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Triathlon is a sport that means many things to many people: Some are involved to get in shape, some to find a new challenge, some to change their lifestyle, some to make friends, and for others it’s much more. In conjunction with Two Point Zero USA—a veteran- and female-owned company—we’re presenting four stories of four former Army Rangers who have had their lives transformed by triathlon.
Though not all of the Rangers we spoke to have necessarily experienced trauma or had lasting issues relating to their service, PTSD—or post traumatic stress disorder—is also not entirely unique to the military either. PTSD is considered a psychobiological disorder that anyone can develop in response to combat experience as well as terrorism, natural disasters, accidents, violence or abuse, or even sudden and major emotional events like loss.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11-20 percent of soldiers who served in Iraq (Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom) have PTSD in a given year; 12 percent of Desert Storm soldiers have experienced PTSD; and an estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have experienced PTSD in their lifetime. But it’s not just soldiers: In the U.S. general population alone, up to 70 percent of adults have experienced a traumatic event (223.4 million people). The PTSD numbers in the general population are also staggering—roughly 7 to 8 percent of Americans are struggling with PTSD. And it’s not only men who experience PTSD: In fact, one out of 10 women develop PTSD—a rate that’s over twice as high as men.
While some members of the soldiers we spoke to are still struggling with inward and outward issues relating to their service, others who are not are stepping up to help those in need. In conjunction with the Army Ranger-based Sua Sponte Elite Race team—an organization that works to support special operations veterans and their families—and the GallantFew—a nonprofit dedicated to helping military veterans with a smooth transition to life post service—these four rangers have been chosen to train and race together at Ironman Lake Placid on July 28, 2019. Whether you’re a current or former servicemember or just a mere multisport mortal, their widely different paths from military life to the starting line in Lake Placid are inspirational.
36 years old
Former U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st Battalion
Stationed: Savannah, GA between 2002-2006
Deployed : 2x Afghanistan, 2x Iraq
Josh Mathis never had any interest in the military. He was a freshman on a soccer scholarship at the University of Buffalo, hanging out in his dorm when two planes collided with the World Trade Center buildings in New York City on September 11, 2001. He remembers other students frantically trying to reach friends and family in New York City as the horror unfolded on screens in the common area. “I couldn’t take another test,” Mathis says. Soon after, he walked away from college and a promising soccer career because he wanted to “become the best and baddest thing out there.” Mathis joined the Army Rangers.
“Rangers don’t have a set job,” he says of the special operations division of the Army, with whom he was deployed to Afghanistan on “day one” as a private. “We’re like a one-size-fits-all tool.” He says the Rangers’ job could vary from jumping out of a plane, to going in quick for a rescue—like the famous Jessica Lynch mission he was a part of, where Rangers recovered captured Private Lynch and the bodies of her team who had been killed and buried in shallow graves in Iraq by enemy forces during an ambush. “If you wanted something done in a hurry, done well, and done with a lot of violence, we were your guys.”
Unfortunately, knee and back injuries sidelined Mathis after his four deployments, and he eventually returned home after serving out the remainder of his four-year contract. Here, the former collegiate athlete faced one of his biggest challenges. “I was pretty down and in a dark point in my life,” says Mathis of the years after his service. “I was drinking a lot and going through the motions.” Though he didn’t know it at the time, Mathis—like many veterans—was suffering from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, a new relationship marked a turning point, but not in the way he expected.
“I was dating a triathlete, and just to spend more time with her, I decided to train for my first triathlon,” Mathis says of his first race, a small sprint triathlon in Louisiana in 2012. “I did that race and something clicked. The relationship was terrible, but triathlon stuck.” From there, Mathis did the bike leg for Ironman New Orleans in 2012 and realized he just simply had to go bigger. “The reason I got into Ironman, was because my (now) ex did an Ironman, and so I wanted to do more, and faster.”
Since then, Mathis has done six iron-distance events, with Ironman Lake Placid being his seventh. And since 2014, Mathis proudly says he hasn’t had a drink. “A lot of us took a pretty bad beating in the military,” Mathis says,” and (triathlon) is a way to not get over, but get around our injuries.” Though he says Rangers don’t make the best triathletes because of the damage sustained in combat and military training, he says that the more it sucks, the more Rangers end up enjoying it. “There’s a lot of similarities, mindset-wise, between triathletes and Rangers,” he adds.
For Rangers or other military servicepeople, Mathis says that the “feeling of doing something special and coming out the other side alive is a similar feeling,” to being a Ranger and that triathlon is a great coping mechanism. “It’s certainly better than burying yourself in a bottle, which was me.”
“A lot of people need to be open and up front about what’s going on with themselves,” he says. “Know that just because you’re out (of the military) and you don’t do that anymore, you can always do something positive. Don’t give up just because that part of your life is behind you, there’s still a lot out there.”
Grand Rapids, MI
46 years old, financial advisor
Former U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st Battalion
Stationed: Savannah, GA between 1991-1995
For Mike Rios, there was never a question that he would be an Army Ranger. Rios grew up as what he describes as “pretty poor, in the inner city of Grand Rapids,” to a single mother who had spent her life relegated to a wheelchair with spina bifida. He ran cross-country, but had to spend five years in high school because he moved out of his house during that period. For him, joining the army was a way to see the world, and when he got out, Rios’ kept up the momentum that service gave him. He went to college, where he was Phi Beta Kappa, but he left to become a cop, then a firefighter, before finally ending up as a financial advisor.
This was where Rios’ life hit a turning point. “For the first time, I had a desk job where I wasn’t paid to be physically fit,” he says. “Up until this point, it had been a part of my job.” He looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw. “I didn’t even recognize who I was.”
He signed up for a 25K running race as his first event in 2011 and signed up for a sprint tri soon after (“I can’t just run,” Rios told himself. “I’ll shrivel up!”). He swam on his back because he had experience in survival swimming from the Army, but had no idea how to truly swim. After the race, he went home and signed himself up for the now-defunct Rev3 Cedar Point iron-distance event, then Ironman Louisville. Since then he’s done more than a handful of iron-distance events.
“It gives me a sense of purpose,” Rios says. “It’s adrenaline.” He says he didn’t need the routine when he left the service—he had been a cop and a fireman—but he needed the sense of something new every day that the sport provided. Rios also likes the long days where he can truly get inside his head and become “comfortable with the uncomfortable” as he puts it.
As Rios has been blessed with a post-service situation that seems to only get better with time, he has a few tips for success for other veterans who may not be as fortunate: “Don’t let your days in the military be your Al Bundy story,” meaning don’t let them be the best part of your life. “You’ve got to look forward to something, not just look back at what you did. Find a passion.”
34 years old, retired Army, writer for Rangersmash.com
Former U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment, 3rd Battalion
Stationed: Fort Benning, GA between 2003-2006
Deployed: 2x Iraq
Derek Dutton began his athletic career with a background firmly in one of triathlon’s three sports: swimming. A state-level swimmer as a youth, Dutton was raised mostly in northeastern Montana, but graduated from high school in a small town on Florida’s gulf coast. Similarly, Dutton’s family history was deeply rooted in military service, going as far back as the 1600s when his Puritan ancestors emigrated from England. He had always wanted to be in the military and like many others, the events of 9/11 sealed his fate, so he decided to enlist in the Army.
“Mediocrity has never sat well with me, so my only requirement when I visited with recruiters and planned on serving my country was getting involved in the special operations community,” Dutton says. As an Army Ranger, he served two tours of Iraq that left him with multiple combat-related injuries that forced him to retire in 2006. His move back to the non-military life was tough.
“My transition to civilian life was not a smooth one,” he says. “For several years, I struggled to re-integrate and found myself more and more excluded from society. It wasn’t until after I jettisoned my reliance on the V.A. (the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) healthcare system in 2009 that my life finally made a turn for the better.” Dutton had grown to 240 pounds and says he was “sick of wallowing in self pity.”
“An aging Ranger is an ugly sight,” he says. “I dare say our mental fortitude is unparalleled, but our aging Ranger bodies tend to fall apart like a weathered and neglected sidewalk.” To get back in shape, he began hiking to the nearest pool with a heavy pack (much like when he was a Ranger), swim, and then hike back. Those sessions would last for as many as four hours as he added weight to the pack, but soon began to run out of daylight. So he tried something else. “Then I realized that if I dropped the ruck and just ran, I could go twice as far in the same daylight.”
From there, Dutton moved to ultrarunning, aquathon (to incorporate his swimming background), and then to triathlon with the help of the Wounded Warrior Project—a group that aids veterans who have sustained an illness or mental or physical injury since September 11, 2001. “Endurance, quite literally, became my medicine,” he says. “It gave me a constructive outlet for my frustrations, it challenged me physically, but most importantly it forced me into a community (triathlon) that I was so unfamiliar with that I needed to seek help in order to accomplish such a task. That is how I came to rely on a group that has quite literally saved my life on more than one occasion.”
His Ranger brothers in the Sua Sponte race team helped him not only with triathlon, but helped him reintegrate into society. “Its okay to ask for help, there is a reason you act and feel the way you do,” he says to servicemembers who might not be as far along in their recoveries. “Fortunately there are ways to process these feelings and emotions in a socially acceptable and safe manner. Most importantly: You are valuable, and neglecting yourself by not seeking professional help to process some of the experiences that only war can afford is a disservice to yourself, your family, as well as a misuse of military assets: You are valued. There are organizations outside of the V.A. that are championing your cause and cheering for you to succeed.”
“Being trained to react to all danger or enemies with overwhelming violence of action can be a deadly recipe in the depths of depression,” Dutton adds. “I have learned—as contrary as it may feel in the moment—isolation is the worst coping mechanism. At most, isolation can only be viewed as a very short-term solution or last resort. Learn to rely on your support system and family in these moments—you will most likely be blind to the ensuing chaos, so be ready and willing to open your mind beyond the distorted lens that is PTSD.”
San Marino, California
46 years old, senior site reliability engineer for The Walt Disney Company
Former U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment, 2nd Battalion
Stationed: Fort Lewis, Washington between 2001-2006
Deployed: 4x Afghanistan, 3x Iraq
Rob Egan always had a competitive streak. It first reared its head when he raced BMX bikes as a kid, and later Egan found his true athletic (and competitive) calling as a high school, then college-level runner. After studying computer science, physics, and mathematics and graduating from the University of Redlands in 1996, he worked in the IT industry before finally enlisting in the Army.
“The idea appealed to my sense of adventure,” Egan says about why he decided to serve. “One of my best friends from high school enlisted in the Navy and tried out for the SEALs. Whenever he came home to visit, his stories about life in the military—and especially the training he did to become a SEAL—seemed incredible to me. I couldn’t believe that you could make a career out of that.” Following the path that his father, sister, and an uncle blazed into the military, Egan loved that it would satisfy his competitive streak, challenge himself, and allow him see the world.
“Before enlisting, I did a lot of research about the various special operations units in our military,” he says of his decision to choose a military branch. “I knew I wanted to try out for an elite group, but wasn’t sure which one would be the best fit for me…After becoming a Ranger, I quickly learned that everything I imagined doing as an elite special operations soldier was being done by the Rangers. My unit was doing combat missions in Afghanistan literally just a few weeks after I earned my tan beret.”
Though he did his first triathlon in the early ‘90s, he left it behind for running and the military before rejoining the multisport ranks in 2014. “Triathlon gives me something to focus on, outside of the many stresses I face daily as a father, husband, and somebody holding down a complex and often hectic job,” he says of his love for the sport. “It has been a great outlet for my competitive nature, and is clearly the main way I keep myself healthy and fit.”
For Egan, he says his time in the military did not leave him with many of the same mental and physical scars as other veterans who come back to civilian life. “Several years after the fact, I can honestly say I am completely at peace with what I went through, things I did, things I saw,” he says. “But one thing that haunts me to this day is that I am so close to so many others who cannot say the same thing.” It’s because of this, that he sees his position as a leader in the Ranger veteran community and triathlon as his tool.
“I frequently ask myself why someone like me, who endured the same things, can carry on now without any issues,” Egan says. “For a few years, I felt a bit of guilt over it. But now I realize that as someone who has been able to return from that life successfully, I’m in a position to help others do the same.”
“If I wanted to reach out to a Ranger brother in need, and told them that I think they should speak with a therapist or a counselor, I doubt they’d respond,” he says. “If, instead, I challenged them to come race an Ironman with me, it would be a different story. As Rangers, we bonded through the experiences we shared together. Extremely difficult experiences. I think that bond can be strengthened similarly by suffering through training and racing together. Through that activity, we also benefit from the larger triathlon community, and in turn wind up positively contributing to it as well.”
If you or someone you know are showing possible signs of PTSD, please visit PTSD Alliance for resources to help.