Walking Vets: PTSD, Suicide and the Unsung Heroes

By Contributor Gene DeFrancis

Left to right: Ned Vaughn, Marc Baron, Travis Mills with Gene DeFrancis at the Washington DC GI Film Festival.

Left to right: Ned Vaughn, Marc Baron, Travis Mills with Gene DeFrancis at the Washington DC GI Film Festival.

The Walking Dead has become easily one of my favorite shows to watch on TV. I am so excited for its return. I still have not put my finger on why I love it so much but every sixty minutes I dedicate to watching this great scripted show is a satisfying one.

What is not so satisfying to me, however, is being a veteran myself, I know that five minutes after the show is over… another sibling at arms has committed suicide.

Lost? (Which, by the way, is another favorite 60-minute show of mine that I was fortunate enough to work on as a professional actor after my US Navy career.)

Every 65 minutes a veteran takes their own life. That is 22 veterans a day. Out of those 22 veterans, 2 are under the age of 30. A lot of numbers to take in I know. So just keep this in mind…ONE is TOO many!

And, like our favorite TV show, we can sit around the office, discuss, and philosophize why this is the way it is. Why do I love people struggling to survive in a world over run by Zombies? Why is there a current epidemic of veteran suicide?

I cannot speak for every case. Some veterans have never seen combat or served in what we veterans playfully call the “chair force”. Some served a full 20-year career. Some only served honorably for 2 or 4 years. Some came from war zone like neighborhoods like West Farms, where military life was an escape.

If 3 cars sped down your side street at 60 miles an hour there would be 15-40 community advocates outraged and calling for speed bumps and stoplights. Well, ladies and gentleman, there are 22 veterans dying A DAY… and only fellow veterans seem to be outraged at this and demanding speed bumps.

“A veteran – whether active duty, retired, national guard, or reserve – is someone who, at one point in his or her life, wrote a blank check made payable to The ‘United States of America’, for an amount of ‘up to and including my life.'”

This quote caught my attention online recently. The author is unknown but it basically summarizes why something needs to be done. But here’s the harder part. Veterans are stubborn and hardheaded. They seem wired to do more for others than for their own self. And they have a hard time letting people in, even the ones they love most in the world. We are all from different backgrounds, shapes, sizes, and colors. But at the very least, the veteran writing this article perfectly fits this description.

It took me TEN years after my military discharge to sign up and register with the VA. In 2006, it took a now close friend and theatre colleague to demand I stay with him and his family when he found out I was sleeping in my car for several weeks after breaking up with my live in girlfriend 3,000 miles from home.

I don’t get flu shots. I don’t collect my $300 tax rebate and I always claim zero when signing new W-2 for a production I’m working on. And I’ll always be this way. The only saving grace is that I found a new mission and purpose.

I felt so important in the military. I had responsibility and support. Once I was discharged, the mission was over and everything I needed, tax prep, legal assistance, and even shopping felt scattered all over the place. I didn’t take advantage of my benefits because I questioned whether or not I deserved them. I told myself I would be fine and let the other guy use it. It made it more interesting because I was honorably discharged in 2003 and a little thing called the recession was brewing.

But I didn’t realize what I was in until I was out of it. I look back and say “I could’ve have made things a hell of a lot easier.” But that’s generally the mind of a veteran. Stubborn. Hard headed. We like big challenges and doing things the hard way. Many times we get by and succeed. Sometimes we fail but we love to try. Unfortunately, some of us fail big and there feels like no hope for return.

Our inability to connect affects our relationships, leaving us alone even if we are surrounded by hundreds of friends and loved ones. Did you ever hear of the veteran who never would discuss his military career? It’s a common one and if you ask them they would say, “I just did my job.” They would go as far as tell you they are not special. PTSD comes in many forms. Some are obvious and easily detected. Some sneak up on you. And some happen before military service. The bottom-line is a veteran, for whatever reason, put a target on their chest when they put on that uniform.

My favorite line is when I hear how lucky I was to be stationed in Hawaii for most of my military career. Obviously those people forgot about what happened there once on December 7th. They had no idea of the base shut downs because of bomb threats or the concerns when we went into town or how we were restricted to go to certain places for fear of our life by locals who didn’t want us there.

They play in your mind more than I’m comfortable to divulge. And when the towers were hit it didn’t take me long to request submarine duty to say a few words to Al Qaeda. Family members tell me thank God I wasn’t sent. But for this veteran it left a feeling of how I could’ve done more. I know I played a large part in defending the constitution but I could have done more. The 21 year old me was not as demanding as the me of today.

As I share these stories with you I’m reflecting back and realizing how I never shared any of these stories with those I love. Most veterans never do and some have stories much more painful than mine. If you know a veteran struggling to fit in. Do not push them away. Go deeper, past the aggressive appearance and defensive posturing. Inside they are human and there is a lot of love inside. You can save a life if you just reach out. You’ll never know how much of a hero you are because there’s no meter when or if a veteran will commit suicide.

If the people around me didn’t care and support me the way they did, would I have been another statistic? We will never know if they saved my life. God knows I had my ups and downs and at times I felt so disconnected and alone. I believe my loved one and my new sense of purpose after the military saved my life. I found a new mission to carry me through each day.

Is that the answer to all the struggling veterans? I don’t know but it’s a start. We will know next year if we succeeded if the number of veteran suicides drops dramatically. Then together we can work on figuring out why we are addicted to certain TV shows.

If you know a veteran in crisis they can call the VA National Crisis Hotline 1-800-273-8255 press 1.

Also make sure they are registered with the VA. I regret I didn’t do it sooner. There is also a suicide prevention coordinator on site at the Kingsbridge VA in the Mental Health department. His name is Evan Podolak and you can reach him at 718-584-9000 ext. 3708.

Don’t be stubborn and hardheaded. If you need help. Get it! You are too valuable to us.

There are so many other programs and veteran groups one can look into. I chose the American Legion and I am now a proud Vice Commander of the Korony Post #253. We meet every 3rd Sunday of the month at the Turner club. There are posts all over the country and many in the Bronx. Find one close to you.

Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) are another great veteran organization. I’m seeing and hearing miracles being done at Horses for Heroes across the country for those men and women severely suffering from PTSD.

Horses for Heroes is another great organization.

None of these solutions will solve all our problems but it’s a start. If we do nothing it can only get worse.

Little things add up to big things. It is time we all do more than appreciate our veterans. It is time we reach out and save their lives.


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