As former Marine Joshua Ploetz rounded a bend of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, paddling a canoe with the names of fallen comrades written on its side, a surprising but welcomed sight greeted him.
About 100 uniformed Marines, including those playing music, were there to welcome him to New Orleans, show support, and thank him.
Ploetz, a veteran of two tours to Afghanistan and a victim of a roadside bomb, has been coping with post-traumatic stress disorder for the past eight years, according to the Associated Press.
He lost friends on the battlefield and later to suicide.
Civilian life proved difficult, from failed relationships to employment hardships.
Feeling lost, Ploetz decided two years ago that he would canoe the entire length of the Mississippi River. He created a Facebook page called "Paddle off the War" and dedicated his adventure to raising awareness for PTSD.
On May 19, Ploetz, 30, began paddling in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, where the river begins as a narrow creek, and 71 days later, on July 28, he reached the gulf, where he read scripture beneath a rainbow. His 2,320-plus-mile journey was complete.
"What an adventure," Ploetz wrote on Facebook on July 28. "No words can describe the last 71 days…I want to say thank you to all the people that helped me out along the way. I am truly honored to meet some many people that make this country so great. Semper Fi."
Canoeing the length of the Mississippi was designed for Ploetz to paddle away the demons of war, or at least tame them some. It seemed to work.
"It slows life down so you can appreciate things in life," he told AP. "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."
Ploetz spent 49 days of actual paddling, resting the other days. He met friends along the way, including Aleks Nelson, a kayaker from Duluth, Minnesota, who joined Ploetz about 10 days into the trip and accompanied him the rest of the way. Gerald Herbert of the Associated Press chronicled the journey with photos, which were released on Thursday.
"You're going to have your hiccups in life," Ploetz told AP. "You're going to have your troubles on the river or troubles down the line. But just keep paddling, you'll make it through it. Find that person you're going to talk to or find the next person that's going to share that story with you, or go to New Orleans where it's going to pump you up to go to the end.
"I kept pushing on and made it to the gulf. That was where my goal was for myself. I hope that more people can connect and find the river that they need to paddle down."
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