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Area veteran will hold third annual walk in Williamsport to heighten PTSD awareness

Ryan Hayslip remembers the “very first incident” after coming back from the Iraq war, the one that told him something was wrong.

“Sometimes you don't even realize you're having problems until it's too late,” Hayslip said softly. “I almost hurt my wife, but not on purpose. She came up behind me, not knowing she was there, I came around with a swinging elbow. That's when we realized I had gone a little too far.”

Hayslip, a 43-year-old Iraq War veteran who lives in Avis, realized he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He got treatment and now, one day a year, he walks 24 hours straight to help others like him.

He will walk May 17 and 18 in a loop around the north and south side of Williamsport. Originally called No One Walks Alone, he renamed his walk No One Fights Alone this year to better reflect the battle against PTSD. The walk is meant to give people struggling with PTSD to have a voice.

The idea for the walk grabbed him during group therapy with fellow Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Through therapy, Hayslip gained the courage to advocate for fellow veterans.

“It got me thinking, you have no idea who might be sitting next to you somewhere or what a guy or someone might be going through,” he said. “There’s not many in these – what I call macho occupations, police officers, firemen, the oilfield, military - they don't talk or say how they feel.”

So he walks to change that.

The first year, Hayslip walked more than 50 miles from Picture Rocks in Lycoming County to Lock Haven in Clinton County. Last year, he condensed the route to Lycoming County.

Almost 800,000 veterans live in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Human Services. Lycoming County had 8,271 as of July 1, 2022, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimate. In 2020, 240 veterans committed suicide within the state, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. All were men.

Anxiety, bouts of depression and PTSD are no strangers to Hayslip.

He grew up in Clinton County, Ohio – between Columbus and Cincinnati. A cousin who served recommended the Army so Hayslip left  small-town America in 1999, two weeks after graduating high school and only 18 years old.

After bootcamp in Georgia and three years stationed in Hawaii, he was transferred to Seattle before heading for his first tour in Iraq.

In Iraq, he worked communications and was attached to a military police unit that operated a prison. The prison housed deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussain’s men. He wouldn’t talk in detail about the work.

“We had prisoners - they were part of Saddam’s people – and we had government agencies that were coming in and interviewing these prisoners. We provided their communications for them to have,” he said. 

This was around the start of the war in 2003. He lived under the stars, no tents and limited supplies. Soldiers had food but often scavenged for other supplies. They’d pitch a tent if they found one. They took sandbags and made weight benches out of them. 

“For two or three months, we slept on cots and if it was going to rain, a guy that was pulling night shift would come around and put ponchos over us for the night,” he said.

He lived at the prison for a year. Between his first and second tour, he met his wife. They married four months later.

“Everybody at our wedding said we'd never make it. Here we are almost 19 years later,” Hayslip smiled.

His biggest fear arrived soon after the wedding – another assignment in Iraq. His wife had just moved from New York to Seattle to join him. 

“She loaded up her car and drove cross country to move in with me. I found out that day I had been deployed again and waited two weeks to tell her,” he said. 

He feared her reaction.

“I couldn't bring myself to tell her the day she got there, that in five months she was going to be stuck on the other side of the country all by herself.”

The marriage survived. 

“We got through it, and it made us stronger,” he said. “But during that tour, I came to the realization that I am done, and I was not staying in the military any longer.”

Despite his problems, he said he never regretted the choice because it challenged him along the way. But when higher-ups offered a promotion to staff sergeant and a raise to get him to stay, he declined.

The second tour had really affected him. Death constantly hovered. The distance and time from home hit harder. 

He survived, but the experiences followed him home.

Many friends weren’t as lucky. Hayslip lost friends in war in Iraq and to mental illness back home.

“I had friends that have died, and I have survived. It’s a ‘why me’ type situation,” he said with his head high. “I had friends that got hurt or friends that came home and couldn’t make it, committing suicide. Initially, I had some survivor's guilt. I worked through all that but now I suffer with anxiety and depression.”

Hayslip and his wife relocated in 2008 to Avis in Clinton County by blindly pointing at a map. They moved right after he got home.

After almost harming the person he loved, he started seeing a counselor. 

He has been medicated on and off since. Counseling helped until seven years ago when he “fell off the wagon,” he said. A need to chase the adrenaline rush of military service dominated his life.

Gambling and alcoholism filled the void of military structure. Soldiers drill to react quickly. Thinking comes later. 

“I started doing things that my counselor called chasing the adrenaline rush - gambling, stuff like that. Just doing whatever I could to have that rush again,” Hayslip said. 

He drank a fifth of liquor daily. He also isolated himself from family and others.

“Trying to come back to civilization, you go through these bouts of time where you become bored, and you try to find things to get that rush again. Most people in the military are adrenaline junkies,” he said.

Part of the struggle was survivor’s guilt. Hayslip survived improvised explosive devices had close calls with mortar shells and bullets ricocheting past his head.

 “I’ve had many close calls with IEDs and stuff like that. I had a mortar land where we were sleeping, laying in a Conex box next to us - it was a dud,” he said. “It just hit the ground and powdered everywhere 20 feet away from where I was laying my head.”

 Hayslip finally regained control.

“If it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t have made it through everything. She’s been by my side, every step of the way with me dealing with my PTSD,” he said.

Now, his goal is helping others. This year’s walk also aims to help first responders who face similar struggles. Susquehanna Regional EMS has been committed for more than a year to getting mental health treatment programs noticed. Hayslip said few programs are available for first responders.

Law enforcement officers develop PTSD at rates ranging from 6 to 32 percent, emergency medical technicians/paramedics between 9 and 22 percent and firefighters between 17 percent and 32 percent, according to studies provided by the National Library of Medicine. About 7 to 12 percent of adult Americans will develop PTSD, according to the studies.

Brianna Welter is a paramedic supervisor for Susquehanna Regional EMS. She said first responders are 1.4 times more likely to commit suicide than the general public.

“Our telecommunicators are anywhere from 17 percent to 24 percent more likely to encounter PTSD in their career than the general public,” Welter said. “Law enforcement and fire fighters are more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty. These statistics are unfortunately old but there's not a lot of research being done and not a lot of eyes looking at it. We need to change that.”

First responders made up 1 percent of all suicides between 2015 and 2017 — the latest recorded data — according to data collected by the National Violent Death Reporting System. In that time, 61,579 suicides were recorded in the US, including 676 first responders.

They were 58 percent law enforcement officers, 21 percent firefighters, 18 percent EMS providers and 2 percent dispatchers.

Hayslip’s goal is to raise awareness not money, but if the public wants to donate, they can on gofundme.com or Paypal at No One Fights Alone - 24 Hour walk. 

“The biggest thing was just the awareness — getting the eyes on this because it's a stigma that needs to be broken,” he said.

MORE INFORMATION: The public can reach out to Hayslip or view his progress on his Facebook at No One Walks Alone - 24 Hour Walk or on his Instagram at No One Fights Alone.

Veterans and first responders facing thoughts of suicide and mental health struggles can ask for help by calling 988. It is a 24-hour hotline, and one Hayslip shows on the back of the walk’s crimson-colored shirts.

Chase Bottorf is a graduate of Lock Haven University and holds a bachelor's degree in English with a concentration in writing. Having previously been a reporter for the Lock Haven news publication, The Express, he is aware of the unique issues in the Lycoming County region, and has ties to the local communities.

You can email Chase at chasebottorf@wvia.org