PTSD survivor advocating for the health and support of his peers
By Taylor Shillam
Photo Courtesy of Anaheim Police Department
“PTSD is not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.”
Imagine a condition that continually brings pieces of your most traumatic experiences into your everyday life. For many individuals whose careers place them in the line of crisis, that is the reality.
It’s estimated that 30 percent of first responders will develop behavior health conditions, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The daily duties of their positions often require them to face traumatic stressors and situations that place them at high risk for both PTSD and ASD (Acute Distress Disorder). Just as often, they are left unsure of how to recover and regain their lives following a traumatic incident.
At times, it can require a person who has experienced and recovered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be able to fully recognize and support the condition in others.
One man has made it his cause to reduce first responder suicide and increase wellness support for police and fire fighters suffering from PTSD across the country. Using the mode of transportation that brought him therapeutic relief throughout his own battle with PTSD—riding his motorcycle—Jeff Shepard has taken his cause to cities across the country in a growing movement to raise awareness and support for his peers.
Ride 4 Relief is the movement. Organized by Shepard, a retired officer and PTSD survivor, the nonprofit organization is dedicated to generating a wide community of support for first responders (including paramedics, firefighters, police and corrections officers) who have faced PTSD.
As his efforts have gathered more and more publicity, Shepard has partnered with charities, media outlets and various sponsors to highlight precincts throughout the nation as they nurture the health and wellness of their teams. He has worked to connect first responders with the necessary support, education and relief for their PTSD symptoms, while sharing his own story of recovery.
At the beginning of Ride 4 Relief, Shepard visited police and fire departments during the months of June (PTSD Awareness Month) and July, steadily building momentum, recognition and awareness for his cause along the way. Shepard embarked on his first tour in 2017 and later followed up with the larger 35-state tour.
Taking a close, intimate approach at each department and precinct along his journey, Shepard used his mounting publicity to connect the media with members of the police and fire departments. Working to shed light on the experiences faced by real-life first responders, Shepard used his platform of press conferences and media coverage to further advocate for PTSD support. With his own set of hardships brought on by PTSD, Shepard has taken every measure to have his message heard, and he has been nothing but the ideal advocate for a cause hitting so close to home.
Shepard first experienced PTSD following his involvement in an ambush shooting in 2012, while working at a Seattle area police department. He had been a police officer for 10 years and a firefighter for eight.
At the time of the shooting, Shepard was attempting a simple stop of a subject walking down the street, when the subject pulled out a shotgun and began to fire while Shepard remained in his patrol car.
While he wasn’t physically injured in the shooting, the incident took a significant mental toll on Shepard, immediately impacting his sleep patterns and emotional well-being. Days later, Shepard was diagnosed with PTSD.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms often include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable, recurring thoughts about the event. Additional symptoms can include negative thoughts, hopelessness, detachment and depression.
Many traumatic events will result in a difficult, but temporary, adjustment period—but when symptoms get worse or persist for extended amounts of time, the cause is likely PTSD. Taking the right coping mechanisms and emphasizing self-care are critical in order to keep symptoms at bay and keep day-to-day function improving.
Shepard went to therapy for his symptoms for almost a year before returning to work. He was then able to focus on achieving his lifelong goal of becoming a motor officer. From the moment Shepard began working for the police, his dream had been to work in the traffic unit and turn his passion for riding motorcycles into his full-time career.
In 2015, Shepard passed the challenging two-week motor officer training—an experience he has claimed to be one of the most challenging feats of his life. At the time, he had returned to a good place mentally, excited for the future and looking forward to returning to work each day. However, Shepard’s battle with PTSD was not yet over.
Just three years after returning to work and two months after becoming a motor officer, everything changed once again. While on duty on July 4, 2015, Shepard was the target of an explosive device. The explosive struck his right leg before exploding, leaving him with a ruptured eardrum, burn injuries across his face and body, and the return of his PTSD symptoms.
After another year of therapy and doctors’ visits, the incident eventually led to his medical retirement.
“This had been a really hard time during my life, and I have really felt like my identity was taken from me,” Jeff wrote in a statement for Ride 4 Relief. “I have spent a lot of time thinking about my condition. I knew that there were so many other police officers, soldiers and first responders dealing with the same issues.”
Shepard realized that utilizing healthy outlets had made all the difference in his progress toward recovery from PTSD. Riding his motorcycle had become a form of therapy, a way to distance himself from the stressors and triggers that could arise in everyday life. Shepard has since made it his goal to bring that same feeling of peace, relief and healing to first responders across the country.
The idea first came to him at an event, where participants were creating dream boards that would help them visualize their goals coming to life. Immediately, Shepard saw a motorcycle at the center of his vision for the future. He also quickly recalled a recent meeting with Leslie Mayne, founding director of the Permission To Start Dreaming (PTSD) Foundation.
The PTSD Foundation is a registered nonprofit that supports alternative therapy programs to aid soldiers in overcoming symptoms of the condition and once again reach a life beyond the service they provided their country. When Jeff met Leslie, he was quickly moved by her story and the purpose behind her foundation.
It all came together the moment he was tasked with creating his dream board, and the seeds of inspiration were planted. Shepard knew he wanted to build on his connection with Leslie to organize a ride to support others who had suffered from PTSD. The ride would reach first responders, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and those who were dedicated to assisting them.
Ride 4 Relief was organized, and Shepard set out to educate communities across the United States. He also sought to highlight the police and fire departments who were “doing good things” on a national level, in terms of supporting their team members’ health, well-being and resiliency in the face of trauma.
Ignited by the idea and fueled by his experiences, Shepard took to his motorcycle on a nationwide tour to accomplish his goal to gather leaders and generate advocacy for PTSD support.
“That’s what our main goal is,” Jeff stated in an interview with the Toledo, Ohio, Fire Department, “raising awareness and support for the men and women putting their life out on the line every day for their community.”
Eventually making worldwide news, Shepard took his ride to the streets in June, during PTSD Awareness Month, stopping in major cities from Seattle to Virginia to share his story.
His longest ride, through June and July of 2019, took him to 35 states around the nation, covering major cities in Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Mississippi, Florida and more, and included stops in New York City and Washington, DC.
All proceeds from the ride would benefit the Permission to Start Dreaming Foundation; the organization that inspired Shepard to start it all. The foundation’s mission is providing hope and healing to those who serve by finding the best tools and training to enhance the minds, bodies and spiritual well-being of the nation’s first responders, veterans and their family members.
Founded in 2011 and based in the Pacific Northwest, the Permission To Start Dreaming Foundation has supported local organizations offering alternative therapies to help soldiers and families readjust to life at home. Their goal is to provide answers and solutions that promote healing through hosting events, creating connections and growing a community of compassionate allies and citizens.
The foundation has designed and delivered workshops, leadership summits and retreats that focus on growth and stress recovery following PTSD. Foundation leaders hold monthly huddles to “create a life of meaning, consequence and joy” through fostering lasting relationships. Led by foundation members with first responder, law enforcement and military experience, and always directed by a mental health professional, the monthly meetings are meant to be a safe environment to share experiences and camaraderie. Free to attend and open to the community, the huddles are held monthly in Gig Harbor, Washington, with Tacoma and Bremerton communities to follow.
To aid in supporting future efforts by Jeff Shepard and the Ride 4 Relief movement, donations can be provided directly to the Permission To Start Dreaming Foundation online at PTSDFoundation.org.
When he’s not riding in support of his cause, Shepard acts as the founder of Down Range Baby, a manufacturer of tactical diaper bags for dads. Boasting the popular taglines “Strong enough to go to war” and “Bottles to bullets,” Down Range Baby gear is manufactured in a U.S. facility that specializes in manufacturing products for the military.
Shepard’s success as both an advocate and company owner have led to features in publications, television shows and worldwide news. He uses his continued publicity to provide greater support for his peers whose lives have been affected by PTSD, ASD and depression.
Above all, Shepard wants those suffering PTSD to know that they are not alone. “There is help and relief out there. I know it, because I overcome my PTSD every day.”