They make an unlikely trio as they hit the trail in the mountains of Oregon – a kitten, a dog and a homeless veteran. But each day, Stephen Simmons is moving forward on an amazing journey in hopes of getting his life on track as a veteran with PTSD thanks to the adventures of Puppi and Burma.
As he snaps breathtaking photos of his journey on his smart phone, he continues his road back to recovery. Now, his goal is to get his pictures out for more to see and to get more veterans involved in his therapeutic training – Adventure Therapy.
The road back
Simmons has traveled quite the road to get to where he is today. He settled in Grant’s Pass, a town of around 30,000 in the foothills of the Oregon Mountains. Last winter, he was living in his jeep with his dog Puppi when a variety of factors drove him to the edge.
“Winters in Oregon are hard. It rains all the time in Southern Oregon with very little relief,” says Simmons. “I was really down and I’m like a lot of veterans – homeless or not – feeling that my situation is hopeless and pretty bad. When you’re suffering from severe depression or PTSD, you really need to push yourself hard to pull through.”
Like countless other veterans, Simmons has had a difficult time adjusting back to life in the United States after the war in Iraq. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD – but has been denied benefits twice. He’s currently caught in a backlog of cases up for consideration at the Veteran’s Administration. He’s now taken to the mountains as he pushes himself on the road back.
“I call it Adventure Therapy,” says Simmons. “I would go running in the woods with Puppi in all the rain and cold and I didn’t care. Along the way, I would always take pictures to sort of keep me on track. The views are beautiful and they helped me immensely. I started to branch out into the mountains with my own brutal training…it’s very physical and gets adrenalin in my system. This has helped me immensely.”
Puppi, a dog Simmon’s rescued many ago, has become his rock and family during these difficult times. Last December, Puppi was certified as a service dog for Simmons…but he’s done so much more for him. He’s been his lifeline on the worst days.
“I’ve had Puppi for nine years and there were so many times I was feeling hopeless,” adds Simmons. “I would never harm her. When things would be at their absolute worse, I had to really think hard about who would care for her if something happened to me…she has kept me going.”
The cat on the trail
Simmons is a big animal lover who has been rescuing dogs and cats for a long time. He even rescued a cat while serving in Iraq. Earlier this summer, he was sitting on a sidewalk in Grant’s Pass when someone walked by with a box of kittens and offered him a little one of his own. Burma joined the group and the adventure.
“After I took him in, I thought - how am I going to manage a cat living in the Jeep and spending all this time in the woods and the mountains,” says Simmons. “He was born to a homeless person living in a tent. Burma has adapted very well to our life and it’s just worked. It’s a unique challenge but they are my family and my responsibility. And, people love seeing the cat out on our travels. It’s a lifestyle that has worked for us.”
Burma is a great conversation starter on the trail, forcing Simmons to pull a bit more out of his shell. The kitten travels in a carrier up to an area that is more flat, then hits the trail, closely following Puppi’s route. He’s been to great heights as Simmons travels up the mountain and even likes to take a dip in the lake as they travel the wilderness. This good story could have just stayed in the mountains if not for a past connection made by Simmons.
The Kickstarter campaign
Last year, Simmons had participated in a dogsledding expedition through Outward Bound. At the program aimed at helping more combat veterans integrate back into society, he connected with a Marine Veteran by the name of Lydia Davey, who had been a journalist and public affair specialist during her service.
They connected again this year when she traveled to Southern Oregon to do a story about the homeless veteran community there. She hit the trail with him to write about his adventure therapy training and started to take her own pictures.
“When I saw the pictures he’d taken with a camera phone, I was just blown away,” says Davey. “The pictures and story would be of interest to people on some many levels – nature, pets and veterans. You have Puppi soaking up Stephen’s emotions and Burma providing all kinds of comic relief. There’s an amazing story and lots of highs and lows here.”
She helped set up a Kickstarter campaign – The Adventures of Puppi and Burma - aimed at raising $10,000 to pay for a first run of 250 books. Funds raised from the program will help get Simmons back on his feet and raise some funds for a local animal rescue. Davey hopes it also helps Simmons get back on his feet and move forward with some of his hopes and dreams.
So far, the program has raised about one-third of the needed funds. They must raise the $10,000 by September 15 to get the funding for the program.
To the Future
“I have several goals I’d like to focus on in the future,” says Simmons. “I would love to do a picture book focusing on Burma – he has following on Instagram. It would be about going on adventures with your cat and let Burma’s personality shine through. I also want to work on providing adventure therapy for more veterans.”
He would also like to be a motivational speaker and work on other books that focus on the Adventures of Puppi and Burma.
“PTSD tells you that you don’t want to be social and there is so much gloom and doom,” says Simmons. “I prefer to promote strength and resolve and be positive. It’s important to give others the confidence that they can do it too. I’ve been down and when I get into a better position, I would like for more good to come out of my story. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, but to empathize.”
“His story is amazing,” adds Davey. “If you just look at his determination at making the best of a dark situation. There is such beauty in is photography and so much we can draw from his strength, it’s a very compelling story.”
The fundraising continues on Kickstarter and a Facebook page – The Adventures of Puppi and Burma – has been started to track their progress. Over the Weekend, Dogs on Deployment pitched in by matching fundraising over a two-day period. Learn more about that campaign below.
Check out this interview on Service dogs for veterans with Steve Dale. Tomorrow, Raining Cats and Dogs will feature a slide show with more of Stephen Simmons' work.