By Liz McLean: Liz is a staffing advisor at Hewlett Packard, a veteran, Ironman triathlete and guest blogger.
How does one cope with stress? Common methods are journaling, lighting scented candles, working in the garden or perhaps ferociously shopping on Amazon.com. More harmful methods include turning to alcohol, excessive sleep or withdrawing from society. All that being said, when you suffer from stress as severe as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and treat it with alcoholism….in the end an outsider looking in can only hope the outcome is positive. For Aaron Autler, a 28 year old Marine Infantry veteran, the healthiest methods to cure-all was introduced…..an intense exercise regimen to cope with the demons. That is the journey that Aaron has started and I am here to help him finish not a 5k.…but an Ironman.
When we think of the typical homeless vet, we envision the older toothless gentlemen with a frayed beard on the street corner, dressed in military garb simply wanting a handout based on the merits of his cardboard sign. We don’t think of a strapping young, physical specimen of a then 25 year old boy who simply couldn’t cope with reality.
When Aaron returned from his deployment overseas in 2010, there was not a welcoming team to ensure he was on the precise path to civilian populace integration. Aaron returned to the US without a sense of belonging and without believing he truly deserved a chance to be a contributing member of society. Fighting the medical systems to get the help that needed and deserved, Aaron’s biggest obstacle was his PTSD. This (coupled with a faulty reintegration process) left him questioning his purpose and ultimately migrating on the streets as a homeless veteran. My personal awareness of the homeless vet population was reinforced from my competition in the Inaugural Miss Veteran America Competition in 2012, where I represented Final Salute in the quest to remove women vets specifically from the alleyways. Staggeringly, approximately 131,000 homeless vets line the street corners on any given night.
In the instance of Aaron, while on the streets the entity that quieted his dismal voices the most was alcohol. Sadly alcohol became Aaron’s closest ally as he removed himself further away from the eyes of those who were capable of lending a helping hand. Fortunately, over time those who saw his struggle eventually reached out and he was pulled from the downward spiral as a date was set for him to enter the Men’s Trauma Recovery Center in Menlo Park, CA. Through the detox, the torment and countless hours of counseling, the once stellar athlete was then introduced to the art of cycling. With hours of practice and the support of his trauma group, Aaron was able to not just meet, but exceed all expectations.
Now one year sober and working on his path to become a functioning member of society, Aaron is on the quest to become not just a triathlete…but an Ironman. Having been a veteran myself who has dealt with personal traumatic struggles and competes in Ironman events, I was elated to coach Aaron on his journey.
The most recent contribution to Aaron’s success was made by Joe Santos of Davis Wheelworks in Davis, CA. Joe selflessly reconstructed Aaron’s gifted road bike into the dream triathlon bike. Joe is a globally respected biomechanic whose precision in the art of cycling has led countless cyclist and triathlete victories. Thanks to the help of Joe, his astute cycling knowledge and compassion, Aaron will now be able to take the next steps of traumatic recovery by putting his body to the ultimate test in an efficient way.
The discipline of training and the adrenaline of completing a goal that less than 1% of the world’s population has completed is a triumph for any human being….but for someone like Aaron Autler the quest has an entirely new meaning. Autler says, “ I want to compete in Triathlons because I love to be challenged; that is why I became a Marine. It allows me to train in multiple sports and helps occupy a lot of time by keeping my mind focused on improving myself and off the things that keep me stuck and moving backwards. It is a long and short term set of goals and I can measure the progress by competing in events and it is something I can continue to improve for the rest of life.” Cheers to athletics being civilization’s best medicine.