When Ray Edgar graduated from Mount Blue High School in 1983, his patriotism for his country, a lack of interest in college and a desire to see the world inspired him to enlist in the U.S. Army.
His father was a World War II veteran and discussion of serving his country was an ongoing conversation in the Edgar household.
“I didn’t care for school at that time in my life. More often than not, I was disruptive in class” Ray added. “He said the Army would be good for me in terms of discipline.”
Ray spent 27 years in the military, starting as a Scout and retiring in 2010 as a Command Sergeant Major serving as the Commandant of the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy at Fort Knox in Kentucky. 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 in the 1st Armored Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 10th Mountain Division, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and Army ROTC at Northern Arizona University as the Senior Military Science Instructor. He served in combat in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division in Mosul, Iraq, and the 82nd Airborne Division at multiple locations in the Diyala Province.
After the military, he worked as a program manager for a government contracting firm. He had extremely successful careers in and out of the military until past trauma from the military and childhood had finally caught up with him.
It’s through Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) at the Travis Mills Foundation that Ray was able to address the issues that plagued him and lead a more purposeful and fulfilling life.
Serving His Country
Ray had already been serving in the military for 20 years when the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, happened. In fact, he was in the process of retiring.
He and his wife Sharon were at a Martina McBride concert in Arizona shortly after the attacks.
“I looked at her and said, ‘You know I’m not getting out, right?’”
Ray said while he could have retired, he wanted to stay and serve. At the time he was in ROTC, teaching young men and women how to be leaders.
“I was frustrated. I thought I needed to be on the battlefield,” he said. “Here I was on a college campus when a potential war was going on.”
However, he soon realized the seriousness of training these students for war in what was sure to be life or death situations. In 2004, Ray got his chance to deploy.
“I was selected to attend the Sergeant Major Academy at Fort Bliss,” he said. “It was usually a nine-month course but my course was shortened to 6 months so they could get us to units that were deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq more quickly. I requested that I be assigned to a unit that was deploying to combat after graduation. I was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, and within three weeks of my arrival I was deployed to Iraq.”
On his first deployment, Ray was assigned to serve as the Operations Sergeant Major for an Air Cavalry Squadron. The first deployment and his second 15-month tour were distinctly different, he said.
“My contact with the enemy on my first deployment was significantly less than my second deployment,” he added.
On his second deployment he served as the Command Sergeant Major of a reconnaissance unit in the 82nd Airborne Division, meaning he and his commander were in charge of nearly 500 people – what Ray described as a small unit.
On this deployment, he didn’t live on a secured Forward Operating Base.
“We lived outside the wire,” he said. “We were living in abandoned buildings – schools or homes – we were living where the enemy was living.”
Ray and his unit were in contact with the enemy almost daily whether it was getting shot at, being exposed to Improvised Explosive Devices, mortar fire or coming face-to-face with suicide bombers.
At a unit reunion in 2019, Ray quoted the guest speaker from the Squadron Ball, LTG William Caldwell: “You were the smallest unit in the Brigade, you were spread the thinnest, you sustained the greatest number of casualties and you were able to hold the most ground and accomplish more than any other unit in Multi-National Division North. Thirty percent of the 442 Paratroopers in the Squadron received valor awards, 60 percent received achievement awards for actions in a combat zone, over 35 percent of the high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicles in the Squadron were catastrophic losses. 1/4 of the Paratroopers were killed in action or wounded in action.”
For their work, the unit received the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism. It reads:
“During this period, the unit successfully built a capable and effective Iraqi Security Force which prevented enemy personnel and materiel from crossing through Iran into Iraq, denied safe haven to insurgents and
provided a peaceful and secure environment for the Iraqi people. In addition, the unit conducted countless combat patrols and launched Operation Turki Bowl, an extremely successful offensive campaign which crushed the will of a Wahabist insurgent group known as “The Council.”
“The Council had enacted a violent guerilla campaign against the Iraqi Security Forces and local Iraqi civilian population, greatly threatening regional stability. However, the unit fearlessly met the threat head-on,
conducting 14 squadron and troop-level operations over a 3-month period which set the stage for a classic linear battle in which over 250 Al Qaeda operatives were killed and over 100 caches discovered. The unit’s outstanding accomplishments, indomitable spirit’ and peerless heroism directly contributed to Coalition Forces’ success.”
During the tour that lasted from August 2006 to October 2007, 22 paratroopers were killed in action and 86 were wounded.
“A quarter of the unit was either killed or wounded,” he said, adding he and his commander went to the morgue each time one of their people was killed.
It was also his duty to visit the wounded. Both were emotional and grizzly jobs.
“I had never seen things like I saw over there,” Ray said.
“On a good day I was looking at a guy who might be missing limbs or burned all over his body,” he added. “On a bad day I’d go from the hospital to the morgue; my commander and I would put awards on the body bags and just spend a short time with them. He and I were the last people to see them before they got sent stateside.”
It took a toll.
“I couldn’t really process my emotions,” he said. “I not only knew all the men personally, in most cases, I knew their families, too. Since I was in charge of people, it was difficult to process the losses; I needed to stay focused on being a leader and our mission; I didn’t actually process the losses.”
When Ray arrived home, he wasn’t the same.
“I had trouble regulating my emotions,” he said. “I might be sitting at a table, eating a meal with my wife, and I’d just start crying or I’d get angry and stay angry for several days at a time.”
He experienced panic attacks where he’d have trouble breathing and his muscles would freeze, rendering him unable to move freely.
Ray had experienced anxiety before the deployments and even before he joined the military.
“My father spent three years in combat and he struggled,” he said. “Both of my parents survived the Great Depression and four of my mother’s brothers served in World War II. It was a stressful environment to grow up in.”
Knowing what he knows now, Ray said he learned to suppress his emotions as a child and into adulthood.
“It obviously served me well as a soldier but when it was combined with the trauma I experienced in the military, things started to fall apart,” he said. “I had to put an act on; I would go to work and act as a certain guy but when I wasn’t at work, I was struggling.”
Ray would go four or five days without sleeping, which resulted in chronic pain. When driving he found himself looking for IEDs, he was hyper vigilant and often had nightmares. Most noticeably, he said, was the change in his relationship with his wife.
“I was volatile,” he said. “She didn’t understand what I had experienced; I didn’t even want to understand it.”
After the military, Ray had a successful career as a program manager with the government and he was promoted often.
“But I was miserable,” he said. “Inside, I was panicking. I had no wellness practices so I’d go hide in the bathroom and sit there in fear, struggling.”
Ray’s doctors wanted to prescribe medication for his post-traumatic stress, but he didn’t want to try that. He also went to talk therapy, but there was often turnover of therapists or they didn’t have the training to be able to treat what Ray was experiencing.
“But I went because that’s what society says to do.”
“I didn’t want to be the way that I was, but I didn’t know how to fix it,” he said, noting that the military wasn’t adequately prepared for the onslaught of soldiers with post-traumatic stress.
“Part of that was the nature of the warfare,” Ray said. “My dad looked at me and knew I was changed. He said the type of combat I experienced was worse than his. He fought a uniformed enemy. I was in a place where women or children would kill us.”
Finding a Purpose
Ray and his wife moved from Kentucky back to Farmington, Maine, in 2014 – his state of mind was still the same, maybe even worse.
“There weren’t any combat veterans around that I knew; there was no military presence up here,” he said. “I felt completely out of sorts.”
He took a similar job as a program manager in Augusta, Maine, that only lasted six months. The office politics were extreme and Ray said it reignited his combat experience, in terms of the uncertainty he was experiencing.
“I couldn’t mentally sustain it,” he said. “I went back to school to be a personal trainer and did that for a couple years,” adding that his degrees are in occupational training development and a master’s in human resources leadership.
Ray eventually quit working altogether.
“I felt like a failure,” he said. “I had over 30 years of leadership experience, a master’s degree and I couldn’t maintain a job.”
Fast forward two years, and Ray’s wife saw a news story about the Travis Mills Foundation. Ray immediately signed up to volunteer.
“I felt a sense of belonging, of camaraderie,” Ray said.
A couple years after that, the Foundation adopted Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes), a program that is the first of its kind to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth in combat veterans and first responders. It includes a seven-day initiation period and 90 days of follow up training. It’s currently offered at only 10 locations throughout the U.S., including the Travis Mills Foundation in Rome, Maine.
Ray applied to be a PATHH guide, knowing that he would have to complete the program first.
“I researched PATHH and it was completely different than anything I’d done before,” he said. “Statistics showed that what they were doing was making an impact and change in the quality of life of the people who did the program.”
Ray was a member of the very first Travis Mills Foundation PATHH class.
“I knew that it was going to help me if I did the work,” he said.
The work, he did – and is still doing.
“I finally felt that I could gain my dignity back,” Ray added. “PATHH put me back in the driver’s seat.”
One of the reasons the program works so well, Ray said, is because it’s led by fellow combat veterans and first responders. The program isn’t run in a clinical setting by therapists or other mental health professionals.
“I was tired of talking to someone who didn’t have a clue what was going on in my head and trying to diagnose me,” he said, adding that Warrior PATHH was probably the most difficult thing he’s ever done, but also the most worth it.
At the beginning of PATHH’s seven-day initiation week, Ray said he sat in a seat by the door, ready to bolt and he didn’t sleep at all the first two nights.
“We joke now that I almost didn’t make it past the first day,” he added.
“I didn’t ever want to be a in a group setting with other guys, complaining about stuff,” Ray said. “But it wasn’t like that at all.”
Through PATHH training, Ray realized that despite the trauma he experienced, there was a way to process his emotions in a way that didn’t destroy him; he could even have a fulfilling life. That hit home with Ray during the program’s teachings about the “Hanoi Hilton,” the prison camp where American POWs endured extreme torture during the Vietnam War. Once released, it was expected that the captured men would be incredibly damaged. It was the opposite, however, and many went on to lead successful, meaningful lives, including Sen. John McCain.
Now a PATHH guide, Ray said he gains more strength and insight every time he teaches the program, held once a month at the Foundation.
“I’ve felt more comfortable in this environment than I have ever felt in any therapeutic environment I’ve been in,” Ray added.
PATHH teaches wellness practices such as meditation, journaling, and more, to help participants regulate their feelings.
“I had been looking for a cure,” Ray said. “That’s not how it works, though. I’m now able to look at my experiences through a different lens. I now have the capacity to explore my past and take lessons from it.”
Ray said Warrior PATHH significantly helped the relationship with his wife. It allowed him to see the trauma she experienced while he was deployed.
“I didn’t understand where she was coming from because I was so self-absorbed,” he said. “When people in the brigade were lost, she went to all the memorials, she held the babies of the men who died.”
Ray said she was often involved with families immediately after they were notified that their loved one was killed in action.
“It’s not only the veterans who experience post-traumatic stress, it’s their families, too,” Ray said.
Life After PATHH
Ray said what he thought mattered to him, doesn’t anymore: a big salary, high powered job, etc.
“As I pursued these goals I caused a void,” he said. “I fill that void now because my primary focus is to serve other people.”
Participants in the Warrior PATHH program are never truly done with their journeys because ultimately, it also includes helping others.
“I now measure my success by how I treat myself and how I treat other people,” he said. “Quality of life means something to me. I can achieve deeper relationships with others and I can be authentic.”
Why Warrior PATHH?
If Ray could say one thing to a person considering the program, 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.”
“I’d also ask if what they’re doing now is helping?” Ray added. “Most people will say it’s not and that they’re at risk of losing their families and everything that’s important to them.”
Most impactful to Ray is that attending Warrior PATHH and doing the work that goes along with it changed his physiology, which had a domino effect and changed other aspects of his life.
“I grew up in a home that was volatile, I went into a career where I was jumping out of airplanes, then I experienced combat – these activities caused my adrenaline and other stress hormones to surge, to become what I now call upregulated” he said. “PATHH taught practices that would allow me to regulate in the absence of medication – to calm myself down.”
Ray used to practically beg his doctors to tell him a way to shut his brain down, even for just a minute or two.
“I have the ability to do that now,” he said. “I can just sit and relax, read a book. A lot of people have anxiety and trouble focusing, they can’t sleep. If they work on that physiological piece, they will have better relationships.”
PATHH guides like Ray stress to participants that they are the same as them – they’re just a little further on the path than their students. Ray is constantly learning about himself and recently decided to pick up a book, “Head Hunter, 5-73 CAV and Their Fight for Iraq’s Diyala River Valley,” that was published in 2020 and is about his unit and what its members experienced in Iraq.
“It included interviews with the families of the people we lost,” Ray said. “At the time, I wouldn’t allow that to enter the equation – that they were fathers and sons. They died honorably on the battlefield; that was as far as I was willing to go emotionally”
Ray read the book, sometimes only a few pages at a time, the pages wet from his tears.
Showing emotions – tears – is something that Ray learned in PATHH is OK to do.
“It would be easy to withhold my emotions, to be a jerk to everybody,” he said. “What’s not easy is to open up and disclose this stuff to others, which in my case was and is the guys from PATHH.”
“PATHH changed my life.”
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.