On Sept. 9, the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (Calif.) welcomed home one of its own – Thomas Skinner and his service dog, Scrubs. Tom had recently returned from a cross-country bicycle ride to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As a young man, he enlisted in the Army in 1985 and served his country well. However, through the subsequent years following his discharge, he realized that he had changed and began to experience symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as PSTD. In an effort to raise awareness of this rapidly increasing social phenomenon, Tom and Scrubs set out from La Mesa on March 10 for a cross-country bicycle ride that would take them to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in White River Junction Vt.
The UCC of La Mesa has been Tom's family church for most of his life. Watching him grow as a child and witnessing the eventual changes of PTSD, the congregation created the Welcome Home Ministries to raise PTSD awareness and to support Tom in his more than 4,000-mile trek to the National Center for PTSD. Created in 1989 within the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Center offers research and education on the prevention, understanding and treatment of PTSD. Currently, there are seven divisions nationwide that support men and women who are working through the challenges of this medical condition.
Tom arrived at the National PTSD Center on June 27, PTSD Awareness Day, successfully completing his goal and sharing his presentation, “What Comes After Welcome Home,” with many folks along the way. The power and significance of Tom's presentation were that he shared his personal story. Through his own experiences, Tom was able to help other veterans, church members and people, understand and recognize the signs, symptoms and effects of PSTD. In addition, as he shared in his presentation at the Welcome Home celebration, it was an educational experience for him as well. He learned of the many men and women across this nation who live with PSTD, and received a deeper appreciation for the variety of human experiences which can result from this devastating and debilitating condition.
Tom's Welcome Home was a great celebration. The congregation was obviously supportive and filled with pride, knowing that they had been an integral part of his success. Tom gave his presentation with a great sense of accomplishment and treated those present with a demonstration, showing how Scrubs takes great care with him by managing his environment and surroundings.
While his objective to bring the message of life during PTSD was clear, he continues to be a man with a mission. At the heart of his message is a growing sensitivity to not only our returning veterans, but everyone who has lived through a life-altering experience. However, specifically with the increase in the suicide rates among our men and women in uniform, the stress of deployments and family separation, moral injury and the challenges of service members living in harm's way, PSTD is a real and integral part of our society.
In addition to celebrating Tom, it was wonderful to celebrate a congregation who is taking the return of our veterans and their reintegration into our communities seriously. The UCC of La Mesa's Welcome Home Ministries has taken the first step in making a commitment to the San Diego area to be a place where veterans can feel safe and begin the challenging journey of re-entry into family, faith and community life.
On a personal note, I met Tom and Scrubs a year ago at the General Synod in Tampa. Scrubs was busy serving Tom, and Tom was out there extending himself, telling his story and seeking out others who needed his brand of hope. Through our visit this past week, I can say that Tom has been clearly changed by his trip. A year of presenting his personal story, ambitiously riding his bicycle across the United States, and reaching out to many has made quite a difference in Tom's life. He will tell you that you are not cured of PTSD – you learn to live with it and control it. It is apparent that he is doing just that. Congratulations to Tom, Scrubs and the UCC of La Mesa for a job well done.
Learn more about Tom, his service dog Scrubs, PTSD and The Awareness Adventure at: http://www.understandingPTSD.org.