Veterans walking to Washington, D.C. for ‘Refuge’

By KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

HOLMDEL — After Mike Dowens was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 2006, life went on.

The veteran, who was a search-and-rescue swimmer with stints in the Middle East, Somalia, Liberia and Haiti, became a Holmdel police officer in 2008, and he and his wife, Christine, welcomed a baby boy. However, Dowens said he was struggling to adjust to civilian life.

“I was struggling with not being in the military,” he said. “It bothered me … missing that feeling of comraderie.”

Dowens, 37, a lifelong Holmdel resident, entered the U.S. Navy in 2002.

“I have always been a patriotic person, and after the events of [the terroristic attacks] on Sept. 11, 2001, I entered the military,” he said.

Dowens was honorably discharged in 2006 for asthma he developed while overseas.

That struggle with adjustment to civilian life, Dowens said, led to “depression, anger and alcohol abuse.”

“There was a lack of enjoying things. … I knew I needed help for the sake of my wife and son,” he said.

In January, Dowens, with the support of his family, entered The Refuge, a residential treatment program that specializes in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse and process addictions located in Ocklawaha, Florida.

He spent 76 days in the program and came home in April.

“It worked really well for me … it really changed my life,” Dowens said. “They had different techniques helping me on how I saw my life.”

Dowens said there was not just medication; there was equine therapy working with horses, meditation and group therapy.

“They touched on different factors where my wife was able to come down and participate,” he said.

Dowens said he learned about PTSD and how and what it can do to one’s body, and it explained why he was feeling the way he was. PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing or witnessing it.

While in the program, Dowens said he wanted to help other veterans suffering from PTSD.

“The statistic of 22 veteran suicides a day due to PTSD and the related symptoms of this disease is staggering,” he said.

Dowens set up an “Unbroken Warriors Memorial Ruck” GoFundMe page to raise funds for veterans suffering from PTSD and put in motion a nonstop, three-day, 206-mile ruck march from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Dowens, with fellow veterans Brian S. Darnowski, who served in the U.S. Army and another Army veteran, Mike, who only wanted to use his first name, set out on the trek around 6:30 a.m. June 2 after a small ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

He thanked the small crowd that gathered to send them off, which included fellow Holmdel Township police officers, members of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation, family members and friends. His son waved a small American flag.

Dowens showed the crowd an encased American flag where he wrote all the names of people who donated to their cause.

On their trek, the veterans will be wearing body armor symbolizing the struggle of PTSD, and Dowens will be holding an American flag that he said was passed down to him from a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and a U.S. Navy veteran at The Refuge.

“We are walking straight through … no sleep,” he said.

The funds raised through the GoFundMe page, which has reached more than $25,000 in one month, will help start a nonprofit fund to send veterans to The Refuge.

For more information, visit www.gofundme.com/unbrokenwarriors.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@gmnews.com.