When the Boston Marathon starting gun goes off Monday, runner Demi Clark will have a group of soldiers to thank as she heads out over the 26-mile course.
Clark says she struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after becoming the final runner to cross the finish line while bombs exploded and debris rained down around her during the 2013 race.
“So many people around me were hit with shrapnel,” recalls Clark, whose left eardrum was blown out by the blast. “I had such massive guilt that I walked away uninjured.”
Within months of the blast, the guilt and memories of the victims, the blood and severed limbs she’d seen, took its toll on her. She began seeing a therapist, who diagnosed her with PTSD.
“I wasn’t sleeping, and I was anxious whenever I went into public spaces,” she recalls. “I just wanted to close the drapes and become a hermit.”
And that’s when something unexpected happened. Months earlier, Clark had begun working with a U.S. Army unit deployed in Afghanistan, conducting online coaching sessions with the soldiers (through a Duke University integrative health program) on goal setting.
When the soldiers – who had by then spent months clearing deadly improvised explosive devices from the local Afghan roads – learned how close Clark been to the Boston Marathon blast zone, they instinctively knew what their instructor was grappling with.
“After we’d get done with my coaching sessions, they started saying, ‘Now let’s talk about you,'” she recalls. Over time, Clark says the men showed her a “tiny window” into the hellish world that soldiers often endure after returning home from a war zone, offering her no-nonsense coping tips that she says helped her move forward.
Army Lt. Col. Brett Sylvia not only helped counsel Clark, but also oversaw the soldiers who reached out to her. Sylvia says he and his men understood what the 37-year-old mother of two was going through and what she needed to hear.
“If my soldiers were able to help her ‘get back on the horse’ with a sense of forward motion and without heavy emotional weight, we were happy to be able to give back to her,” he says.
Adds Clark, who is running in this year’s Boston Marathon to raise awareness for The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that helps veterans struggling with psychological trauma: “Bad things happen – that’s what I learned from these soldiers. But they helped me understand that you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and tell yourself, ‘This isn’t going to define me.'”