Into the Light: Andrew Stenehjem

Andrew Stenehjem trains for an Ironman competition in Cozumel, Mexico. (Photo by Katie Berning)

Andrew Stenehjem is a photographer, a world traveler, a veteran, an athlete and a survivor.

The 40-year-old North Dakota native, who now lives in Hayden and works in Steamboat Springs, is currently training for a full Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico, and he’ll be completing the grueling race in honor of his best friend and fellow veteran Rob, who died by suicide several years ago. As part of the challenge, Andrew is also raising money for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, and its suicide prevention and postvention programs.

Like his friend, Andrew was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after completing two tours in Afghanistan as a member of the North Dakota National Guard. He also served in the U.S. Air Force right out of high school and enlisted with the National Guard after 9/11.

“I always tell people that when you’re there, it sucks, but when you’re back home and look back on it, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t so bad,'” Andrew said. “My first deployment was much more difficult, because I was in this small little FOB (forward operating base) right on the Pakistan border, and we’d get rockets every day.”

Rob, who was a year younger than Andrew, followed in his friend’s footsteps and also enlisted in the military and did tours in Kuwait and other war zones. The two eventually landed back in Fargo, North Dakota, but ended up going their separate ways — still friends but making different life choices. Rob got married and had kids, and Andrew began traveling the world.

They stayed in touch, and then on July 8, 2018, Andrew got word that Rob had died by suicide two days before Andrew was returning home from a trip to Thailand.

“I kept thinking, ‘You couldn’t wait two more days until I got home?'” Andrew said. “I’ve never been through that kind of loss before. And I remember thinking, ‘You can’t think that this is your fault.’ I tried to be a good friend to him, but he made his own decision.”

Andrew said he wouldn’t allow himself to feel guilty or question what he could have done to stop his friend from taking his own life.

“Thinking that way wasn’t going to change anything,” Andrew said. “But it’s like this big giant hole, and I’ll never get to see my friend again. I’m an only child, and he was like my brother.”

After Rob’s suicide, Andrew traveled to Peru and embarked on a two-week ayahuasca retreat. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive tea that originates from the Amazon region. It is used by traditional healers in several South American countries for its reported healing properties.

“It’s just a super powerful hallucinogenic, and it kind of brings you to a different dimension or reality or plane of existence,” Andrew said. “And during my very first ceremony, there was my friend standing there. He didn’t talk to me, and I just thanked him for being my friend, and I apologized to him for not being there for him. And then, he was on the back of an eagle and flew off into the spirit world. I cried and cried and cried, and then the next day, my heart just felt whole again, like I had closure.”

Andrew said he still misses Rob, but he now feels at peace about the loss, and he can talk about his friend without crying.

“Whether you want to think of it (ayahuasca) as God or the universe or whatever, it hugs your soul and tells you that everything’s going to be OK,” Andrew said.

Andrew doesn’t take medication for PTSD but instead combats the symptoms, which for him include rage and sleeplessness, by staying mentally and physically active.

“I’ve noticed that if I don’t stay active, and I just kind of sit around, then the thoughts come back … and I get depressed and sad,” Andrew said. “And once I start doing some physical activity, like running, biking, lifting weights, swimming, whatever, I just feel better.”

When asked about his future, Andrew said he is more optimistic than pessimistic, and he wants to experience as much of life as he can.

“After my second deployment, I realized that I only have a short amount of time on this planet, so I want to see as much as I can. You don’t know how long you’ve got, so you might as well get to experience as much as you can, whether it’s good or bad. But I aim for the good.”

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