Former Marine paddles away 2 tours in Afghanistan

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Joshua Ploetz, a former Marine, canoes in the Mississippi River near Venice, La., Sunday, July 27, 2014. Ploetz, who has been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, canoed the entire Mississippi River. The trip to the mouth of the river at the Gulf of Mexico would take 69 days, about 50 of them spent paddling. But Ploetz said he needed every inch of the more than 2,500-mile river to paddle away the demons of the war, or at least calm them a bit. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Joshua Ploetz, a former Marine, canoes in the Mississippi River near Venice, La., Sunday, July 27, 2014. Ploetz, who has been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, canoed the entire Mississippi River. The trip to the mouth of the river at the Gulf of Mexico would take 69 days, about 50 of them spent paddling. But Ploetz said he needed every inch of the more than 2,500-mile river to paddle away the demons of the war, or at least calm them a bit. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Joshua Ploetz, a Marine vet who has post-traumatic stress disorder, left, and his traveling companion Aleks Nelson, set up camp after nightfall, while canoeing in the Mississippi River in Donaldsonville, La., Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Nelson, a kayaker from Duluth, Minn., joined Ploetz about 10 days into the trip and paddled alongside him to the end. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A large group of U.S. Marines hold signs as they greet Joshua Ploetz, a Marine vet who fought in Afghanistan, as he arrives in New Orleans, Friday, July 25, 2014, while canoeing the Mississippi River. Ploetz created a Facebook page, called “Paddle Off The War,†to mark his trip and raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Joshua Ploetz, a Marine vet who fought in Afghanistan, puts his hand on his face during a surprise welcome of about 100 U.S. Marines, after arriving in New Orleans, Friday, July 25, 2014, while canoeing the Mississippi River. Ploetz launched on May 19 in Lake Itasca, Minn., where the river begins as a narrow creek lined with tall trees and bald eagle nests. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Joshua Ploetz, left, a a Marine who fought in Afghanistan, revels with a fellow canoeist he had met on the Mississippi River, after they ran into each other during a night of fun on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Saturday, July 26, 2014. Ploetz who has been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder canoed the entire length of the Mississippi River. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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VENICE, La. (AP) — Two tours in Afghanistan took a toll on Joshua Ploetz.

The former Marine was injured in a roadside bomb. He lost friends in combat, and later, to suicide.

When the Winona, Minnesota, resident returned from the war eight years ago, he was coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, the fallout from a minor stroke and other injuries. Adapting to civilian life proved difficult. Relationships failed, employment was hard to come by and, Ploetz said, he had an overwhelming feeling of being “lost.”

This summer, Ploetz, 30, found direction — and became an inspiration — paddling a canoe the length of the Mississippi River. He launched on May 19 in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, where the river begins as a narrow creek lined with tall trees and bald eagle nests.

The trip to the Gulf of Mexico would take him 71 days, about 49 of them spent paddling and the remainder resting. Ploetz said he needed every inch of the river’s more than 2,300 miles to paddle away the demons of war, or at least calm them a bit.

“It slows life down so you can appreciate things in life,” he said. “All you have to do is think about things that you may not want to think about, things that just appear or things that you should think about, and you kind of work things out in your head.”

The idea of the river journey was set in motion years ago by a chance encounter in a bar with Matthew Mohlke, author of “Floating Down the Country,” who told Ploetz about his book describing his solo canoe journey paddling the Mississippi in 1999.

The seed was planted, Ploetz said, for his own “river experience.”

Ploetz created a Facebook page, called “Paddle Off The War,” to mark his trip and raise awareness of PTSD.

One of the most memorable moments was a riverside greeting by about 100 uniformed Marines and a live band when Ploetz rounded a bend in New Orleans.

He made friends along the way, including Aleks Nelson, a kayaker from Duluth, Minnesota, who joined Ploetz about 10 days into the trip and paddled alongside him to the end. Ploetz brought a baton made from the handle of a stretcher that carried wounded troops in Afghanistan, which Ploetz called a symbol of hope for struggling veterans.

He said he knows his own battle with post-traumatic stress isn’t over, and may never be, but the river taught him how to cope.

“You’re going to have your troubles on the river, but just keep paddling,” he said. “You’ll make it through it.”

His last morning on the river, he read scripture beneath a rainbow that peeked through puffy white clouds overhead. As he paddled his way into the Gulf of Mexico on July 28, he lifted his baton in triumph. The finish, he said, was bittersweet: “I want to be done, but I want more river to paddle.”

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Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance contributed to this story from New Orleans.

Associated Press

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