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23rd Veteran: Vets helping vets

23rd Veteran group helps vets adjust

What started out as a promise to a best friend has evolved into a program for veterans living with trauma. Mike Waldron is the founder of 23rd Veteran, which he started in 2016.

Waldron was born and raised in the Twin Cities and now makes his home in Esko. He served in the Marine Corps infantry and started combat in 2003 in Iraq. His best friend, Lance Thompson, who served with him, died from an improvised explosive device while conducting combat operations in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.

Ten years later, Waldron went to visit his grave in Indiana. "It was difficult but it was well worth it to be able to say some things to him," Waldron said. "I made a promise to him that I would start something to help other people."

When times felt difficult for Waldron, he would work even harder. "That's really driven me to get through all of the barriers I've had to get through," he said.

Waldron found that it was a combination of fitness and socialization that helped him overcome his experiences and his struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. In between getting out in the community and getting into sports, Waldron found himself falling back into an isolation, where he would struggle the most. Once the brain fog of anxiety and depression lifted, he said, "I was able to make the connections that my brain had changed to combat; I had these triggers and fears that were locked into my subconscious and that's what was causing those things 10 years later."

Waldron has bigger dreams for 23rd Veteran, which was named after a VA study in 2012. The study showed that 22 veterans were killing themselves every day. The study has been conducted every year since, and the number is slowly starting to decrease.

"Twenty times the amount of people that die in the military die from suicide after the military," Waldron said. "So yeah, looking at that and how close I was to taking my life, I felt like I was almost those 22 veterans, so I consider myself a 23rd veteran and one who overcame it."

Waldron wants this program to be helping veterans all over, especially in the top 50 cities as well as part of the military's own transition program. He said there is a really strong transition into the service through boot camp and classes on how to deal with deadly warfare, but there is only a single PowerPoint class on how to get a job and be a civilian.

"[We are] dumped into this new set of rules and environment we're not familiar with," Waldron said.

Steps

Trauma recovery is a two-step process, according to Waldron.

"First is extinguishing our fears," he said. "Giving our fears less power over our bodies."

Once that's accomplished, the next step is to reassociate those fears with new, positive experiences, he said.

23rd Veteran does things differently by adding the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) component, Waldron said. BDNF is a protein that promotes the survival of nerve cells. It plays an important role in learning and memory. Adding in fitness at the beginning of recovery helps make the veterans' learning and locking in new memories much quicker and stronger.

The length of the 14-week program, known as 23V Recon, is based on research showing that 12 weeks of habit building is what leads to long-term habit success. Another week was added for mindfulness. "Then we added the outdoor wellness adventure so that we could build that tight group cohesion," Waldron said. "The most important part in group therapy is group cohesion."

The first week begins with a flight to a distant state and six days of backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing or canoeing. The purpose of the outdoor adventure is for the team of veterans to build tight bonds and learn to trust one another, just as they did in the military.

"A common trigger or fear that we have after a common experience is people we don't know, especially crowds we don't know," Waldron said. "We're training our brains not to trust anybody. It doesn't matter if it's a man, woman or child. We're always looking for the weapon. That doesn't change when we fly back to Minnesota."

Big circle

Waldron said that lack of trust can lead to social anxiety. That's why it is important to incorporate family and community events into the program as well, so there is a comfort level where veterans can be vulnerable and trustworthy with each other.

"We have fun so that our subconscious can remember a restaurant as a fun, loving experience instead of a fear," Waldron said.

23rd Veteran runs in Duluth and the Twin Cities area. It is launching on the Iron Range, in Virginia, in June. That group of veterans will be traveling to Alaska for the outdoor week.

To qualify for the program, a person must have served or be serving in the military, experienced something traumatic, and be physically and mentally ready to complete the outdoor wellness course.

"The most difficult part for us is to find people that are willing to commit," Waldron said. "[They] have to take a week off of life and 14 weeks in the gym with positive psychology."

While applying for the program is nothing more than a simple electronic form, the most difficult part for a veteran can be actually getting on the plane, Waldron said.

"Once people set foot on the plane, 90 percent of them graduate from the program," he said.

Payback

The costs are covered for the veteran. Vets have "already paid their dues," Waldron said. 23rd Veteran raises money through Ruck Life, a fitness fundraising event, and some grants.

This year, Ruck Life is scheduled for June 1 at Mont du Lac Resort, just south of Duluth. Ruckers complete a 10-mile route carrying food and clothing in their rucksacks or backpacks. That food and clothing is donated to area residents in need once the finish line is crossed. All money raised goes straight to the 23V Recon. This year's goal is to raise $75,000.

"It's a super-fun event," Waldron said. "So much energy on a Ruck day." It also offers vets a chance to meet with others who have gone through the program.

Once in the program, there are five rules to follow: show up, no bitching, no alcohol or substance abuse, no war stories, and no watching the news.

"Studies have shown that people who watch the news for just a few minutes in the morning report having a worse day eight hours later than people who did not watch the news," Waldron said. "My personal theory on that is that our brains have adapted to pay close attention to the negative, the news knows this, and a lot of the stories on the news are negative and scary."

Waldron said that if you don't show up, you're not going to experience any changes. You need a clear mind, he said.

He also said there is a time and place for war stories, but in this program, they're trying to build new positive memories.

"So we don't want to recall the negative ones, we also don't want to trigger those around us so that they're no longer present with the group," Waldron said. "[It's about] reframing the way that we talk about difficulties and how to overcome them rather than just throwing them out to the universe."

One way to help 23rd Veteran is by spreading the word, he said. Find more information online at 23rdveteran.org or by emailing [email protected].

 
 
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