Following World War I, many troops were rapidly diagnosed with “shell shock.” World War II brought the new label of “combat stress reaction.” Today, it’s known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD – which is diagnosed when negative symptoms arise after experiencing a traumatic event. Marine veteran John Welch doesn’t shy away from sharing his own diagnosis of PTSD caused by combat. In fact, he thinks it’s vital that it is talked about, because that’s the only way veterans will begin to heal.
Welch followed his father and brothers into the Marines. He always knew he’d become one himself because it was ingrained into him his whole life. Although he doesn’t regret a moment of his service to this country, he’s uncomfortable with talking about it. For a long time, being a Marine was all that he had and it wasn’t enough.
He knows the dark and deeply-rooted impacts of PTSD intimately because he lived in that space for a long time after leaving the Marine Corps. Welch said that he slowly came back to life after receiving his service dog, Onyx, four years ago. “She took me out of the darkness and brought me back into the world,” he shared. Once Welch was on his own path of healing, he wanted to find ways to help other veterans make it there too.
He started with reclaimed wood.
Welch feels like he was probably always artistic, but that by working through his trauma by using things like art, he flourished. Since then, he has spent years building and creating custom wooden American flags for veterans. He doesn’t charge for them or take requests but instead waits to be led to the person who needs one the most. At this point, he has made hundreds.
“Yeah, I have PTSD. But there is a way out. That way out is to do for others,” Welch said candidly. He believes serving others saved him. Welch uses his flag art to work through his own trauma and give back, but he is also a peer liaison volunteer at his local VA. There, he works closely with other veterans suffering from the debilitating effects of PTSD. He was feeling content. But there was more waiting for him.
While shopping at his local Christmas tree store, he ran into a friend. After talking a while, he suggested that Welch join Team Rubicon, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that serves communities by mobilizing veterans to continue their service and leverages their skills and experience to help people prepare, respond and recover from disaster and humanitarian crisis. The friend wouldn’t give him details and instead pushed him to look it up. After he learned TR’s mission, he realized it was a way he could continue to further his service, and joined immediately, spending almost his first year deployed on Team Rubicon operations.
“Team Rubicon gave me the ability to serve others,” Welch said. “I lost that sense of service when I left the military. When I joined Team Rubicon, it gave me that back.” Welch has now been a volunteer with Team Rubicon since 2018 and has gone on several deployments with them. Currently, he’s entering his tenth straight week serving in the COVID-19 response team for New York.
There’s nowhere he’d rather be than beside his fellow “Greyshirt” teammates helping people in need. “Team Rubicon has been instrumental in getting me better,” he shared. When the newest Team Rubicon volunteers didn’t receive their coveted grey shirts in time, Welch jumped in immediately and handcrafted wood plaques for them to welcome them to the team.
Welch shared that at one time he was deemed “broken.” He discovered that by serving others, he was made whole again. “When you look back at your life, you should ask, ‘Did I make a difference in the world?'” he said. Although he knows most people cannot give the amount of time that he does to service, he hopes that those who hear his story see the importance of giving back.
While Welch quite literally spends almost his entire day in service of some kind, he’s never been happier. It saved him. He’s hoping it’ll save others too.