Rumor has it Annie Balthazar was dropped in the water by a cousin when she was 9 months old and came up swimming. The family spent their entire summers at the cottage her grandfather built on the Tygart Valley River in WV and her mom called the troop back in for dinner by blowing in a big cong shell. Otherwise, Annie might have very well spent her nights in the canoe. Her love for the outdoors and rivers goes way back but over time, she moved away from it. She joined the military because she liked the structure it provided and the fact that they would pay for her education. For twelve years, Annie was a nurse anaesthetics in the Air Force and she loved it, but something changed. War changed her. That’s how she went from saving lives on the battlefield to saving lives on the river. “I came back from Iraq really a changed person, very angry, helpless, hopeless. I enjoyed the Army, I was good at it, until I went to war. Then the war experience was just…
“Nothing could’ve prepared me. I worked and trained in shock trauma centres. I’ve seen every gun and knife wound. I really just thought I was prepared. The more I reflect on it, I realize that it’s the moral injury.”
The mother of two had a hard time getting back into her California life. Her husband didn’t understand the changes in her, or get over the walls she had built around herself. Trivial situations would make her angry. She couldn’t understand why people cared more about celebrity drama than what happened in the world. Her marriage didn’t survive the shock and neither did her Air Force career.
“I resigned my commission because I didn’t want to go back to Iraq. It was probably the best decision I ever made although people still don’t understand it. They are like “You only had 7-8 years to retirement” I just knew that morally, ethically, in my soul, I knew I couldn’t do it. I resigned and went to work for the VA system as a nurse anesthetics in San Francisco.”
When her son decided to move to WV to attend university, Annie jumped on the opportunity and moved as well. She got a job as a nurse anaesthetics but soon found out that her problems had followed her across the country.
“I never had any time off. I was on call all the time. I was just stressed. I didn’t realize it. Money was great. I was able to provide. I thought I was where I needed to be, but there was something so angry, empty and sad inside of me. I started drinking a lot. It really took a toll, until I decided I couldn’t do this anymore. I stopped drinking, quit my job, bought a little house here in Fayetteville.”
Annie pretty much resigned, not knowing what she’d do. Little did she know, things were starting to change for her. She met Ed, a man she would later marry. He didn’t even flinch, when she told him she wanted to paddle the entire Mississippi River by herself. Shortly after, on June 22nd 2015, Annie started her trip on Lake Itasca, where the river starts, only to finish in the Golf of Mexico 103 days later.
“During that time, something just changed in me. It is an incredible river. The headwaters, the first 420 some miles are just nothing but spectacular. There are 189 breeding pairs of bald eagles up there. Wolves, otters. I just stayed in people’s homes, or slept on the river banks. The people took you in. There were so many river angels.”
When she got off, she had trouble readjusting again. One thing she knew, she wasn’t ready to go back to work. Luckily, with a small disability from the military and Ed that was still retired at the time, they were able to make ends meet and for a year, Annie focused on an idea that emerged from her Mississippi adventure. She founded Paddle for Peace and set out to take veterans on overnight paddling trips as a healing tool.
“I created a little webpage and tried to get the word out, talked to the veteran centres through the hospitals in the area. I was trying to keep it locally and just do rivers in WV. I really met my goal because I did the six rivers that I set out to do. I took vets on each one. I think in our society, in our American culture, people still don’t realize that peace and happiness truly comes from within. I think that’s what you receive when you’re in nature and so-called without, when really, I don’t see myself being without anything.”
On her longest trip, Annie took only one with her, a female veteran that was going through a difficult time. After three days, she wanted off but was convinced to continue. She completed the eight-day paddle. Eight days to add to her three months of sobriety.
“So many are battling addictions. The veteran population is the sickest population you can ever deal with and you have to wonder why. We are not meant to kill each other. We are not meant to go to war. That’s the effect it has on people. You either try to drown your sorrows one way or another, sweep it under the rug or whatever, but it will always come back.”
After a year trying to help others with their post-war experiences, Annie felt the need and the strength to go back in the workforce. She found a federal position as a park ranger with the Army Corps of Engineer which allows her to work on the water and to be eligible to get a pension when she retires a year from now. Being on the water allows her to remain grounded, employment provides money to help feed her horses, another source of joy, and the pension will bring the opportunity for her to fully dive into Paddle for Peace. It is important for her to give back what the river has given her.
“There are just good people on the river, there are just good people in the world and that’s something that this whole trip brought to my life. It has just restored my faith in Humanity. I look at people as good. We’re good. There was a time when I thought we were evil with a little bit of good and you have to work at being good when really that’s not true. I know that for a fact now.”
After being given so much, it is now her time to be a river angel.