In 2017, seven years after he’d completed two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, Auburn resident and Maine National Guard veteran Scott Morgan had hit rock bottom with his post-traumatic stress disorder. He barely left the house. Social gatherings were a constant source of anxiety. He couldn’t drive after the trauma of an IED explosion in a vehicle, in which he was injured and a fellow soldier was killed right in front of him.
That summer, Doc Goodwin, founder of the Maine Veterans Project, told Morgan about his new effort, Windy Warrior, a program that gets veterans coping with combat-related PTSD to try skydiving, free of charge. Morgan shrugged and agreed to give it a shot.
“I needed a life change. I’d have given just about anything a try,” Morgan said. “I was pretty miserable.”
In September 2017, as soon as his feet touched the ground after his first jump with a tandem instructor from Vacationland Skydiving, the Pittsfield-based skydiving company that is Windy Warrior’s partner, Morgan said he felt transformed.
“I felt a sense of peace I hadn’t felt in years. I could look around and enjoy the green grass. I looked at my wife and saw her in a totally different light,” Morgan said. “And I drove home that day. I’ve been driving ever since. I’ve been able to go to my son’s football games. It kind of sounds crazy, but it was totally amazing.”
Since its first season in 2017, Windy Warrior has given nearly 100 Maine veterans suffering from PTSD the chance to skydive, a seemingly unorthodox practice that Goodwin said has seen unbelievable results. He first came up with the idea in 2016, when he went skydiving for the first time with his mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.
“After her dive, I just saw these absolutely amazing changes in her that lasted for months. She just seemed happier,” the Bangor-based Goodwin said. “And it sort of clicked in my head — if it works with my mom, maybe it’ll work with veterans. There was something to it, psychologically.”
The idea, Goodwin said, is to replicate with skydiving the sort of adrenaline rush a soldier might experience in a combat situation. Instead of the traumatic experience of combat, this adrenaline rush is not only a positive experience — it’s also one that’s fully in control of the individual.
“These folks may have only experienced this kind of adrenaline rush in that combat experience, where they are not in control, and where their lives are in danger and they may witness something incredibly traumatic,” Goodwin said. “If you can start to associate that sort of rush with something good, you can start to better cope with it in your daily life.”
Though the process of preparing for and then executing the jump is intentionally a very simple one, Goodwin asked participants to come into the process with a goal in mind.
“Maybe it’s to be able to drive, like Scott wanted to be able to do. Maybe it’s something as simple as just wanting to get out of bed in the morning,” Goodwin said. “When you jump, you’re leaving your trauma in the plane. For the next 45 seconds, you are completely free.”
Adrenaline therapy, as Goodwin calls the service offered by Windy Warrior, is not a clinically tested form of treatment, and Goodwin makes it clear that his organization does not treat PTSD, nor is there any specific scientific evidence that points to skydiving as an effective therapy for the disorder. That said, he believes all the proof that’s needed comes straight from the mouths of the vets.
“There’s no treatment for PTSD. It’s not something you can cure. What you can do is find new ways of coping with it,” he said. “I just know that when I have a vet tell me their life has changed since their jump, I know it works. When I see the biggest, toughest guy that before the jump was standing off in the corner not talking to anybody, and after the jump has tears streaming down his face, I know something is working here.”
Brad Fisher, owner of Vacationland Skydiving, has flown the plane for more than 15,000 jumps in his career. He wasn’t surprised by the fact that skydiving can help those suffering from PTSD better cope — but he was pleasantly surprised to see skydiving put to that specific use.
“We have seen these kinds of emotional reactions to skydiving for years and years,” Fisher said. “But what surprised us was how effective this would be in working with this specific community. There is nothing in the world that can replicate the rush of skydiving, and to use it very deliberately as a therapeutic tool is pretty amazing.”
Windy Warrior’s 2019 season came to a close in late September, and the 2020 season will begin around Memorial Day. Eventually, Goodwin said, he hopes to expand the program beyond working solely with veterans suffering from combat-related PTSD, to offer therapeutic skydiving to police officers, firefighters, EMTs and sexual assault survivors.
“At the end of the day, trauma is trauma. I’m naturally veteran-centric because I am one, but I think this is something that a lot of different people can benefit from,” Goodwin said. “When people are at the end of their rope, this is something that hopefully can help them.”
For more information on Windy Warrior, visit windywarrior.org.