Updated: May 30, 2019
WRITTEN BY JENNIFER COLLINS | ILLUSTRATED BY SARAH McCULLEN
An annual endurance event brings awareness to post-traumatic stress disorder and challenges participants physically and mentally.
They walk for those they have loved and lost — those in the armed forces, first-responders — all who succumbed to the punishing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. And they walk for those who are living with the burden of PTSD. Both nationwide and here in northeast Mississippi, “walking the ruck” has created a network of people who gather in support of each other and to honor their loved ones.
Each person who walks the ruck carries a weighted rucksack, to recreate the military community and esprit de corps. Many carry 22 pounds. Most walk 22 miles or 22 kilometers, to commemorate that number: when the first ruck walks were held, an average of 22 military veterans a day died from suicide.
Various ruck events are held nationwide and at different times of the year, but all were started to create awareness for PTSD. Some are daylong events, while others can last as long as three days. On April 27, the fourth Rucking for PTSD/Ruck for Heroes event takes place in Tupelo. Some who walk the ruck are military, some are not. Most are from the Tupelo area but in past years people have flown in from as far as Texas to participate.
Chris and Kristi Beckish, owners of Premiere Fitness in Tupelo have sponsored Rucking for PTSD/Ruck for Heroes for four years. The Beckishes are dedicated to raising community awareness of PTSD and its effect on the military and other trauma victims.
“We lose 22 veterans a day to suicide,” Chris Beckish said. “Imagine how many in a year … and one is too many.”
Rob and Dee Steele of Tupelo help coordinate the event as well as the silent auction held the week before. The Steeles have been supporters ever since Dee decided to walk the ruck three years ago.
“My family, they viewed people in the military as superheroes — impenetrable, the toughest people on earth,” Rob Steele said. “Nobody would mess with them. They don’t have hard times. Until the ruck, I just figured that. I didn’t know what people were going through, until I started talking to people in the ruck. It was a realization that I needed.”
Ruck walks to bring awareness to PTSD started around 2013, after the American Psychiatric Association classified PTSD in a newly created category, giving it the proper diagnostic criterion that it deserved and helping it to become a less stigmatized condition.
Not talking about a personal trauma might seem natural; some might think if you don’t talk about it, you’ll stop thinking about it. But trauma is a wound that lies deep inside the mind and resurfaces over small things. A sudden flash of light, a noise, a seemingly random event — simple everyday occurrences can recreate the trauma, and trigger a host of physical and emotional symptoms in a person. Military personnel, first responders, rape victims, all share the same potential for PTSD, but for many, asking for help is the most difficult hurdle. Pride is especially built into the armed forces. Strength and self-reliance can be an emotional strength, but also a barrier to receiving help — and the fear of losing a career in the military often stops people from reaching out for support.
Katie Barnett of Tupelo walks the ruck in honor of her brother in the U.S. Marine Corps, and in support of all military personnel. The blisters, mental fatigue and exhaustion all take a toll, but after taking a year off from the ruck she walked it again last year and enjoys encouraging others in the walk.
“I love supporting the military,” Barnett said. “The first year was the hardest one that I have done. I had blisters on my feet, it was mentally challenging. But all I could think was, well, what does our military go through? It has got to be harder.”
Symptoms of PTSD can occur soon after a traumatic event or remain dormant until something triggers them. Sufferers may exhibit irrational behavior or angry outbursts that seem out of character. A general feeling of hopelessness and detachment is common. All of this is compounded when people leave the military, losing the sense of community that their military unit gave them.
Robby Sherwin of Tupelo talks openly about his struggles after leaving the Marines. Sherwin came to Tupelo after his ex-wife moved to the area with their daughter. He has created a new “family” through the ruck and the people he has met at the event. Sherwin isn’t able to walk the ruck, but he drives a car, checking on people throughout the run, bringing water and encouragement.
“I’m thinking of buying an R.V. and going out to Colorado for a little while,” Sherwin said. “But I’m going to fly back for the ruck. That’s how important this thing is. I’ve done them all over the country — it’s just important to me, and that is not just because of the ruck, that’s because of the people.”
The old notion that PTSD is a “fake disease” is still a huge problem. Jena Pennington’s husband Tyler lost his battle against PTSD four years ago and she walks the ruck in his memory. The idea that PTSD wasn’t real was so ingrained in Tyler that he could not even entertain the idea that he might need help. After his death Jena was so submerged in caring for their twins that it was a year before her own PTSD symptoms surfaced.
“The first year I was busy with the twins, but about the year mark, [I thought] oh, I need some help. I’m not okay right now,” Pennington said. “I didn’t want to die … but I didn’t want to be here right now. So I got into counseling and I’ve been going to counseling ever since. I can admit that some days I’m not okay. But the good days outweigh the bad days now. So talk to somebody — it is OK to talk to somebody. It doesn’t make you weak or less of a person, less of a man.”
Friends, churches, veteran organizations and local hospitals can all help those with PTSD. Medication, holistic medicine, working out, group meetings, hiking and journaling are some of the different methods people can use to heal while undergoing counseling.
And then there’s walking the ruck.
Rucking for PTSD/Ruck for Heroes is sponsored by Premiere Fitness, Obstacle Addix, Shred Managers, Christopher Jones Designs, Kroger Stores, Cockrell Banana Company, Tupelo Police Department, Tupelo Fire Department, Lee County Sheriff's Department and others. To take part in the ruck or to volunteer to support the Ruck for Heroes in honor of PTSD survivors, the military, first responders and other victims of trauma contact pftupelo.com or Premiere Fitness at 662-269-3264.