Veterans to Row Across the Atlantic Ocean to Raise Awareness for Mental Health
A team of DU military psychology experts is preparing the veterans for the challenge ahead
Evan Stratton was just 19 when his military transition team was ambushed in Iraq. Shrapnel pierced the left side of his body, paralyzing parts of his arm, shoulder and back for the following two years.
Now, 10 years later, he’s taking on a challenge that seemed unfathomable to his 19-year-old self: He’s rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, rowing.
It’s a feat only a handful of people can claim. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have rowed across the Atlantic — by a big margin. But in mid-December, four determined veterans plan to add that triumph to their already-impressive resumes.
Stratton, along with his three veteran teammates, is preparing to compete in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challengea 3,000-mile row from the Spanish Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean. They are the only Americans taking on the challenge this year, and they are only the second-ever all-veteran team to attempt the crossing.
Their team is called Fight Oar Die, and they have one main mission: They want veterans to stop taking their lives and start living them.
They plan to communicate this message by example. But they aren’t doing this alone. A team of University of Denver students and faculty from the Graduate School of Professional Psychology’s program in military psychology is preparing them to handle all the hardships that lie ahead.
Most teams prepare for the Atlantic challenge full time for at least a year. The Fight Oar Die team took their first row together just a few week ago. In fact, that was their first time meeting each other in person. Spread out all across the country, the rowers have been training on their own.
This is where DU makes a big impact. Not only does each rower work with a military psychology student, but the team and students meet as a group, ensuring that the rowers learn to collaborate efficiently on every front.
“Our goal is to get the team to a point where they are performing as optimally as possible,” says graduate student Ethan Bannar. “We know they are going into an isolated, confined and extreme environment. We want to prepare them for as many things as we can before they go.”
This includes how to sleep in short shifts, build a strong team dynamic, handle conflict on the boat, combat boredom and so much more.
“This is not easy, and it’s not meant to be easy,” Bannar explains. “But what can we do to calm those anxieties, and how can we manage the things that come up around this? How can we best prepare them to be in the best performance mindset to be on the boat and perform?”
Stratton says work with the DU experts has been beneficial, in part because they are well-versed in military psychology. (The DU program is the only psychology program with a structured military psychology track that encompasses research, academic coursework and clinical training.)
“It’s good to have a team in your corner that can help us figure out team dynamics and things to prepare for and think about that we otherwise wouldn’t have,” Stratton says. “It’s nice to have that person walk us through the personal thoughts, feelings and aspects of it. They’ve been a great partner.”
This race is not for the faint of heart. The veterans can face harsh storms and massive swells, all on a 28-foot row boat and on a journey that could take more than 50 days. They will sleep in shifts—three hours rowing and three hours sleeping for 24 hour a day for as many days as it takes.
“If we ain’t rowing, we ain’t going,” Stratton says with a laugh.
The world record sits at 29 days. Last year’s Fight Oar Die team completed the race in 54 days.
“It’s a race of extremes,” Stratton says. “You go from the most brilliant nights with the most stars you’ve ever seen, to nights that are so dark you can’t even see your hand. You go from incredibly hot days to pouring rain days. You get the best of it and the worst of it, too.”
Fight Oar Die aims to shift the conversation about mental health in the veteran community. Their message aligns perfectly with the work at DU’s Sturm Center
“You’re not alone,” Bannar says. “You’re not the only person that’s dealing with your ocean you are trying to row. And just because you seek services doesn’t mean you are weak.”
DU alumnus, veteran, psychologist and now adjunct professor Trey Cole is working closely with the team of DU students partnering with the rowers.
“We’ve been extremely lucky to be able to work with Fight Oar Die,” Cole says. “They are very passionate about their mission to help illuminate veterans’ health issues. That’s something we strongly connect with as a program, so I feel very lucky to be a part of that kind of collaboration.”
For Stratton, and so many other veterans, this message is personal. During the ambush that paralyzed his left arm and shoulder, he also suffered a traumatic brain injury and watched his best friend, Brandon Lara, die in the attack. That moment changed his perspective on life, and he plans to honor his friend and carry his memory across the ocean.
While Stratton and his teammates are hoping to send a message of resilience to veterans, it doesn’t just end there.
“It’s a message for everyone,” Stratton says. “Everyone has their own personal ocean to row. We want to show we went through hard things mentally, emotionally and physically, and we are going to keep rowing so other veterans can get reinvigorated and say, ‘I can do hard stuff, too.’ You don’t cross the ocean in one fell swoop. It’s stroke by stroke and day by day, so that’s what we are going to do.”