During a routine medical exam in 2015, army veteran Will Montgomery got a diagnosis he never expected.
The VA diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a traumatic brain injury. He was retiring early from the Army due to an unrelated injury when his disabilities were discovered.
“I was shocked,” he explains. “I didn’t really think I had a problem.”
With so much loss around him, his initial struggles with depression and anxiety had felt like a normal part of military life.
“We all go to war, we all lose somebody that’s close to us. Some of us lose more than others,” he says.
And Montgomery’s losses had affected him far more than he thought. In 2011, a rocket attack on the base where he was serving in Iraq had claimed the lives of three of his fellow soldiers in 2011. And while he had survived the attack, he didn’t leave unscathed. The memories and trauma of those events would echo on.
It wasn’t until he started to transition back into civilian life, though, that he realized just how much of an impact that trauma had on him.
“When you get out, you start trying to adapt into the civilian world, and people start to look at you like, ‘You’re not right.’”
Montgomery was struggling to relate to other civilians, who didn’t seem to understand him. He began longing for the camaraderie that he’d found in the military, but it was difficult to find. He was having thoughts of suicide and started drinking heavily to cope. This led him to isolate himself and even landed him in jail for starting fights.
“You just kind of feel like you’re broken at that point,” he says.
To make matters worse, in his home of Northwest Colorado, the nearest mental health provider that would take his insurance was nearly four hours away by car. While he was willing to make the journey, it wasn’t sustainable over the long term. And without access to reliable care, he faced an uphill battle.
That’s why he decided to reach out to the Denver Veterans’ Affairs office to ask for their help.
Images via Will Montgomery.
They connected him with an intensive, seven-week treatment program for veterans with PTSD where he was finally able to get the proper support he needed to better address his trauma. With the help of cognitive and occupational therapies, which taught him new coping and social skills, he began to see how he could find his place again in the civilian world.
He sobered up and he started working out again, and, one day at a time, he began to rebuild his life.
“I wanted to change my path and be a husband and be a father again,” he says. Recovery wasn’t just about sobriety and therapy. It was also about finding his way back to himself.
“When I got out of the Army, I had to find a whole new identity of who I was. I felt like I lost me,” he says.
To rediscover his sense of self, he wrote down different affirmations on sticky notes, and put them all around his house: “I’m a father,” “I’m a husband,” “I’m successful," “I’m a veteran,”
“Just little things, so that when I walked around, it’s like, ‘That’s who I am,’” he explains.
Like many survivors, Montgomery had taken his diagnosis to mean that something was wrong with him but with time, he was able to push back against that assumption, realizing he was much more than a diagnosis. And through that process, he found his calling — by being visible, he wanted to show others that trauma survivors are much more than the labels that their doctors give them, too.
“Anybody with PTSD needs to understand that just because we have it, we’re not broken,” he says.
Passionate about fitness as part of his own recovery, he wanted to challenge himself physically, but he also wanted to be visible for other survivors who may be struggling in silence. That’s why Montgomery decided that he would hike around Colorado.
So in May 2017, Montgomery walked from Craig to Hayden, Colorado, 17.6 miles, to raise awareness for PTSD.
With the support of his local veteran organizations, his walk got the attention of community members, who were eager to help. While he hadn’t expected to raise money, people opened up their wallets, and he was able to raise a thousand dollars for a local veteran in need. He quickly realized he was onto something.
And that’s why, this last May, he did it again. Only this time, he pushed himself even further.
He hiked nearly 40 miles through Rabbit Ears Pass in the Rocky Mountains — which ranges from 6,000 to almost 10,000 feet in elevation — raising nearly 4,000 dollars for local veterans along the way. Joined by Army veteran Ryan Fritz and Tracy Santistevan, the hike even got the attention of local news media, who were inspired by their determination.
“[The hike] was actually nerve-wracking,” he laughs. “I was sore the next day, but I lived.” The hike took an entire day to complete, but it became a powerful symbol of perseverance for Montgomery and survivors like him.
To honor survivors, he carried 42 names with him in his vest during the hike. “These were people that either suffered from PTSD and died in combat, or … [survived but] don’t know how to cope with it yet,” he says. “Those are people I carried with me in my vest that day.”
And Montgomery isn’t stopping with just two hikes. He’s already planning next year’s hike, which he plans to make even more challenging by making his way across the entire state of Colorado — close to 200 miles — with a group of other advocates like him.
“The key is to get awareness out there,” he explains.
In true army fashion, Montgomery hasn’t forgotten his comrades. Looking to the future, he’s eager to do more to empower veterans and civilians alike.
For him, service to others is just the military way. “You made a bigger commitment than to just yourself,” he says. “We didn’t do it for us.”
That’s why he returned to college to get his associate’s degree in psychology, which he’s now using to establish a veterans support group in his local community. He also offers free fitness coaching to new army recruits to prepare them for basic training and as a next step, he plans to start a gym where he hopes to offer free gym memberships to veterans, as well as recovering addicts who commit to staying sober.
While his life changed forever the moment he was diagnosed with PTSD, his pain has given him an even greater purpose.
No longer letting his mental health diagnosis hold him back, he’s determined to use his experiences to lift up others. “[In the Army,] I wasn’t the leader who wanted my name recognized,” he explains. “I wanted my soldiers recognized.”