Area veterans rally for PTSD awareness

Pepper spray, water board challenge — and no donations required

By Kevin Spradlin

* Aug. 20 – New challenge to raise awareness of veterans’ struggles with PTSD

ROCKINGHAM — Larry Evans and Mack Odom, two combat veterans and Richmond County residents, figured they were too smart to be on the wrong end of pepper spray and water board challenge dreamed up locally by Marine veteran John Popowich.

Kevin Spradlin | Brandon Parrish, of Rockingham, reacts to pepper spray and being water boarded during a PTSD awareness event at VFW Post 4203 on Friday in Rockingham.

Kevin Spradlin |
Brandon Parrish, of Rockingham, reacts to pepper spray and being water boarded during a PTSD awareness event at VFW Post 4203 on Friday in Rockingham.

Popowich and 10 of his closest friends and fellow combat veterans, however, weren’t so fortunate. Nearly a dozen combat vets participated in a local version of a pepper spray and water board challenge Popowich first saw on YouTube. It was completely on a volunteer basis. No donations required other than time and, Popowich said, “eyeballs and lungs.”

Those who showed up at 6:30 p.m. at the VFW Post 4203 in Rockingham and signed the waiver, Popowich said, were committed to completing the challenge a half hour later “or you’ll get your tongue cut out.”

Probably not, in fact, but bragging rights were on the line as more than two dozen spectators stayed a safe distance away, camera phones at the ready with a look of “I’m glad that’s not me” at the ready.

For his part, Popowich went first. After all, the sign of a good leader is not asking his peers or subordinates to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. Popowich donned a black T-shirt that honored one-time battle buddy Cpl. Matthew Matula, who was killed on April 9, 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq, in the same mortar attack in which Popowich was wounded.

The 6:30 p.m. start was delayed for slightly more than 30 minutes. It might have been, at least in part, a case of nerves — the idea of this unique challenge might have sounded better over the phone, when it was much further from becoming a reality. At about 6:50 p.m., though, Popowich said he was waiting on one more person. He appeared a few minutes later.

Kevin Spradlin | John Popowich, of Rockingham, is doused with pepper spray by fellow combat veteran (of a different generation) Larry Evans on Friday at VFW Post 4203. The stunt was intended to raise awareness of veterans' struggles with PTSD.

Kevin Spradlin |
John Popowich, of Rockingham, is doused with pepper spray by fellow combat veteran (of a different generation) Larry Evans on Friday at VFW Post 4203. The stunt was intended to raise awareness of veterans’ struggles with PTSD.

After a safety briefing led by Popowich and Brandon Parrish, the latter which encouraged people “the more you blink your eyes, the more your tear ducts work,” Popowich led the group of veterans gathered in a prayer circle.

“I think this is a good thing we’re doing,” Popowich said, eyes closed, head bowed in respect.


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  • Patricia Davis

    John Popowich and his “Band of Brothers” are to be commended for their demonstration to raise the level of awareness of PTSD within the community. The willingness to be sprayed with pepper spray and enduring the effects proved to be a test of endurance for the group but they did what they said they would do. A dramatic display to make an important statement. Well done!

    • John Popowich

      Thanks Mrs. Davis! I will forever be grateful to this bunch of guys. Yes we put out bodies through a little bit of pain, but it’s nothing compared to the lifetime of pain that some combat veterans suffer through. Anyone that thinks it was stupid, or not worthy, should really have their heads checked. That’s coming from a combat vet who is sick and tired of hearing about his brothers checking themselves out too early.

  • Daffy

    Oh my goodness. What’s this ? No pictures ? Since when does stupid and crazy not make the pictures in the news ? Good for you Pee Dee Post.

    Really ? Come on people. One does not have to do something stupid/wrong and “Controlled dangerous” to feel someone’s pain.

    Though no fault of my grandsons my grandson fell into a fire and is now in the Chapel Hill Burn Center. Believe me I am feeling pain.
    These shall we say “Not the brightest bulbs” want us to think that by PUPOSELY doing this to themselves is a way that we can understand the suffering of PSTD ? Ahhhhh, NOPE this is still CRAZY in my book.
    I pray for our service people. No one should have to see nor suffer what they (Service People) do. They have willingly gave ALL for us. I will always be thankful. We owe them a great debt. They pay and suffer for our lives and freedom. No greater love have any man than that he would lay down his life for his fellow man.

    • Ashley Stogner

      You, “Duffy”, are an absolute idiot. Just because youre so called “thankful” for our service men and women doesnt mean that you understand anything about PTSD for combat veterans. You have the nerve to call those same service members that have fought, served, seen more than you and I ever will, have lost brothers/sisters in battle “not the brightest”. What is wrong with you?! I see them doing more than you griping on this story. I see them doing what they can. Seriously? I know one of them personally and you have no clue what he’s been through overseas. Maybe you should have used the brain that was given to you before you opened your mouth. This may sound crude and im sorry about your grandkid and the pain youre going through, however, combat veterans live with a daily pain of what they’ve been through. They live with daily reminders. They cant sleep or dont want to close their eyes because they dont want images that cant be unseen replaying over and over again. Do you even know anything about what a soldier goes through when returning? Especially one that has witnessed what war is like first hand? Maybe you should do a little research. Maybe you should be more of a patriot. Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to voice your opinion when it comes to veterans getting together to support a cause they believe in and have been affected by one way or another!
      And you think them purposely doing this to themselves is stupid and crazy?! Do you think its stupid and crazy that these same vets and those suffering from PTSD PURPOSELY and WILLINGLY left their families to go overseas and fight for our rights and experience what they’ve been through? I dont. And am profoundly grateful for the men and women who serve to protect. Those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and those affected by what they’ve been through. To John and all the other vets who participated, thank you!

  • Michael Dixon

    Popowich, you hardCORPS mofo….

    • John Popowich

      Everyone that willing participated is hardcore. I’ve been sprayed before, so it was not new to me. But the guys who had no clue what they were in for get my respect.

  • ryan smith

    daffy, the pure fact that you commented on the story, no matter what you opinoin is, means that the event did its job and brought some awareness to people(no matter how few or many) to the plight of ptsd in our brave veterans who have given so much in order for us to still to be able to live free and enjoy the freedoms of speach in this great country. so thankyou for letting us know that the event was a succsess and we have reached some in the community.
    also not sure why you comented to there being no pictures ?? if you navigate the site properly u will notice there are pictures and also a short video of the event.

    pee dee post, if a member of our comunity have sufferd a horrible accident and are requiering extensive treatment as it sounds from duffys words, i think it would be good to make people in the comunnity aware of this with a story so they to can hold this family in the prayers also as i know our veterans would do.

    duffy,god speed a full and healthy recovery for your grandson, he is in our prayers.

    • Daffy

      At the time of my comment I did not see any pictures or videos. I think that they had not been up loaded yet.

  • De’on Miller

    There is a certain character trait that great men of war share and that is in a word, EXTREME! It is not in them to be less than but to be more than. They are not idiots, but warriors. One such man was David, the Psalmist. Another such man is the Marine pictured here, the name on his shirt, that man’s name became part of his daughter’s name. One extreme man after another in the USMC. I buried one of my own who was a part of Pop also. I could go on forever, but it takes extreme to do what civilians can’t or won’t do for themselves. It’s not a thing that’s turned on or off, it’s just a thing that is. Another extreme is this: losing 22 vets per day to suicide, most, at this point are from the Vietnam era. Think about it, over 40 years and finally done! This stuff doesn’t go away on its own and it feels like no one is listening. Thank you, Popowich, my forever Marine family for being extreme enough to do whatever it takes for the mission.

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