Matt’s Story – On the Trail Back to Self
By Matt Kat Swartling
I served with the 1-505 PIR in the 82nd Airborne Division. I deployed 2011-2012 to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of Village Stability Operations (VSO). My platoon was engaged in daily firefights for the first 56 consecutive days of our insertion. I only had a taste of what so many have done year after year on back to back deployments. I constantly meditate on the fact that so many have suffered more than I could ever assume to understand.
Supporting HHP allows me to be abreast with their selfless mission and be a first hand example of its absolute and profound benefits. I have been so emotionally moved with the mission of HHP to provide fellow service members with the same plant based therapy that truly saved my life. Anything I can do to support the mission is done happily. A portion of the Ranger Creed I reflect on when I think of HHP is in the 5th stanza, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” (even if the enemy is inside oneself). I am here to do all I can in the post-war battle that is PTSD; as HHP strives to bring healing to warfighters’ traumatic stress, I align myself with their mission of restoring hope and empowering each veteran in their healing process. In my journey to healing, I faced many demons that led me to know my trajectory was unacceptable.
Being selected to the Special Forces Q Course was a highlight of my Army career. I was ready and eager to deploy again and complete any assigned mission. However, due to a serious injury, I was pulled from the Q course. The peak of my military career had suddenly plateaued. Distressed and defeated, I abused alcohol to escape from the reality of the present. After multiple surgeries, I was medically retired from the Army and lost the only profession I had ever wanted to pursue. I wanted to give up entirely, it seemed the easy and only way forward. I struggled to gather myself and find my path forward. My mental state clung steadfastly to the Airborne Ranger I worked so hard to become. Yet the military training, experience, and ambitions I had, now seemed futile. It was only with time that I was able to focus on my appreciation of my military career rather than my resentment for my medical retirement. This intentional refocus on the positive allowed me to see my path forward- a 2,200-mile path called the Appalachian Trail (AT). Without any significant experience or knowledge, I decided to hike the AT from Maine to Georgia. I wanted a challenge, I wanted to face mountains, fjord streams, and live away from others in the outdoors. This desire became only stronger upon realizing that the AT’s motto is, “a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.” And fellowship with the wilderness is what I found.
While on trail, my experience with plant medication gave me the much-needed time to unpack the bag of my soul and person and to re-evaluate the weight I carry with me in this mission of life. I began to let go of weight I once felt tied to and cling to the values that I was raised on. With every river and road crossed, whether rocky or reposed, I fell more in-step with myself. I shed weight emotionally and physically and gained clear hindsight of the baggage from my Afghanistan deployment. Plant medicine also allowed me to have a matter-of-fact meeting with my demons: I felt that I was facing them head-on for the first time. This tête-à-tête was not tense, but rather therapeutic as I felt clean and clear in realizing that I could concurrently leave those demons behind while progressing on a path of virtue. With plant medicine, I was able to fully appreciate the great virtue of forgiveness: I strove to forgive and be forgiven. This insight into myself extended to inspiration from my surrounding environment of nature. Among the rocks and trees, whether off or on trail, plant medicine gave me a meaningful physical, mental, and spiritual experience.
It’s my experience that psychedelic healing modalities have the most potential to help with people who are resistant to change in general and change in themselves. Yet, these same individuals long for change, because whether consciously or subconsciously, they understand that their current lifestyle is unsustainable while ignoring the elephant of PTSD in the room. To surrender to your pride is the most courageous thing to do. To fully know yourself, to break down the walls of your mind, and to find the center of your being is paramount to rebuilding a sustainable home for your already solid foundation.
Planning for your first experience is crucial. More importantly you must follow your intuition because everyone experiences reality differently. For my experience to reach optimal productivity, I had to center on company, activity, and my environment. It is spiritual, and the keys to getting the most out of it are to feel comfortable and open-minded. Share with trusted friends that you are going to have a psychedelic experience. Your reasoning becomes stronger after taking psychedelics. The intent is key: why do you want to do this? Something that helped me was to write down my intentions. With pure, known intentions, and complete submission I was shown what needed to be seen.
Before psychedelics, I held my mind in a war-zone state. I had submitted to the fact that I would die in combat and nothing else mattered but the war and my warfighter mentality. I let go of personal relationships, what was the importance of them when faced with war? I always felt very surprised to be alive. After my inception with psychedelics, I see my energy positively radiating to others. I no longer singularly think of myself and my imminent and possibly deserved doom. Though not all days are perfect.
Post-plant medicine I narrowed my focus to my foundation. I worked from that place in my pursuit of a rewarding and full life. Since then, I have enjoyed my happiest day with my wife, Katherine, on our wedding day. I found purpose in my civilian work by caring for people with chronic pain. This pain management position was especially significant as the same technology my company used for chronic pain is the technology that can minimize the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease- a disease that took my grandmother’s life while I was on the Appalachian Trail.
I knew that the promise that I made, to keep at least one of my toes “on trail,” was becoming narrower. I was either going to completely submit to a life in a position I couldn’t give 100% to, or I was going to follow my heart, which had not failed me yet. After four years working the sales and clinical specialist side of pain management therapy, I knew it was time to get back to the trail that shaped me, the trail I so longed to hold on to and go back to in full commitment. I decided in 2021 that I would resign from my job and hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), something I visualized doing since the completion of the AT.
Whether it’s a mission, a ceremony, or a trail, it continues beyond a known point and how you conduct yourself will pave the way for how you lead your life.
On March 28, 2022 I set off on the PCT. My assigned Ranger buddy, Eric Van Hecke, is pursuing his first thru-hike alongside me and the two gentlemen I completed my first thru-hike with. As we trek from Mexico to Canada, I will keep the same promise from my first journey: hold on to and grow my virtues, have self-respect for my military career, and deepen the love for myself and growing family. I see this hike as my next evolution in life. The first hike of the AT was for my mind, body, and soul. And now, with a better understanding of the challenges of PTSD, I hike the PCT for the mind, body, and soul of myself and others while I continue my journey. I feel strong and capable of growing the awareness of PTSD and sharing information about the therapeutic effects of nature in regard to PTSD.
I know this trail will not end at the 2,650 mile marker at the Northern Terminus. It is a known “False Summit” and the journey of my continued growth will stretch far beyond that point. I will simply have more tools, experience, and knowledge to take along the journey.