Challenges are faced every day by America’s returning veterans. There’s the challenge of reintegration into the civilian world, for one. For some, there is the challenge of resuming relationships put on hold. Others must adjust to life-changing injuries. There is also a silent, invisible challenge faced by most soldiers, and that is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the weight of that challenge triggers 22 veterans each day to take their own lives, said Blake Wornkey,local organizer for the Active Heroes Carry the Fallen rucksack march held Saturday morning at Cheyenne Bottoms.
“The fallen are those veterans who we’ve lost,” he said. Veterans take up rucksacks weighted to represent the burdens carried by those fallen soldiers in order to raise awareness about the long-term affects of PTSD. “I want to raise the awareness of people in this area that this is a real problem faced by people here in Barton County each and every day.”
Wornkey is a veteran himself. According to his wife, he served three out of his four a tours of duty overseas, one each in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan.
He wrestles with PTSD himself, admitting he avoids crowds and confined spaces, two of his triggers. Many veterans prefer to keep their experiences private, but others can help by paying attention and being aware of the signs that a person may be uncomfortable in certain situations.
Friendship is an important part of moving on, too. One of the goals of Saturday’s event was to connect veterans to other veterans and those who support them. While the rain and cold temperatures inhibited the anticipated turnout, Wornkey and brother Cody Waite were joined by Michelle Davis, Great Bend, and co-worker Dan Slack, who both turned out in support of Wornkey’s cause. Wornkey donned his pack at 6:30 a.m., and headed out with his three companions on what would turn out to be a walk measuring between 10 to 12 miles around the Cheyenne Bottoms, leaving from the Kansas Wetlands Education Center before sunrise.
According to Davis, the sunrise was one of the most memorable she’s seen. Along the way, they stopped to photograph birds and wildlife before the rain began about half-way into the walk. She and Slack work together at the Great Bend Cemetery, and are friends of the Wornkey family. Slack is also a veteran.
“I didn’t ever do anything, not like him,” he said, indicating Wornkey. That’s when Wornkey’s mom, Pam, interrupted to say Slack was a Vietnam Veteran, which he quickly waved off. He has recently taken up walking, and said he trained for today’s walk, finding it felt good to meet the challenge, and that’s the point.
Wornkey said he chose the Bottoms because he wanted a scenic route that took the group off the dirt roads and away from traffic. In August, he and Waite attended another Active Heroes Carry the Fallen march near Tulsa, Okla. That one, they said, was 22-miles long, making Saturday’s walk a comparative stroll in the park. Davis and Slack agreed, saying they found their hike both challenging and fun. While the turnout was small, they agreed it was worthwhile.
They arrived back at the KWEC pavilion shortly before 11 a.m., where they were greeted by Wornkey’s wife, Jenna, and his mom and dad, Pam and Tim, as well as his uncle Jerry Wornkey. All the makings for a picnic were on hand, courtesy of their sponsors. They included Ellinwood Packing, Lone Wolf Restaurant, American Legion Post 320, Sons of the American Legion of Ellinwood, Kansas Wildlife and Parks and the KWEC.
Wornkey will continue to work and raise money for Active Heroes, and hopes to organize another march in the spring, hopefully with better weather and a better turnout. In the mean time, each day he’s on the lookout for a new challenge and a new goal. That’s how he has chosen to work through his own issues. Time heals, he said.