As a Warrior PATHH Guide at the Travis Mills Foundation, it’s Ray Edgar’s mission to assist combat veterans of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) and first responders achieve Post-Traumatic Growth.
Warrior PATHH – Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes – is offered at 10 locations throughout the U.S., including at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat in Maine, and is the nation’s first-ever program designed to cultivate and facilitate Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) in combat veterans and first responders.
“PTG is the idea that we are given a unique opportunity for growth and transformation because of the struggles that we endure not in spite of them,” said Ray, an Army veteran who spent 27 years in the military.
This mission for Ray, is personal.
Ray retired from the Army in 2010 as a Command Sergeant Major. His career included assignments throughout the country and the world in a variety of units, including serving as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division for 9 years. He also served during combat in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division in Mosul, Iraq, and the 82nd Airborne Division at multiple locations in the Diyala Province.
During Ray’s final tour to Iraq that lasted from August 2006 to October 2007, 22 paratroopers were killed in action and 86 were wounded from his unit.
“A quarter of the unit was either killed or wounded,” Ray said, adding that these losses combined with other traumas and previous life experiences created a cumulative effect that had made his life after the military very difficult. He experienced long periods of insomnia, nightmares, hypervigilance and difficulty understanding and managing the strong emotions that came from these experiences.
That is, until he attended Warrior PATHH at the Travis Mills Foundation. He’s now encouraging others who served in his unit to attend this alternative training program. Fellow soldiers Jason Johansen, a Minnesota resident, and Jason Mahle, a Florida resident, completed the initial 7-day in-person training this fall at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat.
“I never served with a unit that fought or trained as hard as this unit,” Ray said. “I know what we experienced, and I know that none of us were the same when we came home. This insight makes me feel a certain responsibility to try and help them live a life that they deserve.”
Post Military Service
After one particularly difficult deployment, Johansen sat on the North Shore of Hawaii after a usually much-loved session of surfing.
“I wasn’t in a good place,” Johansen said. “I had so much to be grateful for, and here I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world and I’m pissed off and irritable.”
It wasn’t until he retired from the military in 2021 that he started to feel a loss of purpose and identity. For instance, part of Johansen’s job at one point was to ensure those under his leadership received what they needed when it came to their physical fitness and human resources needs.
“I lost all of that,” Johansen added.
Mahle left the military in 2008 and immediately transitioned into a position as a police officer. In a 10-month period, he had left Iraq, gotten divorced and established a new career – all without properly processing the trauma and loss he had experienced.
“Guilt and anger from the deployment manifested in some pretty self-destructive behavior,” he said.
“My workload is extensive and I noticed that I wasn’t handling it very well,” he said, adding that he was often irritable with his family.
After an outburst while working with his 5-year-old son and an incident at work, Mahle realized he needed help.
“I tried traditional one-on-one therapy, I tried medication, but none of it really resonated with me,” he said, adding that he also engaged in self-medicating for years, which proved to be very destructive.
Warrior PATHH 2023
Both Johansen and Mahle attended the same Warrior PATHH program this fall and it was the first time they had seen one another since being deployed.
“We got to catch up, talk about mutual experiences and mutual losses – I didn’t really talk to anybody about any of my experiences for many years,” Mahle said, adding that it was also helpful to talk about their mutual struggles.
“It was nice to break down that struggle throughout the week,” he added.
After reflecting on his PATHH experience, Mahle realized that he was a very reactive person, rather than being responsive.
“I went in for the kill shot, you could say.”
“I approach situations less aggressively now,” he said. “I take a deep breath and assess – it’s more productive.”
Hearing that pleased Ray.
“I’m realizing that although we were all doing different jobs and had varying responsibilities over there, the struggles are the same,” Ray said.
Mahle is working to change his reputation for being aggressive.
“That reputation is something that I constantly come up against,” he said. “There’s still people that remember my competitive, aggressive demeanor and I’ve had to overcome that with certain individuals.”
Ray also struggled with this.
“I had convinced myself that that’s who I was – an overly aggressive and angry, reactive person with no off switch – I was on all the time just like I had been in combat. I realized that some of our biggest struggles stemmed from the fact that we were so aggressive on the battlefield and were switched on for 15 months straight. This approach enabled us to live the legacy of being a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division in combat but didn’t serve us well as we returned home,” he said. Now I know I can still turn it on if I need to but I don’t have to live that way on a daily basis.
Johansen said he has also improved his ability to respond, rather than react.
“I’m working on building that capacity by doing the practices I learned at PATHH on a daily basis,” he said.
“I take care of myself so I can take care of those around me. I continue to work on that,” Johansen added. “You neglect yourself. Becoming more in tune with myself has helped with this. When things come up, they’re not such a burden to me anymore; I’m not as irritable anymore.”
“You’ve got to lead from the front and you’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. And for some reason, I just could not wrap my head around that concept and I avoided seeking help.”
Johansen has also realized the importance of giving grace to the people he interacts with on a daily basis.
“They may be struggling themselves,” he added.
Both have said their loved ones and colleagues have noticed dramatic changes in them. Mahle said multiple people have pulled him aside.
“They’ve said, ‘You seem like you’re in a better place; you’re even communicating differently,’” he added.
Johansen said the timing of Warrior PATHH was very significant: By the time he graduated PATHH, he also celebrated his one-year anniversary with his new move to Minnesota after his retirement from the Army.
“It’s kind of like a new chapter has started in my life,” he said.
Ray said 15 or so soldiers from his unit have attended Warrior PATHH at the Travis Mills Foundation.
“As I approach people I served with about coming here for PATHH I have come to realize they have to be ready for change and it can take up to two years or more of me talking to them before they finally make the decision to attend.” “These guys have to be ready. When they come to Warrior PATHH, and they say, ‘I’ve tried everything else and nothing’s working; I’m ready to do the work’ – that’s a good sign.”
If Ray could say one thing to a person considering Warrior PATHH, it’d be: “There’s no risk. You’re either going to stay the same or it’s going to help you.”Ray said he doesn’t know of anyone who has become worse by trying to take better care of themselves.“It’s just training,” he said. “It’s no different than any other training they’ve had. What I like about it is it helps repurpose skills they already have.”
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-9/11 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 Warrior PATHH (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. Learn more >>>