What are your plans this Memorial Day weekend — a picnic, a round of golf or maybe camping?
For Winona State University student and St. Charles native Josh Ploetz, it will be paddling down the Mississippi River.
Josh started his journey last week at Lake Itasca. Josh was a Marine, Josh was wounded, Josh has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Josh isn’t even 30. He now is paddling off the war he fought both in Afghanistan and after he came home, in an effort to raise awareness for others who have suffered and might suffer like he has.
I met Josh a few weeks ago through a mutual friend; we didn’t really talk. I then heard about his upcoming journey and had to learn more. What stood out in my mind is that often when we think of war veterans, we think of our elders, our fathers and grandfathers, but not those our age or younger.
Josh looks just like any other college student. He’s a bit older because of his service and many years wiser.
He joined the Marines at the age of 18. Just like any other boy, he played war with his brother. But it wasn’t until he met a recruiter from the Marines that he knew what he wanted to do. After high school, he enlisted. He became a machine gunner and by the age of 19 he was leading a group of 18 others — a lot for someone at such a young age.
In 2003, he was deployed to the northern part of Afghanistan. He doesn’t like to share too much. He described his first deployment as hell and the second as not so bad, because you knew what to expect. “I knew a lot of things were going to happen that I would never be able to forget,” he said.
After his second deployment he decided he was done with the Marines. He came home. Like many returning from combat, he didn’t know what to do. So he tried to reenlist, but because of injuries incurred while serving, he couldn’t go back. In his words, he became a broke ex-Marine who drank a lot and his mind was messed up. Josh was suffering from PTSD.
He struggled with his friends who hadn’t been in combat; they didn’t know what he had seen and been through. “I had a lot of bad memories,” he said. “The only way to get rid of them is to erase them, but I don’t want to because there are a lot of good ones even from the bad that you share with your brothers you had over there.”
PTSD is a disease that never truly goes away.
Now, several years later, he is paddling down the Mississippi from the beginning to the end, not to raise funds but awareness for other veterans who might be suffering from the same things. He knows what it is like to struggle to find happiness.
“Veterans are stubborn,” He said. “We take care of our brothers on the battlefield but when we come home we are afraid to ask them for help. I want vets to know it’s OK to ask.”
Fortunately for Josh, he sought out programs for help. Three years ago he connected with the Semper Fi Fund, which provides assistance to post-9/11 service members along with other resources. He started cycling as a physical outlet. Then he decided to try out the Marine Corps Marathon, where at the banquet he met Alan Rowe and learned about The Baton.
The Baton is the handle of a military stretcher, a program started in Great Britain to passionately promote the human faces of our forces, their families and friends — specifically those who have been injured or lost their lives. The Baton has now found its way to the U.S. and is traveling down the Mississippi River with Josh. People across the world are following its journey on Facebook. He is the second person ever outside of the United Kingdom to carry this coveted symbol. It traveled across Antarctica on its first journey.
This young veteran will celebrate his 30th birthday on June 6. He plans to reach Winona by June 10 and take a few days off to connect with family, see the Johnny Holm Band at Steamboat Days and share more of his story and the story of The Baton with his current hometown.
Talking to Josh changed the way I look at Memorial Day. We always make an extra effort to thank and remember those who have served. This year maybe we can open our eyes a little wider and see that veterans come in all ages, races and genders, and to them we owe our gratitude not just today but every day.
Know that just because they have returned from war, the war may not be over for them.