KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A 74 year-old Vietnam veteran from East Tennessee recently finished a 1,700-mile journey down the Mississippi River stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana in an effort to help fellow veterans.
“We don’t want to see another generation of veterans go through what we Vietnam veterans went through. Our rate of (post traumatic stress disorder) was 30 percent, that’s the highest of any other conflict,” said Howard Jenkins back in May before making the trip.
“Fantastic!” is how Mr. Jenkins summed up the trip when we sat down again recently to recap his expedition.
“I saw so many things on the river, I had so many people reach out to me,” said Mr. Jenkins.
The former artillery man suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from a close call during his combat tour in 1969. PTSD cost him his marriage and his well-being. It took him years to work through it. And Mr. Jenkins says many other veterans haven’t been so lucky. They have fallen on hard times by using drugs and alcohol to cope with their mental wounds. And Mr. Jenkins says too many of those veterans have ended up in trouble with the law.
“There is no cure for PTSD but the value of your life can be improved considerably and that’s our goal,” said Mr. Jenkins, who serves as a mentor in a second-chance court known as a veterans treatment court in Knox County.
Military veterans who enter that court can see their criminal record wiped clean by getting clean and sober, finding a job, and a stable place to live.
“This is to bring about national awareness of veterans treatment courts. We have 325 of these courts across the country and we need 3,000,” said Mr. Jenkins.
He made the journey on a 28-foot pontoon boat with his buddy Eric at the wheel and Mr. Jenkins serving as the navigator during the 37 day journey. They posted regular updates on this Facebook Page devoted to the “Mississippi Riverboat Veteran” thanks to help from veterans with American Legion Post 104 back home in East Tennessee.
“We made the decision that if he was going to be crazy enough to do it, we were going to have to give him everything we could to support him,” said former paratrooper and now adjutant at Post 104, James McLaughlin. He helped upload the regular stories and photos documenting the journey.
“Howard inspired a lot of people,” said Mr. McLaughlin, who himself recently volunteered to become a mentor to fellow veterans working to get clean and rebuild their lives.
Reflecting on the trip, Mr. Jenkins said he looks back on it as a “divine calling.”
“It was not only an exciting and fantastic trip, it was a spiritual journey, because I feel like that’s what God wanted me to do.”