Staying connected is the key to Michelle Petter's recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is why she is competing in the first Valor Games Far West in San Mateo County this week.
Petter, who served in the Army for roughly two years, will try her hand in archery, shot put and discus as the Olympic-style competition for veterans with disabilities makes its first trip to the West Coast on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Leo J. Ryan Memorial Park in Foster City, College of San Mateo and Candlestick Park.
"I'm looking forward to the experience of connecting with other veterans and trying something new," Petter said. "Who knows? Maybe I'll become a professional shot putter."
The 40-year-old Menlo Park resident enlisted in 2008 to be a medic, seeking career stability after jumping around in the service industry for more than a decade.
She lived for outdoor activities — rocking climbing, hiking, whitewater kayaking — and thought a career in the military would suit her adventurous spirit.
But Petter's time in the armed services was short-lived.
The trouble started in advanced training, where she says she was sexually assaulted. Petter said she feared the repercussions of reporting the incident, so she escaped the trauma through alcohol.
After completing training, Petter was assigned to a support battalion in Forth Bliss, Texas. Six weeks later, the man who assaulted her arrived on base, causing her post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms to flare up.
"I just went crazy," she said. "I really couldn't keep it together. I was drinking a lot and I was just freaking out over the whole situation. I was terrified to go anywhere."
The military discharged Petter in December 2009 and she said the Veterans Administration diagnosed her with PTSD soon after. She spent nine months receiving in-patient care, and she continues to go to therapy and related classes in Menlo Park where she meets other victims of military sexual assault.
Petter said helping others is the most fulfilling source of treatment.
"My phone is always on for people who need to talk," she said. "I like to take advantage of my situation to help other people."
This week's Valor Games is providing Petter yet another opportunity for fellowship with other veterans while also giving her a chance to flex her competitive muscles.
"I want to win," she said. "I don't think I will because I've never done it before. But it would be nice to win."Valor Games Far West
WHAT: Sports competition for veterans and service members with disabilities
WHEN: Tuesday to Thursday
WHERE: Leo J. Ryan Memorial Park in Foster City on Tuesday, College of San Mateo on Wednesday, Candlestick Park on Thursday