KAYAKER WITH A MESSAGE: Mary Southerland, who worked several years in Iraq as a civilian contractor, is kayaking on the Ohio River, stopping in  cities and towns along the way spreading awareness about those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Southerland said that while the military is in the process of studying the effects of PTSD in veterans, hardly any information has been collected about contractors with the disorder. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
KAYAKER WITH A MESSAGE: Mary Southerland, who worked several years in Iraq as a civilian contractor, is kayaking on the Ohio River, stopping in cities and towns along the way spreading awareness about those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Southerland said that while the military is in the process of studying the effects of PTSD in veterans, hardly any information has been collected about contractors with the disorder. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Mary Southerland didn't go to Iraq courtesy of the U.S. government. She went as a civilian.

Southerland was a private contractor for the Department of Defense when she traveled to the war-torn country in 2008 and 2009, and for the Department of State when she went again in 2012.

She worked as a linguist and in security. Despite her status as a civilian, Southerland came home, as many have, with a diagnosis of having post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Eventually, everything just caught up with me," she said.

To bring awareness to the condition, Southerland is kayaking down the Ohio river making stops along the way to talk to people about PTSD. She travels along the river, while two friends and her psychiatric service dog, Henry, travel ahead to make camp for the night.

She stopped in Madison Sunday morning to talk to the congregation at St. John's United Church of Christ.

Originally from Salt Lake City, Southerland operated a spa in Hawaii before moving to private contracting.

"I went over with no military experience. On Friday I was in St. Louis and on Monday I was making a military landing in Baghdad," she said.

Southerland decided to make the trip after a seven-month battle for benefits to cover her treatment. Many people diagnosed with PTSD don't have access to the mental treatments they need, she said.

"I can no longer permit the disorder and the struggle for help allow me to be ashamed, humiliated and trapped," she wrote on her website, www.AContractorAndHerDog.com.

"I am going to stand up for myself and others enduring this process, and break the stigma of a psychiatric injury."

Fifty percent of the personnel serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, Southerland said, are private contractors, and aren't included in many studies measuring how many people return from battle zones with PTSD.

In 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a report saying that since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been 256,820 veterans diagnosed with PTSD who have been treated at VA hospitals and clinics.

Southerland partnered with Purple Star Families, a nonprofit group dedicated to changing the way military personnel are transitioned from service back to a regular home life.

"I can't do much for me, but I can speak for them," she said.