Veteran faces criminal charges after using urban exploration to treat his PTSD

Isaac Wright, a US Army vet with PTSD, used urban exploration to heal. Now he’s facing criminal charges for it.

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Saturday 05 June 2021 02:18
<p>Isaac Wright, a US Army veteran with PTSD, used urban exploration at sites like New York City’s Queensborough Bridge (pictured), as a way to heal. Now he’s facing criminal charges.</p>

Isaac Wright, a US Army veteran with PTSD, used urban exploration at sites like New York City’s Queensborough Bridge (pictured), as a way to heal. Now he’s facing criminal charges.

The photo, posted on an Instagram account called @driftershoots, shows a man standing precariously close to the ledge of a building in New York City, higher even than the famous spire of the Chrysler Building, gazing down in contemplation. But the message below it is a positive one.

“Picking up a camera was lifesaving for me, it showed me all the beautiful things in life after my life was falling apart,” the caption reads. “After losing a friend to deployment, two others to suicide and my partner of four years all in the span of six months. I’m forever thankful for this new life and for the privilege of serving.”

The arresting image is just one of many that Isaac Wright, a US Army veteran, captured as he explored buildings and bridges around the country as a way to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, his high-flying exploits have earned him criminal charges across the country and he could go to prison for 25 years.

Mr Wright was a paratrooper and chaplain’s assistant with the Army for six years, before retired in 2020 with an honorable discharge after an ankle injury.

His time in the armed services, while rewarding, often took a toll on him, as his job required supervising a hundreds of troops often suffering from serious mental health challenges—even as he had PTSD and depression himself. After leaving the Army last year, the pandemic made it hard for him to access psychotherapy treatments at a veterans hospital, and he soon turned to urban exploration as a way to calm his mind and find joy and fulfillment.

Using a small medical pension, he traveled around the country, using his wits and military training to scale buildings, bridges, and construction sites in New York, Texas, Michigan and Louisiana, racking up more than 20,000 Instagram followers for his striking aerial photos.

One day, however, after scaling the Great American Tower in Cincinnati, Ohio, and leaving a sticker with his Instagram handle, authorities began catching up with him, putting out a nationwide warrant for his arrest and warning that his military experience made him armed and volatile, when the reality was more like it made him depressed and seeking fulfillment.

In December, state troopers in Arizona shut down a highway to catch him, with more than 20 officers descending on his car with assault rifles, dogs, and a helicopter circling above. He came to find out he had also picked up criminal charges in Louisiana, Philadelphia, and Michigan, some including felonies for breaking into buildings to take photos, even though most urban explorers are fined or charged with low-level misdemeanors.

“You could put me through years of therapy, give me all the meds in the world, and it would not help me the way that my art helps me,” he told The New York Times, which first reported his story, adding, “Not everything that’s illegal is immoral. What if it is a victimless crime that is bringing something wonderful into the world and inspiring and helping people?”

He has been offered a plea deal to avoid prison time if he pleads guilty to a felony, agrees to therapy, and ceases climbing, which he says he already has.

Police officials told the Times they took such a strong line against the veteran because of the extent of his activities and how dangerous they were.

“The level of sophistication this guy is using and the magnitude of his crimes is pretty scary,” captain Doug Wiesman of the Cincinnati police said. “The pictures are beautiful, I’m not going to deny that, but he leaves a wake of destruction.”

In another post from this Friday, featuring in image atop the Queensborough Bridge in New York City amid a flurry of snow, Mr Wright vowed to fight the charges against him.

“This fight is just beginning but we will get there,” he said.

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