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Paddleboarding a way to cope with PTSD

Former soldier travels along rivers to raise awareness of the disorder

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Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun 
Trevor Petersen left the military suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun Trevor Petersen left the military suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

BRANDON -- Life was a thick fog for Trevor Petersen when he returned to Canada in 2007 after his seven-month tour of duty with the Canadian military in Afghanistan.

The fog lasted several years for the Edmonton man, who took part in an unmanned aircraft project while in the war-torn country.

Pushed out of the regimented military life and fraught with guilt, the former soldier would have periodic blackouts. His eyes would roll into his head. He would come to and everything in his path would be broken.

"My mom has walked in on me twice trying to kill myself," he said in a soft voice. "One of those times, I was sitting down with a glass of water and all my pills laid out." He doesn't remember what year that happened.

After he was discharged from the military in 2010, Petersen needed a hobby -- something that would silence the noise in his head and allow him to focus and relax.

'When you get on the board, you have to concentrate on balancing and paddling. It took everything else away; all that noise just kind of fell away, so the more I paddleboard, the healthier I got'

-- former soldier Trevor Petersen

In 2011, he took up paddleboarding, and what started as a therapeutic activity became a passion and a way to continue the ongoing conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last summer, his doctor told him he'd never work in a normal work environment again. One year later, on July 1, the 42-year-old set off from Edmonton on his paddleboard with a goal of travelling on the Prairie rivers all the way to Winnipeg.

"When you get on the board, you have to concentrate on balancing and paddling. It took everything else away; all that noise just kind of fell away, so the more I paddleboard, the healthier I got."

Paddleboarders stand up while paddling. Petersen took a break in Brandon Wednesday with his mother, Marie-Paul, who has been driving in an RV, meeting up with her son at various checkpoints on secondary roads.

Beginning on the North Saskatchewan River, Petersen followed the southern fur-trade route from Lake Diefenbaker, Sask., through the Qu'Appelle River system and will now continue on the Assiniboine River, hopefully reaching Winnipeg in the next two weeks.

It's been a gruelling month, paddling close to six hours almost every day -- with a repair kit, rain gear, snacks and water with him -- against wind, rain and exhaustion.

The idea behind the trip is to draw attention and raise funds for Wounded Warriors Canada, a non-profit organization helping injured Canadian Forces members.

During his daylong stop in Brandon, Petersen talked at length about his struggle with PTSD.

Life was simple in Afghanistan: Eat. Sleep. Work. Repeat.

He didn't have a handle on how to live a normal civilian life -- he was a soldier living with guilt about the lives lost during Canada's involvement in the Afghan mission. But he was also a soldier who desperately wanted to return to the controlled daily regiment of military life.

"I didn't want to be home. I didn't care anymore."

There were some mornings, he recalled, waking up and looking into the mirror and being disappointed he "made it through the night."

While trying to describe what his life was like in the years following his tour, he also remembered how he narrowly escaped getting clipped by a car -- and regretting his basic instincts to get out of the car's path.

"I was so pissed at myself," he said. "I thought to myself that it could have all been done right now. It's not living. You're surviving day by day."

He compares PTSD to a diabetic dealing with insulin levels. "I have to constantly watch my emotional and psychological state."

Marie-Paul has been taking care of the logistics of the trip and has been with him every step of the way.

"We want people to talk about it," she said. "The more people talk about it, the more people will try and get help."

For more information and to track the journey, visit www.paddlingwithptsd.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2014 A8

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