ELKTON — John Webb Jr. has a thick folder full of letters telling him stories of the bravery and courage of his son, John Webb III.
He’d likely give it all back to have his son with him instead. Webb III took his own life in March 2016, leaving a message to his family that he was “a phychotic (sic), murdering, heartless, selfish Monster.”
What Webb wants you to know is that his son was not a monster, but a troubled young man scarred by his tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan.
On Oct. 22, Webb will hike the Appalachian Trail in honor of his son, and to bring to the forefront a conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He calls it “4 States — 48 Miles — 24 Hours.”
He is inviting people to join him in a campaign that almost didn’t get off the ground. Initially, only he and a friend were planning on taking the trek. Because of the challenging terrain, however, he concluded that two people on the hike would not be safe.
Since his son’s death more than a year ago, Webb has taken to working out to process his feelings, or work past bouts of anger and profound sadness. He made one such trip to ponder the future of this hike on the Appalachian Trail.
“I went to the gym one night and I ran into the owner and we talked about the hike,” Webb said of his encounter with Devon Mitchell, owner of the Bear, Del., location of Anytime Fitness.
Not long after, Mitchell called him from a corporate convention of the nationwide chain of gyms and said all the gyms were on board with his campaign.
“So it literally went from, ‘I’m done. This isn’t making a difference,’ to ‘Wow, this may save someone’s life,’” he recalled.
Webb said he still has no idea how many people will join him on this hike that will traverse Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, but representatives from the U.S. Army Special Forces will be participating.
And at 2 p.m. Oct. 22, everyone on the hike will do 22 pushups. Quoting a statistic from a suicide data report authored by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012, Webb said veterans commit suicide at a rate of 22 per day. Across the military community there has been a 22 Pushup Challenge that aims to bring a better awareness and better treatment for PTSD sufferers.
Webb said his son definitely suffered, but he had no idea of the depths of that mental morass until he received that thick folder.
“I would give him $30 to cut the grass and he’d take it and buy new shoes,” Webb said.
His son would live day-to-day in tattered shirts and pants, but he was constantly buying new shoes.
It all came back to that 159-day firefight in Afghanistan. A letter in that folder details how Webb and his comrades witnessed an improvised explosive device detonate and kill a child.
“At our rendezvous location Webb noticed a piece of flesh from the child’s arm stuck to his boot. He quickly removed his boots and left them off as long as he could,” read the letter from Julian Seddon, who served with Webb’s son in Company B of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
His father now understood that his son was constantly in search of shoes he could look at and not see the child’s flesh.
John Dennis Webb III returned home from Afghanistan a different person. He was no longer “normal,” according to his dad.
Webb admits he did not do the best job of helping his son at first, urging him to simply stop drinking and get a job.
He knows now that the 2006 graduate of Elkton High School had seen so much horror, and came close to death so many times, and watched his fellow Marines be killed or horribly maimed.
He was 17 when his dad signed the papers for him to join the Marine Corps.
“He wasn’t happy in high school. He decided he wanted to get his life straightened out,” Webb recalled.
The younger Webb felt being in the Corps would help him acquire both skills and discipline, and enlisted in November 2006.
At the age of 19, he was in Afghanistan when he got an assignment.
“It was supposed to be a seven-day mission outside the wire,” Webb said, referring to the hostile area of that Middle Eastern country.
That one week assignment ended up stretching over more than five months.
“They knew they were going to die. They made plans for their remains ... what to tell their families,” Webb said he learned.
As the smallest member of his platoon, Webb III volunteered to clear out the “spider holes,” or underground tunnels where insurgents hide and fire on American troops.
“They called him the cave rat. He would go in with a 9mm Beretta and a flashlight,” Webb said, adding that to fit in the hole his son would have to remove his protective gear. “He was just a kid. He saw things. He was under fire constantly.”
Webb III was discharged in September 2011. After returning home, however, the younger Webb wasn’t telling his family any of those stories, and began drifting away from them. Thankfully, he did find some release from the folks at the Elkton Vet Center.
“I did the dad thing,” Webb said, indicating regret at berating his son.
He did not, at first, understand the demons that had invaded his son’s waking and sleeping hours. Now he does, and he sees those demons in some of the homeless who populate Cecil County.
“Without us to support him, John would have been one of those homeless people on the street with a sign,” Webb said. “He could not function in society.”
If there is one thing Webb hopes the average Cecil Countian will take away from this, it is that everyone has a story.
“They have a reason why they are in their current situation,” he said, noting he is now more likely to stop and buy that sign holder a meal and invite a conversation than to offer scorn and disdain.
Anyone interested in joining the “4 States — 48 Miles — 24 Hours” hike for PTSD awareness should contact Webb at 443-553-7840.