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Marine veteran paddles off the war

  • Article by: MARCIA RATLIFF
  • Associated Press
  • June 16, 2014 - 12:05 AM

WINONA, Minn. — On a recent day at a campsite west of Bemidji, Joshua Ploetz was getting ready to leave for another day of paddling the length of the Mississippi River, a trek he began May 19 and expects to complete this August.

But a strange sight stopped the 30-year-old canoeist. No more than 10 feet away, near the shore, was a bald eagle dipping its wings into the water.

Ploetz was concerned the bird was injured. But after he watched for a while, then pushed off from shore, the eagle flew away. Later, he learned eagles often mimic other birds to draw attention away from their nests.

Ploetz, who recently arrived in Winona and plans to return to the river soon and continue south, is a Winona State University student and a Marine veteran. He's paddling the length of the Mississippi to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress syndrome, which he's battled since his return from Afghanistan in 2006.

Being so close to that eagle, he said, is just one of many amazing encounters he has had so far.

"I never realized how crazy the river could be, or how life-changing," he told the Winona Daily News (http://bit.ly/1oQ3lOX).

Eight years ago, Ploetz returned from two tours in Afghanistan's notoriously dangerous Korengal Valley. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps after he graduated from St. Charles High School, and served as a machine-gun section leader, responsible for 18 soldiers.

When he returned, he'd been injured in both body and mind, and while he healed soon physically, his mental and psychological wounds went deeper than he knew. He'd lost friends in battle and others to suicide at home. He was separated from his network of Marine brothers, and couldn't connect easily with others.

He struggled with PTSD, and with it came alcoholism, nightmares, a divorce, and isolation from people Ploetz thought could never understand.

"You don't wanna listen to anybody," Ploetz said. "You think, you're a combat veteran, you're a badass, you've seen it all. Being a Marine, you don't say that you need help at all."

But Ploetz did need help, and eventually he sought it, attending the FOCUS Marines program and joining Team Semper Fi, an adaptive athletics program for wounded veterans.

He began to find interests again, like cycling. He learned to take some of his stress out by putting on spandex, working up a sweat and watching the road whiz beneath his tires.

He met Matthew Mohlke, who wrote the book "Floating Down the Country," a description of his personal journey paddling the Mississippi. Mohlke encouraged Ploetz to take the journey himself.

Ploetz was reluctant. "I kinda blew him off," he admitted. But pieces kept falling into place. Ploetz met combat casualty nurse Donna Todd, who suggested a program called "Walk off the War," an Appalachian Trail backpacking trip for veterans.

Ploetz thought he could do something similar. He would call it Paddle Off the War.

Ploetz said for years, it was hard to connect with civilians outside of his immediate family. But after therapy, and after almost three weeks on the Mississippi, that feeling of disconnection is beginning to change.

As he paddled into small towns in northern Minnesota, Ploetz was overwhelmed by the kindness of people he met. Many would ask him if he needed something, or if there was some way they could help.

When his canoe capsized thanks to a three-foot wake in Sauk Rapids, Ploetz watched his gear float downstream. His heart sank. But four boaters who saw the incident helped him recover all his belongings and get back on the water, something he could not have done alone.

"I was okay, because they helped me," he said.

And Ploetz found he could give something back — his incredible story. The connections he's forged have made him feel like part of a community outside of the Marines.

His facial muscles have been sore lately, because he has been smiling so much.

"It has made me feel good inside to help other people," he said.

In many of Ploetz's pictures of his trip, you'll see him holding a green-and-black stretcher handle. It was used in combat in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan and is now the official U.S. Baton. Ploetz carries it as a symbol of hope and solidarity for the battle that many soldiers still fight, even after they come home safely.

At one end of Ploetz's canoe are eight names of friends he lost in the war — whether in combat or in the continuing combat at home. He had to be selective. According to a Veterans Affairs report published in 2013, an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

"I don't have enough canoe space," he said.

After he attends his brother's wedding, Ploetz plans to put back in the water, complete with a resupply of 40 days' worth of food.

He plans to land in Venice, Louisiana, on August 1, when Paddle Off the War officially ends. Ploetz will paddle the final 15 miles for himself.

"My plan is to find a tree on the bank and break my paddle," he said.

Not in frustration or anger.

"I'm breaking the stigma of PTSD," he said.

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Winona Daily News

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