NJ.COM Article

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NJ.COM Article

 

By Larry Higgs | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on May 31, 2016 at 8:00 AM, updated May 31, 2016 at 9:49 AM

As a former search and rescue swimmer, Navy veteran Michael Dowens is used to helping others, but starting Thursday morning he’ll begin a grueling new mission on dry land.

Dowens, 37, a police officer in Holmdel, and a friend are walking from the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in his town to the national Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., to raise money to help veterans get treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“We’re leaving Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m., on the 200-plus-miles to the Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C. It’s non-stop, no sleep, to raise awareness for service men and women suffering from PTSD,” he said. “The reason for doing it non-stop is to symbolize the struggle.”

The veteran and a companion will only stop to eat, and he plans to wear 70 pounds of body armor and a pack containing the supplies, water and food for the trip. After a brief ceremony at 6:30 a.m. at the Vietnam Era Museum and Educational Center, Dowens and his friend will start their trek.

“The money raised through a GoFundMe page will sponsor a veteran to get treatment for PTSD at The Refuge, a treatment center in Florida,” Dowens said. “We have close to $11,000. They’ll get one month of treatment for that.”

Dowens is hoping the money will start an ongoing non-profit to help veterans get treatment for PTSD, which claims the lives of 22 veterans a day through suicide, he said. He knows the work that The Refuge does first hand after being deployed in the Middle East, Liberia and Somalia from 2002 to 2006.

“I went through the program, it saved my life,” he said.

Dowens was honorably discharged in 2006 for asthma he developed while overseas, but afterward he suffered intense symptoms of PTSD for years before he finally sought treatment.

“I struggled with the fact that I wasn’t in the Navy any longer,” said Dowens. “I had survivor’s guilt and tried to get back into the military nine times.”

During the trek, Dowens will carry a flag that flew outside his cabin at The Refuge, which was passed on to him by other veterans helped by the program.

Fund raising is ongoing through his Go Fund Me page at Unbroken Warriors.

Dowens walk is similar to the Last Patrol, a group of New Jersey Vietnam veterans who walked from Washington, D.C., in 1989 to the site of what became the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Holmdel to raise support, and funds for that memorial.