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Beyond the Game: Taekwondo helps Army veteran cope with PTSD

Stephen Bethards (KATV photo)

For some, competing for a world championship is the highlight of the annual ATA Martial Arts World Expo in Little Rock. For Stephen Bethards of Lexington, Kentucky, there was much more on the line.

"With my stress and my anxiety and stuff like that, I don't really focus a whole lot on what's coming next," he said.

The cause of that stress is easy to deduce. He served in the Army for 10 years, partly stationed in Iraq. He sustained multiple injuries while overseas.

"I was a gunner in Iraq, so basically I setup on top of the Humvee. We had a concussive blast that messed up my nervous system completely. I guess it shut it down, is what I've been told. I woke up in the hospital in Iraq and I had heart problems ever since."

Bethards said he underwent ablation heart surgery, yet still has multiple attacks each week.

"I could be sitting here just completely relaxed and calm, and my heart rate will shoot up to 150, 170 beats a minute."

Many of his health complications stem from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

"Nighttime is the worst for me, with nightmares and stuff like that.

"To see death firsthand, and all the destruction that happens over there, it's just tough to deal with."

As he struggled to relearn how to control his emotions, he secluded himself for several years.

"If I had to go out, it had to be a necessity. I'd go to the grocery store at 2:30 in the morning when nobody was there."

Taekwondo entered his life at a time when he needed it the most. On his 30th birthday, a friend gave him a gift certificate to try the sport.

"Immediately, I just loved it," he said. "The structure of it, the discipline reminded me a lot of the military."

In seven short years, Bethards has won three world championships. He's also become a certified instructor.

"It's kind of like being reborn a little bit," he said. "It gave me a sense of purpose again.

"I'm 100 percent."

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