Trucks at Work

The call of duty

I couldn’t have asked for a greater honor.” –Jeff Edwards, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and driver of Schneider National’s 2011 “Ride of Pride” truck

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It takes a lot of courage to face your fears head on; to commit one’s self to a long-term battle that, in some ways, may never end.

A lot folks (me included) might shirk such duty, simply because the unending mental strain of such a conflict would be unbearable.

Not Jeff Edwards, though.

Many truck drivers might look at Edward’s current job – driving Schneider National’s “Ride of Pride” truck cross-country to make appearances at a variety of military functions, parades, and truck shows – as easy duty.

Heck, he’ll be out at most two weeks at a time then get four or five days off in a row at home with his wife and two kids. And all he usually has to do is chew the fat with folks; no loading or unloading of freight required.

Except that talking to people and spending long hours in crowded spaces is often the very last thing Edwards can endure.

The reason for the strain – as this 13-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps will freely tell you in plain, blunt language – relates to post traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD. It’s a severe anxiety disorder that occurs after a person witnesses or experiences a traumatic event that involves the threat of injury or death – and combat is right up there at the top of that list.

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Edwards’ served in a variety of hot spots during his time in the Marines – Liberia and Haiti in 1996, then Kosovo and Bosnia in 1999 – before deciding the retire. The attacks of September 11 changed his mind, though, so he re-upped on Sept. 12; ending up with the 2nd Marine division during the famous “Race to Baghdad” operation in the Iraq war.

A big man at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Edwards served as a TOW missile operator [the acronym stands for “tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire command data link” guided missile] and spent six grueling months under fire. Shortly thereafter, he started experiencing PTSD symptoms – nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance in crowded places – and eventually got discharged in 2006.

Edwards explained how PTSD affected his daily life when we spoke at a truck show several months ago. A resident of Flatlick, Kentucky, he’d once taken his two kids into nearby Louisville to watch a college basketball game.

“My wife asked me how the game went, but I never saw it – I kept watching the people around me the whole time, ready to grab my kids and run in a second,” he said.

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He couldn’t tolerate confined spaces at all, which meant office work and coal mining (one of the major industries in and around Flatlick) were non-starters. He initially didn’t want to drive a truck, either, because he’d be away from his family for long stretches; Edwards had already done enough of that with the Marines.

Then Schneider came calling with a dedicated route and that sealed the deal for Edwards: he grabbed the wheel of a big rig and never looked back.

And in some ways, too, driving a truck proved therapeutic, as well – allowing him to be alone for long stretches by himself, away from the cacophony of modern day living which often triggered his PTSD.

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Yet PTSD still plagued him, despite nearly eight months of therapy in the Marines prior to his discharge and counseling sessions afterward. Then, by happenstance, he got the chance to attend a Schneider-organized workshop hosted by Lou Tice – spending a total of seven days over two sessions listening as Tice talked about “focusing on the positive” and “eliminating negative thinking,” taking that message to heart.

That workshop, combined with counseling and the calm, quiet environment of his truck cab, is what Edwards’ credits for his ability now to manage PTSD more effectively – and also to take on “in-the-public-eye” challenges posed by his current duty as Schneider’s “Ride of Pride” driver for 2011.

By way of background, Freightliner Trucks began the “Ride of Pride” tradition 10 years ago when Ed Keeter, a factory shift manager and Vietnam War veteran, proposed the project as a way to honor U.S. veterans.

Originally, Keeter and colleagues planned to simply decorate a truck and take it to the local Veteran’s hospital near Freightliner’s truck manufacturing plant in Cleveland, N.C. But Freightliner’s employees embraced the idea so wholeheartedly that it quickly became part of a national effort that now includes participating in the annual “Ride for Freedom” on Memorial Day; a military procession through Washington, D.C. that honors veterans.

Freightliner also decided to award each year’s Ride of Pride truck to a different trucking company and decorated the cab for the chosen fleet with military-related decals.

In 2007, Freightliner awarded the sixth truck in the “Ride of Pride” series to Schneider National; the first of four “Ride of Pride” trucks the big orange carrier would receive from Freightliner.

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“As an organization, we didn’t realize the impact this truck would have and what it would mean to drivers, members of the military past and present, the motoring public and our associates,” noted Steve Matheys, Schneider’s executive vice president and chief administration officer.

“The first truck was added to the fleet somewhat unceremoniously and started out doing what every other truck in our fleet does — hauling freight,” he explained. But today, “we think about these special trucks quite a bit differently.”

When Schneider put out a call to military veterans in its driver ranks to volunteer to be the 2011 “Ride of Pride” operator, Edwards never hesitated to throw his proverbial hat in the ring, despite the difficulties he knew he’d face due to his PTSD.

“The reason I didn’t think twice about it is because of this truck’s mission,” Edwards told me. “Usually, I’m a very quiet person, but when it comes to our military, it’s easy for me to talk.”

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He beat out nine other candidates for the job to drive this truck, taking it from one end of the country to the other to participate in a variety of events (and tasked with cleaning it top to bottom twice a day, too). But the toughest part of the job – and one part he felt the most wary about – was bringing the truck to military funerals.

“I was worried about it,” Edwards freely admitted. “But once I saw the reaction of the family – once I saw that they lifted up a little bit because it was there – then I was OK with it.”

And though Edwards still struggles with PTSD, he feels that he’s finally gaining the upper hand – and in many ways, his service as a “Ride of Pride” driver is helping him win the long struggle to control his affliction.

A fitting salute if there ever was one, I think, for all our military men and women, past and present, in honor of Veteran’s Day.

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