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US veteran team rows across Atlantic Ocean to raise mental health, PTSD awareness

Posted at 10:31 AM, Feb 13, 2020

CANARY ISLANDS -- Imagine rowing almost non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean with a group of four people. No bathroom, no shade and a limited supply of food.

“You’re totally exposed to the elements,” said Evan Stratton, a U.S. veteran.

Evan and three others rowed across the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands off of Spain to Antigua, near Puerto Rico, as part of the Talker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge — a yearly ocean rowing race. The path is 3,000 nautical miles.

“Our row took 50 days, 11 hours, and 35 minutes,” he said. “Which seems like a really long time, but we actually set a world record for our boat class.”

The team, titled Fight Oar Die, was the only American team to compete this year. More than just a physical challenge, the race is a test of the mind as well. We sat down with Evan, who walked us through it.

“It’s really a challenge in mental strength,” he said.

“It’s an introspective look at yourself whether you want one or not because you remove all inputs,” he explained. “There’s no work phone calls, no e-mails, no TV, no radio.”

Through their journey, psychologists are hoping to learn something.

“We got involved as part of that research component,” said Dr. Trey Cole, a clinical psychologist and former veteran himself.

Dr. Cole oversees the researchers from the University of Denver that have been working with the Fight Oar Die rowing team throughout their experience.

“There’s a lot to do with motivation and sleep and purpose and those type of factors we’re trying to take a closer look at,” Dr. Cole said.

He helped the men prepare beforehand too — with conflict resolution, stress management, and other skills.

“It’s hilarious to be sitting in your off shift in the cabin hearing two guys on the boat yell at each other but they’re still just rowing,” Evan said. “The end goal is you gotta get there.”

It was a team effort with personal mental challenges each rower dealt with individually. Part of Evan’s way of getting through was the photos and cards his wife packed for him, cards he could open when he hit “the wall,” when he was “almost home,” and on his son’s first birthday that he missed while rowing.

Evan said a challenge like this took the support of his family, but it all starts with motivation.

“It just takes getting out and doing it,” he said.

Evan spent four years of his life as a Marine earlier on in his life.

“I went through my own battles with PTSD and mental health,” he said.

Bringing awareness to mental health was part of his motivation for joining the rowing team this year.

“We really wanted to show veterans that life doesn’t end after the military, that you can still go out and do really big things and really hard things and really incredible things,” Evan said.

This awareness is at the forefront of Fight Oar Die’s mission — to provide a platform for veterans' mental health issues.

“The hope is that we can generate some conclusions from that that could be helpful in informing the future of veteran and service member care,” Dr. Cole said.

Cole and other researchers will continue to look into the data from the rowing teams each year.