Hello, I am Joe Holstedt. I am currently an Army Staff Sergeant stationed at West Point. My story begins in May of 2007. I was just starting my second deployment with my second unit. If you recall, the surge was announced in April of 2007. I was a squad leader on this deployment and was a very self-confident, fearless and proud young leader. At the end of May, I received word that four close friends of mine had been killed by a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device). I was hit very hard by the loss of these great men. That particular unit was in the extended portion of their surge, and soon after they had been extended the unit’s morale had dropped considerably. Shortly thereafter I lost another great friend, and my former platoon leader was also killed. It seemed like every two to three months I would lose another great friend and/ or leader. With these losses my confidence was taking hit after hit. I blamed myself, and to this day still catch myself wondering where I failed in their training, or if I had been there if I could have prevented it. I felt like I was a failure and had cost good men their lives. I didn’t know if I was even capable of leading any more. I felt like I was a black plague and that anyone who met me was doomed.
At the same time I was afraid to ask for help, because of the stigma around any diagnosis of depression, PTSD or other mental issues. I also was too proud and didn’t think that I could be a good leader if I had issues. I didn’t want to feel like people were pitying me, so I hid my troubles behind a façade of happiness. Unfortunately I was really good at hiding it. Nobody who knew me well even knew that something was different or wrong. I started slipping into a dark and dangerous hole of risky behavior and stupid personal decisions – all just attempts to make someone recognize my issues and confront me and force me to face my issues. Since that deployment I PCS’d to Fort Carson, and completed a deployment there prior to coming to West Point. In August 2012, I received orders to the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) at West point, unknowingly setting the playing field for a series of fortunate and unfortunate events. The WTU sent me to Calabasas to a train-the-trainer cycling camp for Ride 2 Recovery. I came back from the camp energized, and I quickly set up the riding program for our soldiers’ rehab. That summer I took several of the soldiers to a R2R challenge ride from DC to VA Beach. On that ride, I found a peace that I hadn’t felt in years. I finally felt like I had a purpose, and I had left all my troubles behind. However, when that ride ended, reality and my troubles came crashing back like a life size Tonka truck dumping its load on top of me. The worst part was that I had let go of so much that when it all came back and hit me, it was far more than I could handle.
On June 4th 2012, I had a 24 hr duty shift, and during the night I had nothing else to think about but my personal pain and the loss that I couldn’t control. I decided to end my pain and save those around me. On June 5th after getting off duty, I drove the long 30 minute drive home with tears pouring from my eyes because I knew that I was not going to make it through the day. When I got home to my house I got changed out of my uniform and went to my gun cabinet, and pulled out a pistol and loaded it. I must have had angels on my shoulders because I finally started fighting with myself to stay alive. I don’t know how long it took me that morning but I know that I finally won, and I disassembled my pistol entirely to include all the springs within the firing mechanisms. That event scared me and I know that there were two things that truly saved me that day. The first was my daughter; I knew that I didn’t want her to find my body and be scarred for life. At that time I still thought that she would be better without me in her life. The second thing was Ride 2 Recovery, and the people that I had met through the ride. Some of those people were suffering very similarly and I saw that they had done okay.
Ride 2 Recovery gave me the courage to finally seek help; I started going to behavioral health. Even then it took me a while to actually tell them my problem. After a while I started turning things around. As I seemed to be gaining a footing, I tore my rotator cuff, and on top of that, both of my ankles were in desperate need of reconstruction. The exercising and cycling that began helping me were suddenly snatched right out from under me and put on the shelf. After my third surgery, I was depressed despite finally being able to start cycling again. I still hated my existence at West Point. I didn’t feel like I belonged; my unit and I were constantly at odds. I felt like there was no purpose for me and I was unwanted. I had very few friends and didn’t know what to do. I was misplaced and didn’t feel like I had a home. I was becoming so depressed that I lacked even the motivation to get up and go to the gym or get on my bike. Finally, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that I was rapidly gaining weight and not in a good way. So I started biking again. On the 1st of June 2013, I weighed myself and wrote down 216. I couldn’t believe it. When I checked my body fat I was sitting at 27%. I was ashamed that I had let myself get so out of shape.
On June 8th, I participated in the Hudson Valley Honor Ride cycling event. At the ride, I met Ben and Lindsay Hartig, and Laurie Hollander. They introduced me to Team RWB, which I had previously heard of, but I thought was a group for running. With two ankles reconstructed only a few months prior I was unable to run. I didn’t realize that Team RWB participated in other events. With the introduction to Team RWB, I was suddenly shoved headlong into a group of active people that were very accepting of anyone who was similar minded regardless of the issues they may have. They don’t judge you and they provide amazing motivation. I suddenly found myself motivated to start working out again. If you don’t know, there are many studies have proven that exercise is the single most effective anti-depressant available. For me, Team RWB reminded me of the words in the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. In it they say “I’m on your side. When times get rough, and friends just can’t be found, like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.” In addition to finding motivation, I suddenly had something even more important. I had a family and community where I belonged. I no longer felt lost and unwanted. I was welcomed and have met many new Team RWB members that I now proudly call friends. In August, I participated on one of the RWB teams for the West Point Triathlon. I was humbled and honored to be allowed to participate there. Since that race, I have also recently completed the Ride 2 Recovery Minuteman Challenge cycling ride from Boston to Philly. I am proud to say that I now weigh 193 pounds and am down to 17% body fat. I am proud to be a member of such an amazing organization.