James Prindle was a seventh-grader in Connecticut when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and other key points in our country on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It hit close to home. We knew a lot of people who were lost when the Towers fell,” he said, adding that in addition to being inspired by a number of family members who served in the military, this world-changing event motivated him to serve his country, beginning in 2009.
“I probably wouldn’t have joined if we weren’t at war,” he said.
His service in the military, however, changed him.
Before James served with the United States Marine Corps in the war in Afghanistan, he described himself as a happy-go-lucky guy. He had great relationships with his parents, sister and friends
“I always had a smile on my face,” said the 32-year-old.
When James enlisted in the Marine Corps he wanted to be in the infantry – he wanted to fight – but he scored so high on the ASVAB that the recruiter he worked with steered him in another direction and he ended up becoming a Heavy Equipment Operator.
He saw combat on his first deployment in 2010 when his unit detached a company to support the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines when they went into Sangin, in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
“The Marines had just taken control of that area from the British and it was rough,” James said. “We were pretty much in daily contact with the enemy. There was a lot of combat and a heavy IED (Improvised Explosive Device) presence.”
James served his country until 2013 and when he came home, he was different. He was no longer the happy young man that he used to be. It would take years, and a position at the Travis Mills Foundation in the Warrior PATHH (Progressive Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) program, for James to even begin to figure out who he was and what he wanted to do with his life.
After the War
“I was extremely angry,” he said. “I had this rage and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know the reason behind it. I’d wake up angry and go to sleep angry.”
Doctors put James on what he calls a “zombie cocktail” of drugs in order to not feel anger, but instead it made him feel nothing – not even sadness or joy. He also tried talk therapy.
“All they did was tell me things I already knew,” he said. “’You have PTSD, you’re angry.’ I wanted to know why I was angry and they didn’t have answers.”
The worst part was that doctors told James to get used to that feeling and that he needed to learn how to cope with this new normal – things would never change.
“I knew it could be better, though,” he said.
James said his behavior was out of control and he was destroying relationships with the people he loved most in his life.
“I felt like a burden,” he added.
In late 2013, James tried to take his own life when he drove his truck off the road doing 120 mph into a wooded area of Woodstock, Connecticut.
“Somehow I missed every tree,” he said. “I hit a boulder and busted my lip. The air bag deployed and that was it. I’m super thankful that I’m alive now, but at that moment, I remember thinking, ‘You can’t even kill yourself right. That’s how useless you are.’”
James tried to lie to his parents about the accident, but they knew. They connected their son with veteran groups that helped them cope when their son was deployed overseas.
“There were two Marines in particular; they pulled me out of the hole,” James said. “They got me involved in the veteran community. They gave me a purpose.”
James joined a motorcycle club that solely helped veterans and it was at that point he decided what he wanted to do with his life – he wanted to serve others. He went back to school, changing his major several times during the seven years it took him to earn his degree in recreational therapy. The only thing he needed was an internship.
He hadn’t yet heard of the Travis Mills Foundation, but it turns out that his grandmother had and was familiar with the story of U.S. Army SSG (Ret.) Travis Mills.
“She not only knew about him, she was a huge fan,” James said, laughing. “She had more pictures of him on her fridge than she had of me.”
It was 2018 and James landed an interview for an internship working on the waterfront of the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat in Rome, Maine. He and his father traveled to Maine from Connecticut for an interview with COO Kelly Roseberry.
“It was uncomfortable,” James said of the interview. “Here I was, 29 years old, bringing my father to a job interview. I think I said two words. Dad did all the talking. I just wasn’t capable of it.”
Despite that, James was hired for an internship in summer 2018 and the next year, he was promoted to a paid position as waterfront supervisor.
“It was awesome, I loved it,” he said.
He loved it so much, in fact, that he approached Kelly about a full-time position at the retreat. Right around that time, she had been introduced to Warrior PATHH, the nation’s first ever program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth in combat veterans and first responders. The revolutionary program enables participants to transform times of deep struggle into profound strength and achieve post-traumatic growth.
He looked into the program and it seemed to have potential and longevity. It was also another outlet in which he could serve. In November 2019 he went to Virginia to learn how to be a PATHH Guide, experiencing the program firsthand. It was so eye opening that it forced James to take a closer look at himself and the way that he was living his life.
At that point, James had been working for the Travis Mills Foundation for two years and felt that he had his life together.
“I thought I was good to go,” he said. “I felt good and had found my purpose.”
He didn’t expect to come to what was a frightening realization – emotionally and mentally he was in an even worse frame of mind than he was when he was just out of the Marine Corps.
“I had buried everything even deeper and never processed any of the things that I had seen or done,” he said, adding that at that point, he decided that he would benefit from the program and learn how to teach it later.
“I needed it,” he said.
“I used to say that Warrior PATHH saved my life, but it didn’t. It gave me the things I needed to save my own life. It empowered me to change my attitude about struggle, about post-traumatic stress and about all of the things that had happened to me.”
James, like many veterans, had been living in the past.
“When you experience trauma every day, like in war, it’s hard not to stay there,” he said. “When you have a doctor telling you that you’re broken, you’re never going to be better, you start to believe it and you have nothing to look forward to in life.”
PATHH takes the opposite approach in how it handles post-traumatic stress, even referring to it differently.
“It’s post-traumatic growth,” he said.
“You can get stronger than you were before,” James added. “The goal isn’t to get you back to where you were, the goal is for you to be better than you were.”
After James’s week in Virginia, he came back to the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat and sought out volunteers who would qualify to accompany him as PATHH Guides.
“I had a meeting with who are now four current PATHH Guides and they asked me, ‘What’s it like? What do you do?’” James said. “I told them that PATHH isn’t something you can explain, you have to experience it.”
And so they did. Each attended the week-long initiation week in one of Warrior PATHH’s other eight locations in the United States.
“While it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, it was also the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done,” James said.
Participants eat meals together during their initiation week, share their stories and learn wellness practices such as journaling, meditation, being grateful, reading and more, all the while redefining their definition of a “Warrior.”
“These practices get you into a place where you can start to respond, instead of react,” James said, adding that some of it is very basic.
“It’s like when someone tells you to take a breath but it usually just makes you more angry, right?” James said. “Here, you learn to do it correctly and use it as a practice, not as a tool. We don’t teach ‘break glass in case of emergency’ techniques.”
“We tell people, ‘You’re not broken. There is literally nothing wrong with you. You’re acting the way you were trained to act,’” James said, adding that 99 percent of the people who come to Warrior PATHH don’t know who they are.
“I didn’t know who I was,” James said. “I had this persona of who I had to be in combat, but in reality, that’s not who I really was. I was the happy-go-lucky dude with a smile on his face but here I was, acting like a savage, basically. That’s what I had to be in order to survive but it wasn’t until I learned how to calm myself down and regulate my emotions that I figured out who it was I wanted to be. PATHH was a reset button for me.”
After the PATHH initiation week, there’s 83 days of follow up where participants continue their work via an app with their PATHH Guides and the fellow warriors they met during the week-long, in-person program.
James and the team at the Travis Mills Foundation have taught 16 Warrior PATHH programs since its inception in Maine and have no doubt that the program is life-changing – they’ve seen it firsthand among themselves and participants.
“PATHH puts your mental health in your own hands. It gives you the opportunity to take responsibility for yourself,” he said, adding that another reason that it works so well is because the training and mentoring is delivered by fellow combat veterans and first responders.
“It’s not therapy, it’s training – and that resonates for the warrior men and women who attend this program.”
While James is manager of Warrior PATHH at the Foundation, through the program, he has realized that his journey continues.
“As guides, we walk alongside them as participants are starting their own path. We’re literally just a few steps ahead of them on the same path. It’s a lifelong journey.”