Tired and inspired: 3 Craig veterans complete 36-mile trek over Rabbit Ears and back to raise awareness for PTSD
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A few minutes after 3 a.m. Saturday, May 5, Will Montgomery, Tracy Santistevan and Ryan Fritz — all Moffat County veterans — stepped onto the shoulder of U.S. Highway 40 a few miles east of Steamboat Springs and started walking.
Fourteen hours and a little more than 36 miles later, they returned — definitely low on fuel, but still — somehow — elated.
“Tired, but inspired,” replied Santistevan — who served as a U.S. Army medic from 1986 to 1994 — when asked how he felt at the finish line.
He had a right to both feelings.
From whim to annual event
The men were walking for the second annual PTSD Awareness Hike, an event Montgomery inaugurated last year, when he and Santistevan decided one Saturday morning in May to walk from Craig to Hayden to raise awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder.
That first hike, which Montgomery acknowledges was born of a whim, comprised 17 miles, but the overwhelming support — and impromptu donations — they received once community members learned what they were doing inspired them to up the stakes, formalize the fundraising aspect and make the event an annual affair.
And the stakes this year were significantly higher.
To describe Saturday’s feat as a marathon hike would be a serious misnomer. The distance the three covered exceeded marathon-length by some 10 miles, and the first half of those miles required a grueling climb to the western summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, more than 2,500 feet in vertical gain.
Several members of the support team walked with the men for portions of the journey; Montgomery’s 8-year-0ld son joined the trio for 12 miles, and Fritz’s son, only 5, completed a full 3 1/2 miles.
But it was Montgomery, Santistevan and Fritz who took every step, and they took those steps for very good reasons.
In addition to raising awareness of the plight suffered by so many veterans and first responders, the hike also sought to raise funds for the Craig Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Comrade in Need Fund, which assists Moffat County veterans dealing with financial hardship. As of Sunday evening, Montgomery reported that the hike had raised $4,200 “and still counting.”
Montgomery also collaborated with the VFW, Trapper Fitness and Ringer Athletics to give three veterans a three-month gym membership. For the month of May, Trapper Fitness also plans to provide a free membership to veterans and active members of the military in honor of Montgomery’s walk.
A big stage
Montgomery, who served almost 19 years in the U.S. Army before being medically discharged with diagnoses of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, said completing the hike was accompanied by a mixture of emotions.
“It hit me on multiple levels,” he said. “Between, you know, doing this for our community, organizing it, being successful … and then, you just think about all your soldiers that you did lose over the years. But it’s not just that.
“This was a big stage.”
Montgomery referred here to the fact that he was scheduled to graduate from Colorado Northwestern Community College on Saturday, but chose instead to tackle the hike.
“I was supposed to graduate today,” he said. “They called out my name, so that was cool … I just chose a different stage to walk across. So, I think it was overwhelming a little bit, but still very, very rewarding. … At the end of the day, we did a service for other people; it’s not about just taking; it’s about giving back. And, you know, the world needs to see more people giving back than just thinking that they’re owed something all the time.
“We’re entitled to that next day, that next breath, but nothing more. We never know when our last day is, so helping somebody else is very rewarding.”
Montgomery stressed that all the funds raised by the walk will remain in Moffat County be used to help Moffat County veterans.
“The money raised stays in Moffat County,” he said. “All the money goes to the VFW, and the VFW is able to hand out the basic needs and financial essentials for … veterans … who need help paying bills, and not even just paying bills. … We have to go to either Golden or Denver or Grand Junction to get our services.”
Both Montgomery and Fritz were highly complimentary of Moffat County’s medical providers, but both said the services available locally are not adequate to meet all the needs of those suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries.
“They’re awesome, but it’s just not full service,” said Fritz, a Craig police officer and U.S. Army veteran. “The do all they can to take care of us, and they’re excellent health care workers and excellent people. There’s just only so much they can do.”
Not only veterans
Fritz said he also joined the hike to let the community know that public safety workers — though sometimes not associated with PTSD — are very susceptible to it.
“I didn’t do this just to represent law enforcement,” he said. “I did it to represent all public safety, because everyone thinks of the military when they think PTSD — and those guys absolutely see a lot more than we do — but people tend to forget about cumulative PTSD, with police officers, firefighters, EMTs, 911 operators, anyone who’s in public safety. … After a good number of years, you see a lot of things, and you hear a lot of things.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans in public safety. It’s a brotherhood.”
The GoFundMe page established for the PTSD Awareness hike expired Saturday night, but Montgomery said anyone still wishing to help can do so by calling him at 970-875-4233 through Friday, May 11.
With an above-average snowpack following a snowy winter, local firefighters and wildlife experts are expecting a mild fire season this year, especially at higher elevations.