By Paul LevesqueMay 21, 2018
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. - To anyone reading this who's struggling with mental health issues, please hear and believe this: You are not alone.
That's the message sent out at a training event that took place here May 17 at Heritage Hall. The event, titled "Our Story of Survival," was held to mark Mental Health Awareness Month.
Featured at the event were retired Master Sgt. Leroy Petry and Sgt. Jonathan Harmon, two wounded warriors who discussed their personal struggles with mental health and the work they now do to assist fellow Soldiers, veterans and others who may be experiencing mental illness.
In 2011, President Obama presented Petry with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, for his heroic actions during a firefight in Afghanistan that took place in May 2008. Petry lost his right hand as a result of the wounds he suffered then and now wears a prosthetic in its place.
Harmon lost both legs above the knees after he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan in June 2012. Though he is a double amputee, Harmon remains on active duty and serves as a liaison officer at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The appearance at Rock Island Arsenal was one of many made over the course of the year by Petry and Harmon, whose travels are supported in part by groups like Feherty's Troops First Foundation, a charitable organization cofounded by golf commentator David Feherty that assists members of the military who were wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In opening remarks, Maj. Gen. Duane Gamble, commanding general of the U.S. Army Sustainment Command and senior mission commander of Rock Island Arsenal, cited the work done by private organizations in support of wounded warriors, especially those suffering unseen mental and emotional injuries.
"The Army's done a much better job in recent years in dealing with mental illness," Gamble said, "these organizations do great work in supplementing what we do. And, in fact, you can never really do enough."
Raising awareness of mental health issues by holding events like this is critical to resolving these issues, Gamble said.
"We all need to get dialed in to issues surrounding mental health, because it's a real problem," Gamble said, citing reports that he sees daily which often include notifications of suicides by Soldiers.
Following Gamble's remarks, a video was shown featuring Sgt. 1st Class Brian Mancini, a combat medic who was severely wounded while serving in Iraq in 2007. After returning home to Arizona, Mancini founded Honor House, an organization that assists wounded veterans.
When the video ended, Petry told the audience that the physical and mental pain eventually proved too much to bear for Mancini, who took his own life in March 2017.
But Petry noted that some good may come of this tragic loss, since Mancini donated his brain for scientific research - research that is already yielding results that could lead to better treatments for those suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Petry praised the medical treatment now offered by the Army to those wounded in combat, noting that more that 98 percent of those admitted to military hospitals with severe injuries survive those injuries. But medical and psychological treatments aren't always enough for those suffering from mental illness, he added.
"We need the support of the others around us - not only our Soldiers, but our civilians and our communities," Petry said. "It takes teamwork to solve this problem and deal with mental health challenges."
Petry urged the audience to look for signs of potential mental illness, including social isolation and substance abuse. He said that the culture of the military, which emphasizes the unit over the individual and focuses on the mission, can make it difficult for a Soldier to ask for help.
"We are great advocates for others," he said, "but we tend to be terrible advocates for ourselves. That's why we need others to advocate for us. We also need to keep in mind that part of our mission is taking care of ourselves and of the people around us."
Illustrating his point with a humorous demonstration involving a ballpoint pen, Petry remarked that Soldiers are often told to "suck it up" when they feel pain or encounter a problem.
"Sometimes that's the answer," he said, "but there are times when you can't suck it up and you need help in managing pain, whether physical or mental. It's up to us to recognize those times, both in ourselves and others, and to make sure that those who need help and support can get it."
According to Petry, the Medal of Honor he received doesn't belong to him: "It belongs to those I served with, and those who continue to serve." He handed off the medal to be passed around the audience, adding this message.
"You don't need a medal to be a hero; you don't even need to be in the military," he said. "You can be a hero by supporting others and by taking care of the people around you."
Harmon told the story of how he lost his legs in Afghanistan and the depression he felt while lying in his hospital bed.
"All I ever wanted to be was a paratrooper, and I knew I couldn't do that anymore," he said. Still, he said, he didn't think that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or any other mental illness.
"But I found out that PTSD can creep up on you and get worse over time," Harmon said.
Two years after his injury, Harmon was awakened from a nightmare by his wife, who told him that he was choking her in his sleep. At one point, he also contemplated suicide.
"In that dark period, I thought about the guys I served with and said to myself, 'How could I be so selfish?' " Harmon said. "Some of them died on the battlefield just to give me a chance to live, so I owed it to them to get help."
Though his marriage later ended in divorce, Harmon did get therapy and eventually became better. He said that going to the gym and powerlifting helped him vent frustration and anger, and that everyone needed some sort of similar release in life.
"I now think that you really can't cure PTSD," he said. "But you can learn to live with, and you can mitigate the symptoms. You need to find your 'new normal' and use it to strengthen yourself as a person."
Petry and Harmon then discussed Operation Warrior Call, a privately funded program that takes Soldiers and veterans back to the combat theaters where they suffered their injuries. Warrior Call also reconnects doctors and medical professionals with the Soldiers they treated, showing them the positive outcomes of their treatments.
"The goal is to give these individuals a sense of closure, which can make a difference when it comes to mental health," Petry said. "The Soldiers who were medically evacuated out of a country can now leave that place on their own terms, and the doctors and medical people can see that their work really did save lives and lead to recovery."
The event concluded with a brief presentation by Caitlin Harbecke of the Veterans Administration, who is based in nearby Davenport, Iowa, and is a member of the suicide prevention team run by the VA Mental Health Services Office in Iowa City, Iowa. After outlining some of the treatment options offered through the VA, Harbecke stressed that treating mental health conditions takes time and patience.
"It truly is a journey," Harbecke said. "But the main thing that Soldiers and veterans who may be struggling with mental illness need to know is that they are not alone. Someone is always there to walk beside you."