'We Want To Help Bring Groups Together'
January 15, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Helping veterans overcome the long-term effects of post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues doesn't start in the nation's capitol or in a legislator's office.
Rather, that much-needed help and support starts at the grassroots level, in communities where counseling, resources and job opportunities are made available to veterans. It starts with awareness among local community leaders, police officers, chaplains and emergency health professionals. It starts with understanding in neighborhoods, among friends and within families.
And it never ends.
Colin Hargrove, a retired command sergeant major, Vietnam veteran and commander of the local Purple Heart chapter 2201, is leading efforts to establish a community-based movement that will expand the Veterans Mental Health Council from its current role in support of the Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center into serving as an advocate for veterans mental health issues within the North Alabama communities where veterans live.
"There is a vast divide between combat veterans, mental health professionals, and society and policy makers on this thing called PTSD and other war-related mental illness," Hargrove said.
"We want to help bring these groups together, educate them and advocate for our veterans so they have the help they need. We want to improve the quality of VA mental health services in our communities."
PTSD does not exist in a vacuum. Other veteran issues -- including unemployment, health insurance and family problems -- can often magnify PTSD problems, making PTSD a multidimensional issue for the mental health care system.
"The VA cannot fix the problems of our veterans who are dealing with PTSD. The VA can't do it alone because they can't afford to hire the people to get that job done," Hargrove said. "Veterans have to help the VA deal with these problems. We, as veterans, have to come together and engage community partners to help those of us dealing with mental health issues."
Beginning in 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs encouraged its 158 medical centers throughout the nation to establish a Veterans Mental Health Council independent of the medical centers that could maintain a positive line of communication between veterans receiving mental health services, and the medical centers and their staffs.
As a result, the Birmingham/North Alabama Mental Health Council was established and Hargrove has been its chairman for the past three years. The council has been working with the Birmingham VA Medical Center and its 10 North Alabama clinics, not against them, to improve services for veterans.
"We provide meaningful input to the Birmingham VA on things like structure, delivery, operations and effectiveness of veterans' mental health services," Hargrove said. "We've established and are now maintaining a relationship where we can all learn and be effective in getting things done.
"We are an advocate for veterans, but not in a way that is criticizing or that prevents healing. We want to improve services and make services more effective in a positive way. We want to improve the healing process for veterans and their families."
But while the existing council has had a positive impact on mental health services provided by the Birmingham VA Medical Center, Hargrove said it is now time to expand the concept to better serve veterans in their communities.
"The vision is to establish the North Alabama Veterans Mental Health Council with 10 communities in North Alabama having representation on the council, and Birmingham being one of those communities," Hargrove said.
Each of those 10 communities already has a community-based outpatient clinic that provides mental health services for veterans. Besides Birmingham, they include Huntsville, Anniston, Bessemer, Childersburg, Decatur/Madison, Gadsden, Guntersville, Jasper and Muscle Shoals.
Once the North Alabama Mental Health Council is established, Hargrove would like to see similar groups established in each of the 10 communities represented on the council.
"We want to create a model that the rest of Alabama and other states can use," he said. "We want to show there is a way that every veteran's voice and every veteran family's voice can be heard."
Each council will include committees addressing issues regarding mental illness, substance abuse, PTSD, severe mental illness and special needs, including women's services, suicide prevention, returning from deployment, military sexual trauma, homelessness, veterans in the justice system and services for older veterans.
Hargrove is very familiar with the frustrations and angry feelings of veterans who are seeking help with mental health issues. He, himself, deals with PTSD.
Hargrove was injured in February 1970 during his second tour in Vietnam. While serving with the 5th Special Forces, he was hit by mortar fragments at a helicopter airfield near the Cambodian border.
"I was the logistics NCO for our team. I was responsible for all the materials that came in and out of our camp. But I also assisted when helicopters flew in. Every time a helicopter came in, they were attacked by mortars as they landed and I happened to be in the wrong place on that day," Hargrove said.
"We believed the enemy had an artillery school nearby, and we would end up being target practice for some of their graduating classes."
The shrapnel in his leg didn't keep Hargrove from serving. After he was treated, he returned to duty and completed his tour. He eventually retired from the Army with 28 years of service and returned home to North Alabama. Although he was healed from his visible war wounds, Hargrove didn't realize at the time that he was bringing mental health issues home, issues that became more complicated as he tried to establish his life as a civilian.
"When you are a professional Soldier, trying to navigate the transition from combat to home is not a career enhancement," Hargrove said.
"The Department of Defense is doing a better job helping combat veterans make that transition. And there is help in our community for veterans. But we still have too many veterans who don't have a job and a job is the critical first step to making the transition. If a veteran is not working and bringing home a paycheck, then the transition can be very tough. And it's tough if you don't have a family to help and understand."
Hargrove eventually managed through his transition. Nineteen years ago, he married his wife Paula, who has helped him overcome issues related to his PTSD and overcome problems he had long associated with the VA.
"We've been together through some of my most difficult times," he said.
"I have profound stressors that still live with me even after all these years. With PTSD, you rarely find two veterans who have the same experience. What PTSD does to a veteran's life can only be measured by the person who is actually going through that experience. PTSD takes many, many different forms."
It wasn't until 2007 that Hargrove came face-to-face with his own PTSD.
"I was so bitter," he said. "I thought part of my problem was the VA, that they were the enemy. I went to the VA clinic on Governors Drive to determine my eligibility, and they gave me a stack of papers to fill out and said it would be year before I could get an appointment.
"Today, we are much, much better than that. But we still have a long way to go."
It was Paula, now a retired school teacher, who helped Hargrove work through the VA system to get the benefits he needed. It was Paula who encouraged him to attend a Birmingham VA outreach event at Madison Square Mall in late 2007 that helped him overcome his negative feelings.
"Who I am today and what I've been able to achieve in life belongs to the Army, every bit of it," Hargrove said.
"The Army has a leadership framework and that was what helped me to walk myself back through my 28 years of service, and rediscover and revalidate who I am. I'm a Soldier first. I'm still a command sergeant major. And there's nothing I can do to rid myself of that. The Army has made me who I am today, and I have to embrace that and work with it, not against it."
Even so, it was 2009 before Hargrove received his PTSD diagnosis and started to get the help he needed.
"I've really changed my attitude about the VA system," he said. "Paula helped me to realize that I must be the change that I want to see in others.
"Now, veterans are joining with me to work together to find opportunities for change. Being negative doesn't accomplish anything. Working together does."
Hargrove is convinced that the VA's 10 clinics in North Alabama can be a role model for the entire nation when veterans work with them to improve services.
"The clinics do want to reach out and do more for veterans. It's the veterans and retirees who can help the clinics do that. We can help by working together in a positive way," he said.
Once the North Alabama Veterans Mental Health Council is established, it will work to educate veterans and retirees on health benefits, engage the community for support and host awareness programs.
"It's going to be exciting," he said. "Veterans have needs, but they often don't know what to do or where to start. We will help them with that and, once you help one person, they pay it forward and help others."
Editor's note: Veterans or veteran family members who want to volunteer for the North Alabama Veterans Mental Health Council can reach Hargrove at 828-0668 or firstname.lastname@example.org.