By Jim DresbachSeptember 20, 2012
Former Heisman trophy winner and National Football League running back Herschel Walker is a funny story teller. But at a Sept. 12 presentation at the Army Suicide Prevention Month Health Fair at the Pentagon courtyard, Walker also reached out to tackle a not-so-funny problem among the United States armed forces --servicemember suicide.
Walker's appearance --and the resources of 30 exhibit vendors -- was a major attempt to introduce resources regarding military suicide prevention. While the former NFL player initially engaged the crowd with humor, he transitioned to the serious subjects and issues which often pave the road toward attempted suicides -- bullying and mental disorders.
Now a major Army ally and a proponent of health and life, Walker is a wealth of antidotal resources. His stories covered his life from his pigskin time at the University of Georgia to his times as a child who was bullied throughout junior high school.
"When I was growing up, my mother made me feel good," Walker told a health fair crowd of several hundred attendees. "She told me I was big-boned. A lot of my friends told me I was fat. They said I was chubby, big. I had teachers [who] used to put me in the corner… What was so funny was that I stuttered real bad. I used to beat myself up because I couldn't get my words out. All the kids made fun of me. I was [physically] weak they used to beat me up. For four years, I never took a recess... I remember getting on the school bus, and all the kids were laughing at me."
After his football career concluded, Walker discovered his life coexists with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a mental disorder where multiple personalities dominate a person's behavior.
"I had so much anger, but what I was doing was using football as my coping mechanism," Walker candidly told the crowd. "Some people use eating, some use alcohol as coping mechanisms. That's when it hit me the first time. I had a problem. I had a serious problem, and I needed to go to a hospital."
The 30-day visit to a California hospital was Walker's initial step in getting the help he needed to function in today's world. He stressed in his 50-minute talk that reaching out for help is neither foolish or a sign of weakness. Using an analogy from the series of Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" films, Walker told a poignant story that all could understand.
"We all get knocked down. I don't care how deep you go. I don't care what happened to you. I'm here to tell you, you can get up. I admitted that I had a problem and I'm safer," he said. "I didn't realize how far lost I was until I started getting help. I started getting help, and I realized we all start going through things."
Before introducing Walker, Deputy Chief of Staff for Army Personnel (G1) Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg noted that the number of suicides has to be curtailed.
"As you know, every suicide in our Army is a tragic loss, and adversely affects every single Family or friend or comrade of the person lost, but it also affects our unit readiness," Bromberg said. "That is absolutely a battle we have to engage in every single day. I'm asking you today, and this whole month, to think about that as military members, Family members, teammates, civilians, neighbors and friends. We need to look out for everybody; we need to take care of each other. We need to take care of each other in the community.
"I'm sure Herschel would agree with me when I say we all must get past the perceived sign and the stigma that being afraid is being weak," Bromberg added. In addition to his recent Pentagon visit, Walker has visited close to 50 military installations and has shared his professional football life, his mental health story and his on-going hope and faith to thousands of troops.
Walker's pro football career spanned from 1983 to 1997. He started his professional football career in the United States Football League with the New Jersey Generals and followed with an NFL career with two stops in Dallas as a Cowboy and time as a Minnesota Viking, Philadelphia Eagle and New York Giant. He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and he told the crowd that he was also drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers after he concluded a high school baseball career as a centerfielder.
The Suicide Prevention Month health fair took place Sept. 12-13. The following vendors took part in the event: Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers Program, Army National Guard Bureau Soldier and Family Support Division, Health Promotion Risk Reduction, Defense Centers of Excellence, Real Warriors Campaign, the Freedom Care Program, Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Defense Suicide Prevention Office, United States Army Reserves, U.S. Army Public Health Command, Army Community Services, Army Substance Abuse Program and Veterans Crisis Line.
Also taking part in the fair were Patriot Support Program of Universal Health Services, Inc., CRC Health Group, Deployment Health Assessment Program, Kristin Rita Strouse Foundation, Military and Family Life Consultant, Fit To Win, Office of Chief of Chaplains, The Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Give an Hour Non Profit Corp., USMC, American Association of Suicidology, Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness and Vets 4 Warriors. All members of the Army Family can get immediate help by calling the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).