|Fri, Dec 06, 2013 02:23 PM
|Issue of November 27, 2013
September 25, 2013 | 09:04 AM
The Ohio River is a long way from Iraq, but it's where Mary Southerland is learning to face her "real" fears instead of the nightmares of war that take place in her head.
Southerland is neither a soldier nor a veteran. However, as a contractor who worked in Iraq on more than one occasion, she has been on the front lines, "hip to hip" with servicemen and women, and has had to hunker down in bunkers while tracer bullets were flying overhead.
During her 981-mile journey on a Hobie Island Adventure kayak, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Mo., Southerland has been making presentations along way to help raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder and the mental health needs of veterans and contractors like herself.
A member of a film crew from overseas videotapes Mary Southerland as she makes her way along the Ohio River. Southerland, who worked as a private contractor in Iraq, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. (click for larger version)
"I felt different the first time I came home," she said during a program Sept. 11 at Corydon Christian Church Disciples of Christ. But, "I didn't know I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."
That first assignment was from 2008 to 2009.
When asked in 2011 to go back to Iraq, Southerland, who said she's "been honored to work with every branch of the service," jumped at the chance. It was after she returned home on Jan. 13, 2013, that she was diagnosed with PTSD as well as major depressive disorder. Since then, her security clearance has been frozen.
Southerland believes servicemen and women need better psychiatric care, especially before they are discharged, while treatment is paid for by the military. Too many veterans — 22 a day — are committing suicide, she said.
Southerland, who's from Salt Lake City, said disorders like PTSD can't be "cured" in two or three visits to professionals.
"The hard part is getting help," she said. "The government is trying to relieve itself of responsibilities."
And for contractors like Southerland, assistance is even more difficult to receive. She said her company has taken no responsibility and hasn't even followed up with a phone call to check on Southerland.
"Veterans, when out of the service, run into the same wall," she said.
Southerland has companionship on her expedition. There's her 9-month-old Labradoodle, Henry, who doesn't like being on the river, Southerland said, except when it's calm and then only for short periods of time. Most of the time, Henry travels by ground with Bernie and Marita Hart, also from Salt Lake City, who heard about Southerland's undertaking and offered to be her support staff, hauling camping gear and other supplies.
But Henry isn't just any canine. He is a service dog trained to recognize when anxiety starts to creep into Southerland's life.
"PTSD service dogs for veterans are becoming very popular," Southerland said.
A television station in Germany, similar to the PBS in the United States, heard about Southerland's journey and sent a two-man crew to document her journey. The team filmed her presentation in Corydon.
"The Ohio River has been a surprise," said Southerland, who was inspired to embark on her journey by someone else. "It's gorgeous. I didn't expect it to be as chaotic."
She also has met some wonderful people along the way. And a tugboat captain radioed Southerland prior to her stop in Corydon. It was David Haake, who told her that his mother, Sue King, had heard about the woman's plight and planned to attend the program on Sept. 11.
Southerland's blogs about her journey can be found online at www.acontractorandherdog.com and on her Facebook page, Awareness Underway — A PTSD River Journey.
Bernie Hart said those at the Corydon program had asked more poignant questions than those at any other stop to date. He, his wife and Southerland encouraged those in attendance to write their legislators about changing the benefits for servicemen and women, as well as those for private contractors. They also asked that they sign a petition by Purple Star Veterans and Families that asks President Obama to support services and treatment for soldiers before they are released from active duty.
"I can't advocate for myself much more," Southerland said. "I'm tired."