Project Josiah PTSD River Challenge

A group of South Carolina veterans kayaked from Columbia to Charleston to raise awarness of PTSD and veteran suicide. The PTSD River Challenge set out on Friday morning and arrived in the Charleston area Tuesday afternoon. Project Josiah Restoration Ministry/Provided

Bobby Farmer remembers the feeling when his walls came crumbling down.

Decades after serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Farmer says he was hit by post-traumatic stress disorder. The experience changed his life and drove him to try and make a difference by founding Project Josiah Restoration Ministry, a Columbia-based nonprofit, four years ago.  

"You leave a world that has a Judeo-Christian ethic — don't kill, don't lie — now you're told to go kill someone," he said of the experience of being in combat. "We've seen things, the real issue of life and death."

Farmer stood at a peaceful campground on Tuesday, his face ruddy from five days spent kayaking from Columbia to Charleston in an event called the PTSD River Challenge.

The event was a follow up to Project Josiah's inaugural River Challenge in 2015. This year, a group of about 25 veterans and support staff arrived around 4:30 p.m. at BP Cooper River Plant's recreation center near Wando, completing the 125-mile trip down the Congaree, across Lakes Marion and Moultrie and ending on the Cooper River. 

For Farmer, journeys like this are essential for veterans because of the teamwork involved.

"You form a brotherhood because you're so close to each other," he said of serving in combat. "That means the world to you. All of a sudden, you come home and within 36 hours, (that's gone). That's a tough adjustment. This is bringing them back for a mission, a challenge."

Today, Project Josiah operates six support groups in Lexington, Richland, Charleston and Aiken counties, Farmer said. He hopes to see at least one group in all South Carolina counties.

Isiah Gochett, a 44-year-old Columbia resident and Army veteran, said he didn't know what to expect when first introduced to the nonprofit but soon found the kind of support that can only be provided by fellow combat veterans. 

"It's been a blessing to me," Gochett said. "I know it's been a blessing to the guys. It's actually brought a lot of us together and given us something to look forward to."

For William "Dutch" Holland, a 63-year-old retired general who once commanded the 9th Air Force, kayaking the river was both a personal dream come true and an example of how team building activities can help veterans. 

"It allows them to talk to other people who've had similar experiences," Holland said. "That's huge. There are a lot of people who went through a lot of rough things defending this nation, and they're dealing with it in different ways."

According to information released by the Department of Veterans Affairs last year, there were an average of 20 veteran suicides per day in 2014.

For Lance Newman, a 49-year-old Marine Corps veteran and a board member for Project Josiah, the trip was grueling at times. 

“A lot of guys’ shoulders were burning,” he said. “It takes a mental toughness to complete this.”

Along the way, the group got small boosts of encouragement when some supporters and passers-by would wave flags or handmade signs and cheer. 

Newman said they hope to expand the event next year and garner more public support. The third PTSD River Challenge is tentatively scheduled for the end of April 2018. 

They want to help veterans and any veteran's suicide is one too many, he said.

"We're not going to stop until we can help every veteran," Newman said.  

Anyone interested in volunteering, making a donation, or any veteran in need of help can visit www.projectjosiah.org or the Project Josiah Restoration Ministry's Facebook page for more information.

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.