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Warrior to Peers: You Don’t Have to Do Mental Wellness Alone

Army veteran Sean Sanders, with wife Darline, discovered healthy ways to deal with his PTSD symptoms through WWP programs, including Soldier Ride and Project Odyssey.
Army veteran Sean Sanders, with wife Darline, discovered healthy ways to deal with his PTSD symptoms through WWP programs, including Soldier Ride and Project Odyssey.

Army veteran Sean Sanders was used to leading teams and showing strength and courage daily.

“The military teaches you to be self-reliant,” Sean said. “I was proud of who I had become through my Army career, and, like many soldiers, I thought I could accomplish just about anything on my own.”  

But when Sean retired from the Army in 2015, after 22 years of service, he realized something else had come back with him: PTSD.

Combat stress turned Sean into someone who was irritable, hypervigilant, and who preferred to stay in the house. He felt compelled to carry a gun if he had to step out. To compound the problem, a leg injury kept him from being as physically active as he once was. He temporarily moved to his parent’s house while going through a divorce and realized he was becoming isolated and depressed.

Then he heard about Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) Soldier Ride®. He discovered that getting on a bicycle with a group of veterans opened him to renewed camaraderie. It helped Sean realize that he didn’t have to go through his healing process alone.

“Soldier Ride sparked my interest in improving the physical aspect, and once I went to a Project Odyssey, I realized that there are other people like me,” Sean said. “There are others having issues – some are dealing with them better than I am, and some are not. But anything that I could do to help someone along the way – that’s what made me feel good.” 

“There’s a Tomorrow”

Project Odyssey® is a 12-week WWP mental health program that uses adventure-based learning to help warriors manage and overcome their invisible wounds. During his first Project Odyssey, Sean met another soldier who was dealing with a divorce. Realizing that the soldier was where Sean himself had once been, Sean offered encouragement: “There’s a tomorrow, even if you don’t see it yet.”

That soldier is still Sean’s friend and is doing a lot better.

“I knew what it was like to be at my low, and he was there at that point,” Sean said. “I was able to say, ‘I’ve been where you’ve been – there’s a tomorrow; take it one day at a time.’ I understood his pain.”

Since that first Project Odyssey, Sean has rebuilt his personal and professional life – and found inspiration and time to share what he’s learned with other veterans. In addition to attending WWP connection events – an individual Project Odyssey and a couples Project Odyssey with his new wife – Sean leads a WWP peer support group in Philadelphia.

Because Sean has been there, he respects each person’s pace and progress. In peer support settings, he says that even if someone doesn’t want to open up and be vulnerable, “you have the comfort in knowing that other people have been there. You tend to think you’re the only one, but there are others in the background who understand and support you.”

“You Don’t Have to Do It on Your Own”

According to WWP’s Annual Warrior Survey, almost 20% of WWP warriors reported difficulty or delays in receiving or continuing professional mental health care. Of those, nearly 4 in 5 warriors (78.4%) said they would prefer to solve the problem on their own, 2 in 3 (66.2%) feel embarrassed or ashamed to get care, and nearly 3 in 5 (59.4%) are unsure where to find mental health care.

Sean sees the resistance people put up to accepting mental wellness care and support.

“The biggest barrier is the stigma,” Sean said. “It’s a stigma just in calling it mental health. That’s why we unfortunately lose so many warriors. They want to do it on their own.

“I want warriors to know that you have this team that you can’t see back there to support you, and we’re not judgmental. You don’t have to do it on your own.”

Sean wants to show other veterans there are people and organizations that can help lift them above the fog of PTSD and depression. And as their healing journey progresses, WWP can be there for them.

For instance, Sean’s needs had evolved by the time he went to his second Project Odyssey. It was a couples mental health workshop where veterans and significant others learned tools to improve communication and help each other understand different viewpoints.

“It helped me see how my own PTSD and other issues affect my wife and my family in general,” Sean said.

For Sean’s wife, Darline, a veteran’s point of view was understandably different from hers as a civilian nurse.

“Darline had never been in the military, so she’s getting to know me at the end of my career and aspects of my anger are all brand new to her,” Sean said.

“It was not until we went to the couples Project Odyssey that she understood it. And we made a promise to each other to focus on each other. When we see us veer off, we remind each other to come back to what we learned. It helped us a lot.”     

A Daily Dose of Wellness

To keep his side of the deal, and as part of his physical and mental wellness routine, Sean bicycles to work throughout the year when the weather is good. He says riding a bike, which started with Soldier Ride, helps him stay in shape physically and practice patience.

“I had PTSD episodes that manifested as road rage sometimes, so by commuting to work on my bike, I get exercise, I get to enjoy nature, and I build up my patience,” Sean said. “It helped me see that there’s a lot of things in life to enjoy. I no longer immediately react. Being outside on my bike helps me build up that portion of my mental health.”

Sean said that he finds patience, like many other things in life, is a learned skill.

“If you don’t train, you lose it,” Sean said. “We all have good days and bad days, but for the most part, patience with yourself and others – and mental well-being – is possible with time and practice.”

Sean continues to support other veterans through peer support. The group he leads attracts warriors from Philadelphia and southern New Jersey and has been going strong for six years. What started as an interest in physical health via Solder Ride has helped Sean progress through changes in his life, a new marriage, new career opportunities, and new ways to help others and continue to lead.

“Staying connected to veterans, through leading WWP peer support groups, keeps me focused on giving back,” Sean said. “It goes back to the Army value of selfless service and giving back to the people who swore their life to protect yours. I still manage PTSD, but most people don’t notice.”

From his commuter’s bicycle, Sean sets an example of strength and courage and lights the way for veterans in other stages of their healing journeys.

Learn more about how WWP helps warriors and caregivers through mental health programs and PTSD treatment options at #CombatStigma.

Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, rrivas@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.426.9783

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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