(Tory Ryden, NEWS CENTER) -- 26 year old Kevin Demmons says he feels most comfortable when he’s out in the woods, away from the nightmares of the battlefield. “We don’t have enough time to talk about how many times we got shot at,” Demmons shares, eyes misting. The woods, he says, takes him away from all of that.
Demmons enlisted in the army in 2011. At 21, he became a member of the airborne infantry as a paratrooper. “I got out of airborne school and was given my orders to Alaska. Fort Richardson,” he explains. “I got there and within a month, I was told that we were going to be deploying soon, so immediately I’m thinking ‘wow, this is really fast’”.
His first assignment was Afghanistan. The Paktia Province. “Most of the stuff we did was all on foot missions like get dropped off at a certain location with a truck,” Demmons continues, “or maybe even a helicopter if it was an air assault mission at night and then you would just walk to wherever you were going.”
Kevin Demmons is sharing these stories for the first time with someone outside of his tight knit circle. The memories, he says, are just too personal and too painful. “One of the trucks got hit with an RPG (rocket propelled grenade), a couple of my buddies got hurt by that,” Demmons shares as he explains being attached to a sniper team, looking for weapons or certain people in a mountain region. Danger, he says, “was everywhere.”
What happened next, Kevin calls his worst military experience. “We ran into a suicide bomber, he had just killed a group of MP’s that were handing out pens to the kids. That’s the worst thing that ever happened. Um, yeah, that’s the worst,” he adds, voice shaky. His group, the first truck on the scene, “had to unload the trucks of all of our gear and equipment to make room for the bodies.”
Kevin Demmons was put behind the wheel and ordered to drive the badly wounded soldiers to a hospital. He recalls one particular soldier, “So I drove and listened to the people in the back trying to work on him and keep him alive. And I know he had kids and a wife, but I don’t know if he ever made it.”
Two yeas later, out of the military, Kevin Demmons was back home in Maine, in the home he shares with his wife just outside of Bangor. “I was spending a lot of time in my basement alone from everyone and everything. I just didn’t want to deal with anything. I just wished I could, at that time, I wished I could have just paused everything in life and just be alone.”
In a dark place, Demmons bounced from job to job. Six months at one job, six months at another. “At that time, I decided to go to the VA (Veterans Administration) to get help. So I talked to a counselor and started to get treated.” That treatment led Demmons to the Easter Seals and their Military and Veterans Services program, where he met retired Master Sergeant Mike Gray. 20 years in the Air Force in Intelligence and Commander Control, Gray recognized the trauma that was paralyzing Kevin Demmons and put a name to it: PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I saw a lot of myself that when I was very fresh in trying to deal with my own issues, recognized it right away as going ‘well, he’s about this phase’ when I realized I needed help but I didn’t want to admit that I needed help,” Gray explains. “And, kind of had some no nonsense conversations with him about ‘this is where you’re at and this is where you’re going and this is how we’re going to get there, but you’re not going to do it alone’”.
Gray’s been stationed around the world, on every continent but Australia. He calls that movement an advantage to reaching all kinds of soldiers who are struggling to assimilate, even struggling to live. “Nothing is greater than taking somebody who, the minute you meet them, you’re worried about them harming themselves and with 24 hours, you see that glimmer of hope and you recognize that ‘ok, that’s what we’re going to work with’,” Gray implores.
Gray’s job with the Easter Seals concentrates on outreach, literally getting out on the streets, looking for veterans who may be in distress, in places no one thinks to look. “My job is exhausting, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done since taking the uniform off.”
Demmons is quick to credit Easter Seals with “saving my life”. What Gray has done for him is something some federal programs simply cannot. “He was there any time I needed him,” Demmons shares. “I’d text him, he was there. It doesn’t have to be for anything special, just to know that somebody’s on the other end of that phone who wants to talk to you is sometimes enough.”
And, Easter Seals covered his expenses, paying bills and a mortgage he couldn’t manage to cover. And, something else happened: Kevin Demmons began to dream about making a new future for himself. “When I talked with my therapist, he told me to find a happy place that you go to that you don’t think of any of the bad stuff, you don’t think of any problems in life. For me, that’s the woods.” Demmons describes why, “anytime I’m in a ground blind or a tree stand or I’m out on the water fishing, I don’t think of those problems.”
And, the woods figures prominently into a new company Kevin is hoping to create, where he will take veterans out hunting, hiking and fishing, free of charge. “To give them that moment of peace, to give them that sense of happiness and joy that a lot of guys don’t have.” The feeling that, until he returned to the woods, Kevin Demmons says he had forgotten all about. “I have a migration hunt that I have planned that is going to take a group of three or four vets and we’re going to travel from Maine to New York to Maryland or Delaware, travel the east coast and follow the migration for any bird hunters who want to do that.”
Demmons’ sponsor, Mike Gray, who watches over the young veteran as if he were his own son smiles with pride over his progress. “I think it’s great, it’s great for him personally to have a mission again in life and I think it’s also fun to watch where this will go because of his enthusiasm and his drive. The sky’s the limit. We’ll see what he does.”
The first step on the path toward opening his own company is to learn the ropes. Kevin Demmons has lined up an internship with Maine-based Pine Grove Outfitters and Lodge in Bingham where he is learning what it takes to guide hunters in the woods and on the Maine water. “If I have the opportunity to do that with other veterans,” Demmons explains, “I believe I was put on this earth, I believe that’s God’s plan for me.”
For more information on the Military and Veterans Services program, contact the Easter Seals by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (207) 828-0754 x1004.