Gary’s father was a career Marine who served 25 years including 3 combat tours in Vietnam. Gary hardly knew his father for the first six years of his life. When his father was around, his presence was hard to ignore.
“He was a hard-core Marine through and through and every day was like being in bootcamp.” “I knew early on I would follow in his footsteps,” Gary said of his childhood.
That, combined with his mother’s suicide and a decades-long career in Maine law enforcement, it wasn’t until later in life that Gary realized he needed help managing his mental health and wellness. After struggling for many years, The Travis Mills Foundation’s Warrior PATHH program was the solution that Gary didn’t know he needed.
Gary grew up in North Anson, Maine, and enlisted in the Marine Corps between his junior and senior years of high school. A few weeks after graduation, Gary was in bootcamp at Parris Island, South Carolina.
“It wasn’t anything that I wasn’t prepared for,” Gary said, adding that because of his father, he felt mentally prepared for the challenge. “I often joke that I had 18 years in the Marine Corps before I ever went to bootcamp.”
Gary served as a helicopter mechanic and completed several non-combat deployments overseas including service with the Multi-National Peacekeeping Forces in Beirut in 1982, a year before the deadly bombing on the Marine Barracks which killed 241 Marines and Sailors.
A year into Gary’s service, he was devastated by the loss of his mother to suicide.
“I went straight to alcohol and anger, and never actually processed her loss until many years later,” Gary said.
This event would go on to affect Gary well into adulthood.
After Military Service
When Gary returned home from the Marine Corps, he started working as a part-time Deputy Sheriff, which included work as a corrections officer in the jail, court security, and as a patrol deputy in Maine. His father was the Sheriff of Somerset County at the time, so Gary again followed in his father’s footsteps and began a career in law enforcement that lasted 31 years.
“It seemed like the natural progression of things,” he added. “You see that a lot with military members when they transition out.”
After four years as a Deputy Sheriff, Gary joined the Maine State Police and served for the next 27 years. In that time, he held positions as a Trooper, Detective, Sergeant, Lieutenant and Major. In addition, he was a canine handler for six years and served as a member of the Maine State Police Tactical Team for eight years.
Gary met his wife of 33 years in the first year of his State Police career while out walking and training his canine.
“It was just like ‘101 Dalmatians,’” Gary said, laughing.
In addition to the day-to-day duties in law enforcement, Gary’s career involved him in hundreds of high profile and critical incidents from homicides to the worst cases of child abuse. In 1992, Gary was involved in an officer-involved shooting with two Deputy Sheriffs. Gary was also involved in several hundred high-risk calls as a member of the Tactical Team, one of which resulted in the loss of a teammate.
According to a study done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, 18-24 percent of dispatchers and 35 percent of police officers experience post-traumatic stress. It’s also common for first responders to self-medicate with alcohol or other self-destructive and abusive behaviors in an effort to cope with the trauma they have experienced.
“We call it death by a thousand cuts,” Gary said. “It’s every damn day. We’re taught to ‘suck it up and move on’ and that takes a toll.”
In the late 1990s early 2000s, Gary started to see a shift in the approach to mental wellness. Law enforcement agencies were finally starting to recognize that they had to do a better job of taking care of their people and they began developing Critical Incident Stress Management and resiliency programs.
When the State Police started to address this issue, Gary wanted to be involved. He had a reputation for being a hard-ass and recognized that this was an opportunity to let people know that he had been impacted by what he had experienced.
“How do you convince other people of the importance of this if you don’t do it yourself? It was good for people to see me admitting that this [trauma] was a problem and that we had to focus on taking care of our people.”
Around this same time, when Gary was only 43 years old, he had a heart attack. He didn’t smoke, barely drank alcohol and had none of the normal risk factors.
“It was out of the blue,” Gary said. “It scared the hell out of me. Guys are finishing up their careers and dying two years later because they’re not taking care of themselves. It was a wake-up call.”
Gary eventually took over as the team leader and administered what became the Members Assistance Program.
What happened to Gary, unfortunately, is common, he said.
Travis Mills Foundation
When Gary retired in 2015, he went to work as a private investigator for a couple of years but struggled to find gratification in the work. Two former colleagues, Gerry Madden and Richard Golden, both volunteers at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat in Rome, Maine, convinced Gary to join them in volunteering.
“They pretty much drug me off the couch,” he said. “You leave your career, pretty much the only thing you’ve known for 31 years and you feel like you’ve lost your purpose in life.”
Gary mowed lawns, worked the waterfront and took families fishing at the Retreat. Soon after, the Foundation started looking into a new program, Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) to address the invisible wounds that combat veterans and first responders experience.
Warrior PATHH is the nation’s first-ever training program designed to cultivate and facilitate Post-Traumatic Growth in combat veterans and first responders, and enables these remarkable Warriors to transform times of deep struggle into profound strength and growth. The training begins with a seven-day on-site initiation at the Travis Mills Foundation that is delivered by PATHH Guides, not clinicians, who all qualify for and have completed the training program themselves. The remainder of the 90-day program is completed by the individual and is monitored by PATHH Guides.
Gary attended the Warrior PATHH program in Virginia in February of 2020 and completed the then 18-month program, as well as specialized training to become a PATHH Guide at the Travis Mills Foundation.
“The experiences that the students have had may be different, but the struggle that takes place in the aftermath of those experiences is similar,” Gary said. “There were a lot of things in my past that I thought I had moved beyond, but quickly realized there was still a lot that I was struggling with.”
Before Warrior PATHH, Gary would have described himself as angry and said he lacked tolerance of others.
“I had lived that way for a long time. It gets to a point where it’s not an issue to you, but it’s an issue to everyone else,” he said.
Gary admits to being guarded during his one-week, in person PATHH initiation. Disclosure, however, is a vital part of the program.
“It was literally day six when I pulled my team aside and disclosed some of the things that I was holding back,” he said. “When we struggle, we put on a mask to hide behind in hopes that no one will notice.”
“We think we know everything and have it under control,” he said. “Nobody in this community likes to talk about our emotions. In reality, I was trained as a child to repress my emotions. You could not show any weakness. That’s all I knew growing up. Because of that, I never processed all of the death and chaos that I have experienced as a police officer,” Gary added.
During the weeks and months after completing Warrior PATHH, the people closest to him saw a marked change.
His oldest daughter noticed a much more relaxed Gary.
“She told me that I was exuding the lowest level of ‘energy’ she had seen in 28 years,” Gary said. “That really hit home.”
“I found that I wasn’t on edge all the time, like I used to be,” he said. “And I recognized that I had been unpleasant for quite a while.”
“Warrior PATHH teaches you to look inward for the answers, to be introspective, instead of looking to blame your actions on external factors,” Gary said.
Gary’s wife also saw a difference. She noticed that Gary wanted to talk about a lot of things that he hadn’t before.
“She asked me if I was going to leave her,” Gary said, with tears in his eyes. “My wife has always been supportive of my career and I know that it wasn’t easy on her.”
It’s not uncommon for PATHH participants to address issues that go back to childhood. For Gary, that meant talking about his mother’s suicide.
“I had never grieved her loss,“ he said. “I had a lot of anger toward her and blamed her for committing suicide. I hadn’t tried to understand what she was going through behind the scenes.”
Gary admitted that there were several other losses that he had never truly processed prior to PATHH.
The Warrior Community
Gary understands the stigma behind seeking help for post-traumatic stress.
“It’s been a battle for years,” Gary said. “We were taught that ‘you’re weak if you seek help,’ which is the farthest from the truth. You have to be strong to reach out and ask for help.”
It’s often an overwhelming desire to serve that prompts most folks to join the military or pursue a career in law enforcement. Warrior PATHH is another way in which to do that.
“This program allows you to get to a place where you can effectively help others in your community, “ Gary said. “Once you learn to ‘struggle well,’ you’re better suited to help others who are struggling.”
In addition to service to others, Warrior PATHH has proven successful because it’s facilitated by combat veterans and first responders.
“We’ve known for a long time that the Warrior Community doesn’t do well talking about their experiences outside of the peer environment,” Gary said. “A PATHH Guide has done everything they are asking students to do.”
“In order for this program to work, you’ve got to be willing to open up and peel off some scabs,” Gary added.
“Every single time we run a program, we learn something about ourselves,” Gary said. “It’s a gift.”
Warrior PATHH is held once a month at the Travis Mills Foundation in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine.
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-911 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all-expenses-paid experience at its world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH Program (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first of its kind program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth.