Navy veteran Michael Dowens relaxes with his service dog Emery, but the Holmdel resident doesn’t always feel this calm.
“I feel like I’m stuck in a time period that I can’t get out of. Anything can trigger it, smells, anniversaries, dates, sights,” said Dowens.
Dowens is talking about PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — something he’s struggled with for an entire decade before getting diagnosed.
“It was pretty much eating me alive for 10 years,” he said.
Motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks, Dowens joined the Navy in 2002. He was twice deployed and then honorably discharged in 2006.
“Relatively soon after I came back I started having just different behaviors, anger, isolation, just wasn’t myself. I didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t know anything about PTSD. I wasn’t given any courses on it or given any type of transition period after I left the military,” said Dowens.
“PTSD is a mental health issue that is caused by environmental exposure to a serious or significant, some people say even life-threatening, trauma,” said Dr. Ramon Solhkhah.
Jersey Shore University Medical Center’s Dr. Solhkhah says PTSD develops over the course of a few months. There’s a cluster of symptoms.
“So related to a reliving of the trauma, so that people can actually physically think they’re back in that situation. People also can experience sleep disturbances and mood disturbances,” he said.
Solhkhah says in recent years new research indicates prescribing medicines that lower stress hormones to a survivor who’s experienced an accident or trauma right after the event may decrease their rate of developing PTSD months down the road. This is ideal for a person who’s experienced a single traumatic event.
Yet service members typically develop PTSD from experiencing a series of traumatic events, says the doctor.
“In the general population rates of PTSD are probably in the order of three and five percent. In veterans, we’ve come to realize that it’s probably up to one in five veterans, so about 20 percent of veterans will experience PTSD at some point after their deployment,” he said.
Dowens didn’t like how the condition was impacting his family, so he enrolled in a treatment facility in Florida and became determined to raise awareness about the issue.
“The moment I got out of the military I regretted getting out, and knew I needed something to feel that sense of service again,” said Dowens.
Which is why the Holmdel police officer decided last year to walk to Washington, D.C., a three-day, nonstop journey. This year, he started his walk in D.C. and ended in New Jersey. He carried about 50 pounds worth of supplies and an American flag.
“When I walk it’s my therapy because I’m out there by myself. I’m walking in the middle of the night. I see the sun rise, I see the sun set. It’s my way of healing myself,” said Dowens.
The family man launched a nonprofit called Unbroken Warriors. So far he’s raised more than $100,000. The nonprofit helps veterans pay for their stay at the treatment facility.
“The more help I give other people it helps me out more and that’s why I walk,” said Dowens.
Dowens hopes Unbroken Warriors can eventually cover the cost of training service dogs and he’s already planning his next walk.