UCC part of veteran's mission, and journey on faith, to make life better for others
Written by Jeff Woodard
June 19, 2012

Seven flat tires and two sore knees have not impeded Tom Skinner's one momentous motivation.

"My mission is to use my experiences to help other veterans understand and recognize the signs, symptoms and effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and then to help them find the resources they need to cope with its effects and live a happy, productive life," said Skinner, a UCC member from La Mesa Calif.

Skinner's cross-country bike blitz began March 10 in San Diego. Ensuring that his baggage –– including his 4-year-old service dog, Scrubs –– was Bungee-corded securely onto the back of the bike, the two headed east. Their travel has taken them to several UCC churches and over a good portion of U.S. Route 66. And 10 hours of nightly sleep in a tent has not been a problem, said Skinner.

But when they hit Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, Skinner stopped by the VA hospital emergency room to have his aching knees examined. He was given two braces, and when he and Scrubs rolled into Cleveland on June 10, Skinner thought that was the end of the trip.

Tom Skinner at UCC Church house in Cleveland

"I had made up my mind that Cleveland was going to be my final destination," he said. "My knees were just too painful. My bike gear, my service dog and I weighed 400 pounds."

But Skinner's new friends, Ron and Renee Harris of New York City, had other ideas. When they heard of his pain and his plans, they set out to build him a 20-pound, custom carbon fiber 8-speed bicycle – perfect for traversing the hills of Pennsylvania. Within 24 hours, that's what they did.

And on Skinner has moved, through the Allegheny National Forest and continuing east. (Scrubs rode this leg of the trip in the air-conditioned comfort of the truck that accompanied Skinner.)

The pair plans to arrive at the National Center for PTSD in White River Junction, Vt., on June 27 –– just in time for National PTSD Awareness Day.

"What I'm hoping to do is take other veterans along on long-distance bicycle trips and get them to feel what the endorphins are like compared to sitting at home," said Skinner.

His storied journey took root at General Synod 28 last summer in Tampa, Fla., where he shared what life was like with PTSD.

"The love and affection I got from everyone there made me feel so good," said Skinner. "Fighting that stigma of being diagnosed with PTSD was really, really hard for me. Eighteen veterans a day commit suicide because of PTSD. Four hundred and fifty new cases were diagnosed last year alone."

Skinner can only hope that anyone embarking on a similar trek has the support he has had in Scrubs, a tri-colored border collie who began life herding cattle on a ranch in the foothills of Coalinga, Calif.

"She has my back, and I am here today partly because of the care this dog never quits giving," said Skinner. "Scrubs is on 24/7 so I don't have to be."

After a rocky start –– Scrubs escaped the first day Skinner had her and ran 7 miles back to her former home –– they have made for a tenacious team. "I picked her up the next morning and something clicked between us and she has never let my side again," said Skinner.

Scrubs' herding skills help monitor people around Skinner in a friendly way, keeping them at what she deems a safe distance. "If I am out in public and feel an anxiety attack coming on, I'll undo her collar," he said. "When I do that, she realizes immediately that something is wrong."

Demonstrating their teamwork before staff members at the UCC's national offices in Cleveland, an uncollared Scrubs takes slow steps and keeps her eyes on Skinner. As she steps, he takes deep breaths. By now, people gathered around are paying attention to Scrubs and her deliberate moves, thus enabling Skinner to more quickly recover from his attack.

"One thing we're going to be doing at my church in LaMesa is helping other vets get dogs that won't cost $30,000, but more like $4,000 or $5,000," said Skinner. "We also work with some volunteer dog trainers, so that helps."

Reiterating his determination to prove that seeking help isn't an action of weakness, Skinner said, "I have PTSD so bad that I have a service dog with me, but I just bicycled all the way past Cleveland from San Diego, almost 3,000 miles. That's not weak."

Future bike trips will happen –– and maybe more adventures, added Skinner. "I think we'll try to do something like start out in Minnesota and take a boat trip down the Mississippi River. I want to try to do some extreme sports that other vets might want to do."

"My outlook on the way people treat veterans has been extremely overwhelming, in a good way, a really healing way," he said. "It's something I've needed to experience."

Learn more about Skinner's story.

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