Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, retired Army Ranger Cpt. Steve Watkins sought renewed purpose in life when he started exploring the Iditarod race trail.
Watkins has embarked along the trail this year on a snowmachine, training to officially qualify to participate in next year’s race.
The retired Army Ranger joined the military for the promise of adventure. He said he never saw himself as a military man. After graduating from West Point in 1999, the Kansas native was stationed in Alaska and eventually found himself with the 501st parachute regiment at Fort Richardson.
Watkins was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, and in 2005, he served as a civilian contractor in Iraq. He took a two-year break to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that same year.
The Ranger sustained critical injuries while in Iraq, requiring emergency medical treatment in Dubai. Following his treatment he was discharged at the end of 2013, scarred emotionally and physically. Watkins has since been classified as a veteran with 90 percent disability. He didn’t want to discuss the specifics of his injuries.
Like so many men and women he served with, Watkins ended his tour, left war behind and came home to a world that had kept moving without him. He felt irrelevant, straddled with the reality that the most important chapter in his life had already passed.
“While we were (at war) we felt relevant,” Watkins said. “We were making a difference.”
Since the war finished that feeling had disappeared, Watkins said. The sense of irrelevancy became the new enemy and returning to some sense of normalcy was the new mission. For Watkins it was “being cool and OK with what America has to offer,” he said. “And it’s a lot.”
That can be inspiration in and of its self, he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, as many as 20 percent of returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. Watkins has taken on the Iditarod trail to help others dealing with the disorder feel inspired and foster that sense of being OK with that private battle.
This year Watkins has taken up the Iditarod as his next adventure, and he’s treating it like any other battle, much the same way he envisions how mushers deal with the race. Being observant, Watkins said, is just as important for a soldier in battle as it is for a musher in the heat of the race. A peaceful market in a picturesque town square can erupt in bloody chaos just as a beautiful trail can turn into an arctic nightmare in the blink of an eye.
“A great way to measure a man is to observe what makes them flustered,” Watkins said. “Those who are successful can handle pressure cool.”
It boils down to mental preparedness, Watkins said. In his downtime, whether it was on the battlefield, or through the Iditarod trail straightaways, Watkins uses the time mentally preparing for scenarios in any foreseeable situation. If Watkins were going to deal with a monotonous moment, he would rather fill the time in a productive way. He wishes it were like that for every soldier.
“If you’re a soldier in distress, be it behind enemy lines or doing lines on your bathroom floor, you have an obligation to send out a distress signal,” Watkins said. “This is how I’m not dead right now; this is how I’m finding a life after war and I think it can work for other people too.”
The conditions are harsh, but great mushers endure, and a soldier must do the same. Watkins admits his spirits have had ups and downs and it’s daunting, but this was a conscious choice he made.
Racing Iditarod isn’t all Watkins has planned for 2015. As soon as he finishes the race he plans to scale Denali.
“I feel alive for the first time,” he said. “I was in a very bad spot when I was hurt. War is a drug. When off that drug, I had to take inventory of my life.”