Mary Southerland’s life is much like the river she has been navigating for the past 630 miles. At times, the rapid waves and strange currents make it difficult to advance her kayak down the length of the Ohio. Yet some days, the water calms and the 35-year-old progresses quickly with ease.
Even when stillness falls on the river, Southerland’s mind continues to churn. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] will do that to you. So can the trauma from serving in a war zone.
“There is a peace,” Southerland said about her Ohio River journey to a group gathered at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in Jeffersonville. “There’s also a lot of fear and stress because when you’re alone with your mind and you’re not well, it’s hard.”
In an effort to bring awareness to the plight of veterans and contractors who suffer from PTSD and other mental illnesses, Southerland is on a mission to kayak 981 miles down the Ohio River, having begun from Pittsburgh. Thirty-five days into her journey, the Salt Lake City resident landed in Jeffersonville with her land-based, two-man team and service dog Henry on Friday and spent the weekend talking to different church groups in the area. If all goes as planned, she’ll reach her final destination of Cairo, Mo., on Sept. 27.
Southerland didn’t begin her career as a PTSD advocate. Owning and managing spas filled her world before she knew war. But when a chance to become a Department of Defense contractor popped up, Southerland decided she was up for the adventure. In 2008-09, she traveled Iraq as a subject matter expert, among other jobs, and worked with linguists all over the country. In 2012, she returned to Iraq as a Department of State contractor and performed security at the U.S. Embassy in downtown Baghdad.
According to Southerland, more than 50 percent of war personnel have been contractors since 2006. Paid employees like these live and work with servicemen and women on a daily basis. But unlike those in the armed forces, contractors receive their workers’ compensation and other benefits from private companies.
Due to exposure to stressful situations in Iraq, Southerland was diagnosed with PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder after returning to the US earlier this year. Since coming home, she has fought her private insurance company for medical benefits.
“I’ve heard a couple of veterans [say] I’d rather have had my arm blown off than have my mind go bad. It’s easier to see the need physically. It’s harder to address the mental state,” Southerland said.
As contractors and military personnel return home after service in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, cases of those battling PTSD have been making the news. A 2012 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] shows that roughly 30 percent of all veterans of these wars treated at VA hospitals and clinics have PTSD, a disorder that can have dire consequences. A separate VA study from February 2013 revealed an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day, or one person takes their own life every 65 seconds. Sixty-nine percent of these suicides occur in vets 50 and older. Contractors employed by the Department of Defense and Department of State like Southerland are not counted in those statistics.
“When you start to get living at that high level for so long over there, no matter what your trauma is, and you come back, your brain does not want to come back down. So it’s like being stuck at fight or flight all the time,” she said. “You just want to feel normal again and the only way to feel normal is to put yourself in harm’s way.”
So far this year, four people she knew through her days as a contractor have committed suicide. One man she worked with, a British national named Ian Robinson, asked Southerland in February to come out and visit. Attempting to get through her own dark times, she never replied. Robinson killed himself several months later.
“Because he no longer wanted to be a burden to his family, watch his savings disappear and keep pushing his friends and family and life away, he left us. This 6 foot 4 tall, beautiful man left us,” she said. “This should not happen. He should not be forgotten or his story not told or my other friends’ stories not told because it makes us feel awkward.”
Southerland continues to live day by day as she tries to manage her PTSD through counseling and her therapy on the river. Advocacy, though, has given her some power and peace of mind.
“I am not well, but I am not broken,” she said on her website acontractorandherdog.com. “For me, my PTSD diagnosis will be a starting point for a new, fuller life. I may never be the ‘Same Mary’ but that does not make the ‘New Mary’ less powerful.”
ON THE WEB
Follow Southerland’s journey on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Awareness-Underway-A-PTSD-River-Journey/1403469096531586. You also can visit her website acontractorandherdog.com