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Kayaker’s epic journey spotlights veterans’ suicide

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Kristen Kelleher/SENTINEL

Joe Mullin with Dave Hartman outside Daks Kayaks.

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OCEAN CITY — Kayaker Joe Mullin knows the water well, and turned to it when he decided to do something to benefit fellow veterans suffering from post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Mullin, of Wareham, Mass., is undertaking a months-long mission to raise awareness for veteran suicide prevention by kayaking from Quoddy Head Light, Maine, to Texas. 

Along the way, Mullin plans to connect with local kayak shops and stop to spread the word about Mission 22, a veteran assistance organization with which he has partnered. 

On Saturday, June 9, Mullin kayaked in the bay off Ocean City and spent hours outside Daks Kayaks to let passersby know about his journey and its purpose. 

Dave Hartman, the owner of Daks Kayaks in Ocean City, said Mullin reached out to them about setting up a table for Mission 22 outside of their shop. 

Staff from Daks Kayaks also paddled with Mullin from the north end of the island to the water off about 22nd Street. When they reached that area, the Daks Kayaks crew brought Mullin to the store on Asbury Avenue.

“It’s good to promote anything that is with our veterans and also it’s (kayaking) a core for us.  Kayaking is such a great way to experience the bay, the wildlife, a slower pace, and you get some exercise at it,” he said.

And I think it’s a great cause,” Hartman added. 

Mission 22 is an organization that spreads awareness of veteran suicide, supports treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and creates public memorials to honor veterans.  

According to Steve Matis, a region leader for Mission 22, the organization also offers job placement assistance, pairs veterans with service dogs, offers Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, equestrian therapy and more.  

He said programs are free for veterans. Matis joined Mullin outside Daks Kayaks to provide information to the public. 

Matis, a Marine Corps veteran, said he learned about Mission 22 when he saw someone wearing an Mission 22 patch. 

At the time, Matis was struggling with depression, anxiety and combat trauma. 

Even after learning about Mission 22, Matis said he waited for a year before getting involved with the organization. Then, he attended a Mission 22 jiu-jitsu seminar. 

“Right then and there I fell in love at first sight,” he said. “The stories I heard, being instructed in the different techniques, and while the instructors were telling us about their backgrounds in the military and how Mission 22 has helped them.” 

In addition to helping veterans, Mission 22 also aims to educate the public about veterans’ issues, including suicide.  

According to 2015 data released in June from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the rate of suicide in 2015 was 2.1 times higher among veterans than for adults who were not veterans, after adjusting for differences in age. 

An average of 20.6 active-duty service members, nonactivated guard or reserve members and veterans died by suicide daily in 2015, according to information from the VA. 

Mullin, who served in the Navy from 1970-74, said he suffers  from PTSD.  However, he said it is not related to his military service.  

“There’s a bond between veterans that you can’t explain, but you can’t break it,” Mullin said.

“When there are a number of veterans in trouble, there are a bunch of us veterans that will step up and answer the call to help. So since I’ve been around the ocean all of my life and I took up kayaking, I wouldlike to draw some attention to the cause.” 

Mullin grew up in Virginia Beach, Va., and surfed when he was growing up. He took up Scuba diving as an adult living in New England and worked in underwater recovery for years. 

He began his kayaking journey in April 2017. However, Mullin experienced setbacks early on that slowed his progress. 

Last year, Mullin paddled from Massachusetts to Rhode Island after spending several months training. His 21-inch-wide kayak, however, was less prepared for the journey. Mullin said the kayak was not stable enough for such a long trip, and, during his time paddling from Massachusetts to Rhode Island, he had to be rescued a couple of times after the kayak tipped over. 

The kayak overturned on Mullin’s first day out, and he said he spent an hour in 38-degree water. After he was rescued again in Rhode Island, Mullin decided to regroup. 

He got a new kayak, and spent the fall, winter and spring training in myriad weather conditions, for six hours at a time. He began his expedition again last May and left from Rhode Island. 

Mullin expects the trip will take him about a year and a half to complete. He estimated he paddles between 20 and 60 miles each day, which takes between six and 10 hours. For guidance, Mullin uses a GPS app on his cell phone. 

“I’ve paddled through rain. I’ve paddled through fog. I’ve paddled through night a couple of times,” he said. 

For the foreseeable future, Mullin’s kayak is his mobile home. 

The kayak is packed with about 95 pounds of gear, including a tent, two small camping stoves, a sleeping bag, a tarp, spare clothes, plenty of water and freeze-dried food.  

At night, after hours of paddling, Mullin will often set up camp.

The wildlife Mullin sees has been a highlight of the trip for him, and has included seeing an orca whale off of New York, a pack of dolphins and, locally, several turtles. 

Sometimes, the wildlife is most of the company Mullin has for the day. When he’s on the water, he is often paddling alone. Mullin does not mind it. 

“It’s therapeutic, actually, to spend that much time alone on the water,” he said, “because I’ve been around the water all my life and I’m trying to work on some issues.”

Mullin is working to improve his PTSD, which he said can be triggered by older model Coast Guard helicopters, among other things. 

When he tries to explain PTSD to others, he said he asks them how they feel when they wake up in the morning. 

“When you wake up, you’re ready to start your day. You’ve got all of this stuff you plan to do.  As soon as I open my eyes, I’m in fear,” he said. “And my fear is that someone is going to set me off during the course of the day, and then by the end of the day I’m totally exhausted because I’ve been fighting this fear all day long, but it still takes me an hour, two hours to get to sleep.”

Although it can be a struggle, Mullin said that “you have a choice. You have to learn to control it.”

“Some guys don’t know how to control it. They let the demons take over and these are the guys we’re trying to help. There’s help out there, trust us. We know there’s help. We’re living proof you can win this battle,” he said. 

Those who are struggling with thoughts of suicide can call the 24-hour, toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. 

Veterans can also reach the Veterans Crisis Line by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and pressing 1. There is also the option to chat online or send a text message. 

Additional information on the Veterans Crisis Line can be found at veteranscrisisline.net.

Mullin is chronicling his kayaking trip on his blog, acske2017.org.

For more information about Mission 22, vision mission22.com. 

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Kristen Kelleher/SENTINEL

Joe Mullin with Dave Hartman outside Daks Kayaks.