Mountain climbing helps soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress
For soldiers based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, climbing Mount Rainier and fighting in a war have a lot in common. They want to use the bond created by one to soothe the wounds of the other.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Hound Summit TeamFor more information or to donate, email the team at email@example.com.
Climbing Mount Rainier and fighting in a war have a lot in common, Joshua Brandon and T.J. Laynor say.
Both require strength and resolve. Both demand that you put your life in the hands of others.
But for Brandon and Laynor, one soothes the wounds inflicted by the other.
The friends and fellow soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord will climb mountains with veterans to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through a new nonprofit organization they are forming dubbed the Hound Summit Team, named after their Army company's mascot.
Both have completed three tours in Iraq or Afghanistan and both have PTSD.
They discovered the healing potential of climbing in 2008 when they went up Mount Rainier together for the first time, saying the bonding and discipline necessary to summit a mountain force soldiers to regain the self-assuredness that PTSD often steals.
"You can heal a wound with stitches, a Band-Aid, surgery, whatever," said the 34-year-old Laynor, who served as a medical officer. "You can take medication for anxiety, but you still have that self-confidence issue."
Although there's no known medical explanation for why physical exercise helps people cope with PTSD, "veterans doing activities with other veterans and interacting with other veterans in itself is helpful," said Dr. Murray Raskind, a psychiatrist with VA Puget Sound Health Care System.
He stressed that overcoming something challenging together could also help.
National organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project also use outdoor exercise to help vets with PTSD and physical injuries. Hound Summit Team wants to supplement these options with a more intimate experience for veterans with less visible war scars — those who might be overlooked by U.S. programs.
"If they can even get an ounce of what we felt, they can get that self-confidence back," Laynor said.
Tours of duty
Laynor jokes that he started climbing on a "direct order" three years ago, when Brandon was his commanding officer and took several of his soldiers on a climb so they could get to know one another.
Brandon and Laynor then spent their third tours of duty together in Iraq, from August 2009 to August 2010.
Medical officers like Laynor shoulder a great deal of responsibility, running into battle when someone is hurt.
It was during the third tour that Laynor realized he had PTSD.
When he returned home he was anxious, hating crowds and loud noises.
During Brandon's first two tours in Iraq, he was on the ground fighting almost every day. His PTSD caused his hands to shake, gave him nightmares and made him relive past battles.
They've both taken medication and talked to counselors, but say climbing is uniquely therapeutic. Since 2008, the two have trained and researched climbing extensively, reaching Camp Muir several times and summiting Mount Baker and Mount Rainier.
Each time, they've seen psychological changes in themselves and Army friends who've gone up with them. They describe it as "getting over the hump" — that push needed to regain self-assuredness.
"When you're out there climbing, it's a drug," said Brandon, 33. "It's amazing."
Dan Shoemaker, a platoon leader in Brandon's company, hopes to experience that as the team's first official participant in a Mount Rainier climb scheduled for mid-August.
Shoemaker was in Iraq in 2010 when a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with homemade explosives into a crowded marketplace and crashed it.
His back was to the blast, Shoemaker was embedded with shrapnel from ankle to head. The explosion killed two of his soldiers and wounded seven others.
In the hospital, tests showed he also had a brain tumor, and he had surgery to remove it.
Although he's still undergoing chemotherapy, Shoemaker said recent tests have shown the tumor has not returned.
He will soon start training for his climb, which " gives me motivation to rehab," he said, " to get back to where I was, to do the things that I used to do."
Brittney Wong: 206-464-3195
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.