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I Was in Denial About My PTSD. On the Pacific Crest Trail, I Learned How to Heal

When the memories of combat refused to fade, a former army medic found healing in thru-hiking.

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I joined the army to create a better life for myself. Between a steady career and the G.I. Bill, which would pay for any education I wanted after I mustered out, it offered me opportunities I never could have afforded otherwise. But I didn’t count on how much being an active-duty soldier would change who I was. 

In June of 2007, I deployed to Iraq for 13 months as a combat medic. I provided frontline medical care to my platoon as we convoyed all around Iraq, often encountering IEDs or coming under fire. In the beginning I kept track of how many missions I had been on, but after a few months, I stopped counting. Part of me hoped that if I didn’t track the operations, I wouldn’t remember what I experienced. I was a 22-year-old with less than a year as a medic under my belt and if anything happened to my group of over a dozen soldiers, it was up to me to save their lives. It took a huge toll on me mentally, and I didn’t know how to process that trauma both during my deployment and after it was over. So instead I did what I had always done and buried everything deep down. 

By 2012 I had started a family of my own, with three beautiful children. For the most part I felt quite happy with my life, but it was becoming harder and harder not to fixate on memories from my deployment. I didn’t want to turn to alcohol or drugs to numb the emotional pain, as, sadly, many veterans do. I couldn’t do that to my family. Instead, I turned to a more positive coping mechanism: nature. I began hiking and trail running, spending more and more time in the wilderness, and found that every outing helped push the memories back. My husband and I began running trail races together, with our kids riding in strollers or backpacks. Eventually, I worked my way up to a 240-mile ultramarathon. 

But I still wanted more. I found that I enjoyed racing ultramarathons—pushing my body to its limits through mountains, forests and deserts—but I wanted to spend a night outside when I wasn’t running. I decided that if I could tackle an ultra, I could backpack, and I pulled my family with me. It was a lot of trial and error at first, but eventually I decided I was ready for the next step: thru-hiking.

“I had long known that I was in denial about the trauma I had experienced, but what I had gone through seemed so much smaller in the face of what other Iraq veterans endured; I struggled to admit that I could be suffering from my own long-term aftereffects, too.”

In 2020, as the world shut down, I decided to attempt the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Pacific Crest Trail heading southbound. Most thru-hikers do the PCT south to north to avoid the worst of the California heat and North Cascades snow, but going against the crowd appealed to me. Besides, my parents lived in Washington, so I would have a place to stay and a ride to the northern terminus. 

I was also drawn in when I discovered there was only one prior southbound FKT attempt on record, by a man named Scott Williamson, who finished in 64 days, 11 hours, and 19 minutes. To beat him I would need to average 42 miles a day for roughly two months. My main strategy was not to fixate on the overall mileage, though. Instead, I took things one state at a time, one section at a time, and one day at a time, the same way I ran ultramarathons.  

The night before leaving, I laid out all of my gear, double-checking everything against my master list. Since I would be starting in the snow, I had crampons and an ice axe in addition to my food (mostly meals I dehydrated myself), a 2-pound tent, and a small stack of clothes stuffed into a drybag. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. 

My first day on trail in the North Cascades started with a mix of snow and rain, thick fog, and snow patches covering the route. Those conditions set the tone for the next few weeks; the terrain was more challenging than I had anticipated, the snow slowed me down, and the trail often disappeared in the drifts. Without my GPS, I would have been lost. Every day I was being pushed mentally and physically beyond what I thought I was capable of, sidehilling across steep snowfields and struggling up icy slopes, and falling short of my mileage goals. 

A few weeks in, I took on the trail name of Isht’ Putaki (pronounced “eesht potakee”) from my Blackfeet culture—“Flies High” in English. It was a name given to me by Chief Earl Old Person when I returned home from Iraq in 2008, for my love of soaring high above the clouds. I had been in the 82nd Airborne Division and earned my air assault badge, which meant I spent a lot of time jumping out of perfectly good airplanes and rappelling from helicopters. 

Trail names are usually given to you by other thru-hikers, but I rarely came across any, since most of them were still near the Mexican border. So I decided to use a name that already meant something to me instead. Reciting it out loud and reminding myself of who I was and what I was capable of gave me strength and courage when I needed it most. 

The most important part of my thru-hike, though, was one I hadn’t expected: Being alone with my thoughts on the trail brought out what I had worked so hard to bury for the last decade. I had long known that I was in denial about the trauma I had experienced, but what I had gone through seemed so much smaller in the face of what other Iraq veterans endured; I struggled to admit that I could be suffering from my own long-term aftereffects, too. On the PCT, finally unable to lean on any distractions or look away from my feelings, I learned to stop comparing myself to everyone else and accept that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress, and had been for years. 

I felt as though a weight had been lifted. I wasn’t afraid to admit I had a problem anymore, and that was the most important step to seeking help. 

In the end, I didn’t set an FKT, but more important goals had taken over. During my seven weeks in the wilderness, I had found healing, and began to move past the trauma I had tried to ignore for years. Life is precious, and thru-hiking drove home a key realization: I didn’t want to spend any more of my time fixating on past events or letting them rule my emotions. 

On the PCT, I finally became free.