning starts quietly – and early.  Volunteers roll a display board of Tom’s U.S. Army effects, trip maps and information about PTSD and the church’s Welcome Home Ministries into the church parking lot.  Inside, in Friendship Hall, Tom and Parry, “supervised” by Scrubs, fill water bottles and complete a final supply check – granola bars, check; three-season tent, check; sleeping bags, check; dog food, check, and so on – roughly eighty-five pounds per rider, including the weight of the bikes (Surlys both: The Big Dummy for Tom, the Long Haul Trucker for Parry) and trailers (one for Scrubs, one for supplies).  Hanging from Tom’s bike is a special token, bright pink high-top sneakers belonging to his two year old daughter, Courtney.

     Are they ready, really ready?  As Tom recently explained on his website, www.understandingptsd.org, “Are we physically ready?  Probably, but I still worry we could be better.  Are we mentally ready?  YOU BET WE ARE.”

     A stirring of noise in the parking lot.  The people of Performance Bicycle of La Mesa (www.performancebike.com), one of Tom’s sponsors, are setting up a workspace where they will offer tune-ups for the bikes of those accompanying the Skinners on their initial celebratory loop through La Mesa (they will also provide technical support during the trip).   Guests – Tom and Parry’s “cloud of witnesses” – are arriving, TV cameras – KGTV, Channel 10 (ABC) and KNSD, Channel 7 (NBC) – are being fitted onto tripods and microphones are being tested.  Photo ops abound as interviews are conducted.  The countdown begins.

     Rev. Bill welcomes the guests to UCCLM, “the voice of progressive Christianity in the East County,” commenting on its long history as a peace and justice congregation.  He reads from Isaiah and Luke:

     “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk [bike] and not faint.  (Isaiah 40: 28-31, RSV)”

     “He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! [Pay attention!] You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  (Luke 12:54-56, RSV)

then leads the assembled in prayer, asking church members to encircle the Skinner party.  Blessing men, dog and mission he starts them on their 117 day cross-country trek to the home of the National Center for PTSD in Vermont.

     A couple of spins around the parking lot and they are on their way to Part 2 of the grand send-off – at La Mesa’s City Hall where Mayor Art Madrid, City Council members Dave Allan and Ruth Sterling and representatives of  the Interfaith Council of La Mesa await.  Another ceremony, more cameras (on-line paper La Mesa Today’s among them), the gift of La Mesa Centennial shirts and hats and the traveling Skinners are once again on their way – to their first destination, Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, 50 miles to the north.  There they will do their first PTSD presentation of the trip before heading further north to Murrieta.

     What do they expect of the trip’s early days?  Among Tom’s comments on his website are, “We have a great three-season three man tent.  The sleeping bags are a risk we are taking.  We spent more money on the tent and just picked up some $30 sleeping bags from a department store.  We run the chance of some pretty cold weather and snow the first 30 or 40 days up in the higher elevations of California, Arizona and New Mexico but with the clothes we are bringing and the durability of a high quality tent I think we will be fine.  We are not going to haul much food when it is so readily available.  We will shop on the way out of our last town before he hit the long roads of the desert on old Route 66.”

     Tom promises weekly updates via video blogs as the trip progresses (see the itinerary on his website).   He’ll be giving his presentation, “What Comes After Welcome Home,” at colleges, churches and veterans organizations across the country, sharing his experiences and helping other PTSD sufferers find important resources to help better their lives.

     One hundred and seventeen days, sixteen states, 3800 miles, the journey of a lifetime – an exciting, important and costly one for which Tom, Parry and Scrubs ask your support. Donations may be made at www.understandingptsd.org.  The Welcome Home Ministries Fund is a dedicated fund of UCCLM.  Individuals and businesses may make a tax deductible contribution by clicking on the “Donate” button under “Help Our Cause” in the right margin of the home page of the website, or by mailing a check made out to “UCCLM: Welcome Home Ministries.”  Address to United Church of Christ of La Mesa, 5940 Kelton Avenue, La Mesa, CA 91942-2836.  One can also go to www.ucclm.org, select the “Church News” tab, and scroll down to “New Ministry Welcomed at UCCLM” and click on the picture below it, which will transfer to www.understandingptsd.org.

 Mary Domb Mikkelson

1Hebrews 12:1 (KJV)
2Hebrews 12:1 (The Message)

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