Rich Walker intended to study criminal justice at Moorhead State University after graduating from Glyndon-Felton High School 29 years ago. However, he got into a fight with someone weeks before college started that landed that person in the hospital for nearly two weeks. Fear of criminal and legal repercussions of that exchange drove him to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
What seems like a lifetime later – service to his country in the Gulf War, addiction to drugs and alcohol, post-traumatic stress disorder – Walker will walk across the stage at Minnesota State University Moorhead on Dec. 20 to receive his bachelor’s degree in exercise science. The journey to achieve his degree was hard fought, but along the way his story has impacted many.
Walker’s military service began at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
“The words that rang out the most to me when I stepped off the bus were, ‘Your only job is to die for your country. Get good at what you do, or you will die,’” Walker said.
Field training and schooling followed and then he was stationed in Guantanamo Bay. He can’t share the details of his duties, but the horror and fear he faced put him on high alert 24/7. He sustained numerous back and knee injuries and received an honorable discharge after three years.
“That experience heightened my already high level of being an adrenaline junkie,” Walker said. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but when I got out (of the service) I started drinking, fighting and doing drugs.”
During his 20s and 30s, Walker worked odd jobs to make ends meet. He needed an adrenaline rush to feel alive. He drank heavily. He developed an expensive meth addiction. His pent-up anger led to fighting and short stints in jail. After escaping a potentially long prison sentence for terroristic threats and trespassing, he was court ordered to complete anger management training and personal counseling.
Walker’s counselor, now retired, helped him to open up about his military experience and his painful past.
“I learned that I had anger issues and PTSD from my service. She was the first person to help me open up about it,” Walker said. “Now I use what I’ve learned to help others.”
First, he had to help himself and that meant going back to school. He had previously started in the social work and addiction program at Colorado Mesa University, but upon returning to Minnesota, he learned he needed a master’s degree for social work.
“At that time, I was in the gym a lot because it helped me feel better. If I’d get angry, I’d lift weights. It was a healthier way for me to cope with things,” Walker said. “I decided I could still help veterans and do what I want to do through exercise. Instead of sitting down and talking to them as a social worker, we can lift weights together and talk frankly about things.”
At 44, he enrolled in MSUM’s exercise science program and quickly became known as the old guy in the department. He admits being scared about returning to school, but the adrenaline rush kept him going.
“There were times, many times, I wanted to quit,” he said.
Faculty in the Health and Physical Education Department – Drs. Frappier, Gemar and Hammerschmidt – encouraged Walker in his MSUM journey and gave him the emotional support needed to succeed.
“I talked to Dr. Gemar about dropping out and finishing downing the road, and he was brutally honest and said I wouldn’t finish.”
“Richard’s determination and character has been impressive,” said Dr. James Gemar. “He has had a positive impact on other students through mentoring and sharing his life experiences. He has made a special connection with the clients he trains at Touchmark Health & Fitness in Fargo. I appreciate Richard’s work and his military service to our country.”
“The first time I told my story about drug addiction was during my first semester at MSUM in Health 110. Hearing the students and professors tell me what an impact my story had on them was positive feedback that meant a great deal to me,” Walker said.
He freely told his story every semester, sharing what his addiction and anger cost him – relationships, health issues, mental challenges, financial resources. He’ll return to MSUM whenever he’s asked to encourage others to avoid the mistakes he’s made.
“The reason it’s important to tell my story is to show the complications of drug and alcohol addiction. I’m living proof. If I can keep one person from doing drugs, or help one person to get help, then my life has purpose,” Walker said.
He’ll put his training, education and experience to good use as a physical fitness instructor at Touchmark at Harwood Groves, a full-service retirement community. During his internship there, “I fell in love with the people,” he said. “They’re grateful that you’re there to help them.”
He will teach a variety of exercise classes. And listen to others’ stories, some of whom have also served their country. He also mentors for Veteran’s Court, helping other veterans who are in trouble. And now that he’s done with school, he plans to regularly volunteer at the VA’s weight room to work with employees and patients.
Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide, according to the American Homeless Veterans website. And drug and alcohol abuse are prevalent among veterans. As a proud service member, Walker wants to help other veterans by giving them the tools that have helped him.
“They (returning veterans) don’t feel like they belong,” Walker said. “The work I do, whether it’s my job or my volunteer service, will hopefully help other veterans out of the darkness.”