For years after his discharge from the Army, Thomas Skinner found ways to isolate himself from the world.
Even when he found employment outside his home, he was enclosed within the cab of a truck or behind a camera as a wildlife photographer.
Now, Skinner, 44, of San Diego, is breaking down the emotional wall separating him from the world around him after finding out what his problem really was: Post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Sunday, his cross-country mission brought him and his service dog, Scrubs, to a very important place in his history: Immanuel United Church of Christ, the Bartlett church where his late uncle, the Rev. Ted Preuss, served as pastor, to present a program entitled, "What Comes After Welcome Home?"
Skinner said he stayed with his uncle after his discharge, while he learned the trade of a truck driver.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder one experiences after suffering something traumatic, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not happen until months or years later."
In Skinner's case, he was diagnosed in 2010 -- nearly 20 years after he returned to civilian life.
According to department statistics, there has been a steady increase in the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking care for the disorder, with more than 200,000 cases by mid-2011.
Skinner is promoting awareness of the disorder on a cross-country bicycling trip that began in his home state of California and will end at the National Center for Post-traumatic stress disorder in White River Junction, Vt.
His journey began on March 10 and is expected to end in Vermont on July 4.
The Veterans Administration and the National Center, he said, "are well aware of what I am doing and they are very supportive."
Skinner said he had been in the military for eight years, beginning in 1985. He spent his last year at a base in Virginia, performing funeral detail.
"And that's probably what has been bothering me the most the last couple of years ... my funeral detail. As much of an honor as it has been, it has also been an extremely hard thing to think about.
"I was very isolated," he said. "I started isolating myself right after I got out of the military."
He said he was finally diagnosed at a VA hospital.
With his blonde hair tied up in the back of his head in a ponytail and dressed in jeans and a blue-and-white plaid shirt, Skinner shared his experiences with church members, only occasionally breaking down and having to wipe his eyes as he spoke about how the disorder distanced him from his family and his two children.
But he left the crowd with a message of hope, as he explained how riding his bicycle across the country has helped him along the road to recovery.
His bicycle, "The Big Dummy," produced by Surly, is as well equipped as a car, with such comforts as a laptop and a projector.
Hanging from his seat is a pair of pink shoes, belonging to his 2-year-old daughter, Courtney.
"Actually when I'm pedalling really hard and traveling uphill, they get to swing so much they actually start kicking me. It kind of gives me that reminder that she's here with me," he said.
In a special crate sits Scrubs, a 4-year-old black-and-white border collie.
He said he travels 50 to 60 miles a day, while his longest trip was 138 miles through a desert.
"This trip has been absolutely amazing for me," he said.
During the presentation, Skinner gave a list of do's and don'ts in dealing with veterans.
"Thank a veteran for his service," he said. "You don't know what that means to us."
He also said, "Listen, listen, listen. Listen to what these guys are saying. Or what they're not saying in my case."
Church council secretary Sandy Whitmer said the church wanted to let the community know what people with PTSD are dealing with.
Among those in attendance were Mark and Rita Schoppe, whose son Steve is an Army sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division.
"We're just looking forward to him getting back and watching him for signs that he doesn't have this," Mark said.
Mark said his son told him troops in Afghanistan are briefed on readjusting to civilian life.
For details on PTSD and Skinner's journey, visit understanding.ptsd.org.