Craig veteran to walk over Rabbit Ears Pass — and back — to raise awareness for PTSD Saturday | CraigDailyPress.com

Craig veteran to walk over Rabbit Ears Pass — and back — to raise awareness for PTSD Saturday

William Montgomery, left, and Tracy Santistevan walked about 17 miles from Craig to Hayden to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in 2017. This year, they're walking over Rabbit Ears pass to raise awareness.

CRAIG — Just before 3 a.m. Saturday, Will Montgomery will lace up his boots at the western base of Rabbit Ears Pass. At 3 a.m., he’ll start walking.

The veteran and fitness enthusiast plans to hike from the chain-up pull-off at the western base of Rabbit Ears Pass to the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 14, then turn around and walk back over the pass again to the same spot.

He's hiking the nearly 40-mile route to raise awareness for the struggle faced by veterans and law enforcement officers with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

"The overall mission is to let other veterans in the community and the area know that they're not alone — that they're not the only ones that struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder," Montgomery said. "Hopefully, this can give some resources out and get some attention in."

In conjunction with the walk, Montgomery is also raising money to support the Craig Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Comrade in Need Fund, which assists Moffat County veterans dealing with financial hardship. He's collecting donations online, and on Saturday, there will be a donation station set up at the top of Rabbit Ears Pass. So far, he said, he's collected $2,500 of his $5,000 goal.

Montgomery is also collaborating with the VFW, Trapper Fitness and Ringer Athletics in Craig to provide three veterans a three-month gym membership. For the month of May, Trapper Fitness will also provide a free membership to veterans and active members of the military in honor of Montgomery's walk.

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For all 35.62 miles, he'll wear a 25-pound vest and carry a rucksack filled with snacks, first aid supplies, a spare pair of shoes, a dozen pair of socks and "lots and lots" of water. Montgomery said the weight represents a "light load" for an army infantryman. He hopes to finish by 6 p.m.

Four people intend to walk the distance with him: Johnathon McCartney, who currently serves as an Army recruiter, Army veteran and Craig Police Officer Ryan Fritz and Army veteran Tracy Santistevan. Several community members plan to walk for portions of the hike. A caravan of supporters will depart from the parking lot of Trapper Fitness in Craig at 9 a.m. Saturday. Several Yampa Valley businesses have also donated to Montgomery's cause.

"It's kind of two-fold for me," Fritz said of his participation. "It's not only because of my time in the service, but one of the other things is awareness on cumulative PTSD that law enforcement deals with." Law enforcement officers can develop PTSD over time, as they face small traumas day in and day out, Fritz said.

Inspired by another veteran's struggle

Montgomery served almost 19 years in the U.S. Army before he was medically discharged with diagnoses of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. “By the books,” he's 100-percent disabled, he said. He now runs his own personal training company, Red Wrench Fitness.

Last year, Montgomery was inspired to walk 17 miles to show support for Cory Hixson. Hixson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was injured in Fallujah, moved with his family from Craig to Broomfield to access better care for his PTSD and traumatic brain injury. In 2017, after a change in his medication, Hixson suffered a traumatic PTSD-related episode. He was admitted to the VA Hospital only after elected officials advocated on his behalf.

On a Saturday morning last May, Montgomery and friend and fellow Army veteran Tracy Santistevan walked from the Craig to Hayden in solidarity.

As people learned what the men were doing, donations came in. Some handed him cash as he walked the shoulder of U.S. 40. The two men inadvertently raised about $1,000, which was donated to the Hixson family for medical expenses.

"A lot of people showed some interest, and a lot of people said 'I wish I would've known. I would've walked with you, or I would've done this,'" Montgomery said.

The donations inspired him to make the hike an annual event and to create a more organized effort to collect donations. Montgomery also said that, by taking on a more difficult hike, he's proving his dedication to solidarity with other people coping with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. This year's hike is two times longer and traverses a significantly greater elevation change.

"Northwest Colorado seems to be a very forgotten community when it comes to veterans," Montgomery said. "We either have to go to Junction or we have to go to Golden to get our services for any medical (care)."

Accessing mental health care

On Colorado’s Western Slope, mental health professionals are fewer and farther between, said Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of the advocacy organization Mental Health Colorado.

In rural Colorado, the stigmas associated with mental illnesses can keep people from seeking care. In a 2017 survey, 56.6 percent of respondents in Moffat County said they did not seek mental health care because they were concerned about what would happen if someone found out, and 61 percent said they did not access care because they were uncomfortable discussing personal problems.

"If you live in a small town where everybody knows your name, seeking mental health care or acknowledging mental illness or a substance use disorder can be a source of shame or even discrimination," Romanoff said.

Ed Wilkinson, Moffat County Veterans Service officer, said the largest barrier to veterans receiving care is the veterans, themselves. Many do not want to ask for help, he said.

The distance and cost of mental health services, even with insurance, can discourage people from seeking care as well, Romanoff said.

All these barriers can lead people with early symptoms of mental illness to defer seeking care. In some cases, these symptoms worsen until a person faces a mental health crisis, he added.

To combat the problem, his organization advocates to break the stigmas associated with mental illness, encourage prevention and early detection of mental illness and advance legislation that improves access to care. Telehealth clinics, such as the Veteran's Administration's Telehealth Clinic in Craig, can improve access to services in rural areas by allowing people to speak to mental health professionals remotely using a webcam.

Montgomery's PTSD and traumatic brain injury have inspired him not only to walk to raise awareness, but also to learn more about how these illnesses work. This week, he will complete an associate's degree in psychology at Colorado Northwestern Community College. He's missing his own commencement ceremony in Rangely to complete the hike over Rabbit Ears.

"I'll be walking, but it just won't be across that stage," he quipped. He expects to be around mile 20 at the time his name would have been called.

Donations can be made online at uk.gofundme.com/2nd-annual-hike-for-ptsd or in person with cash or check to Montgomery. For more information, call Montgomery at 970-875-4233.

Mental Health Colorado offers resources as well as free, confidential and scientifically based screenings for mental illness, including PTSD, online at http://www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/screenings.

Contact Eleanor Hasenbeck at 970-875-1795 or ehasenbeck@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck.