May 2013

War of the Worlds- Honor our Heroes

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Helping veterans recover, re-integrate

Don’t get drunk.
Don’t seek fights.
Don’t buy a gun.
Don’t rape your wife.

These statements are part of the re-integration narrative used to brief soldiers who are returning “from country” (war) to the United States. Those 14 words spoke volumes to me as I realized that the government is fully aware of the horrors of the war, but equally as aware of the potential damage those horrors will wreak on the mind of a veteran.

According to an October 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA), 30 percent of the 834,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been treated in a VA hospital for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I emphasize, “have been treated.” In addition to the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, over 23 million veterans live in the U.S., 14 million who have served during wars dating back to World War II.

The VA estimates that a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. That is 18 deaths a day, 126 each week, 6,552 each year.

Jake Walsh is a veteran. He’s 28 years old, with a sweet smile, a buzz cut, and a flicker of sadness behind his eyes. “My grandpa was in the Army, my uncle the Marines, my sister Navy. The Army seemed like an opportunity to me,” he said. “I did a couple random semesters of college and was sick of my job, where I listened to a guy twice my age complain about the job he’d been doing for 10 years.”
So, he went to a recruiter’s office. “I made the recruiter sell me,” Walsh said. “But ultimately, it was my decision.”

Walsh was a kid when he left, barely in the second decade of life. But he did a lot of growing up. And fast. An Army medic he was deployed and spent time in Mosul, Baghdad, and Baqubah. Of Baqubah, he said, “We took all of our losses there. There was too much… too much going on…”

The light in his eyes returns as he talks about the “beyond ideal human beings” with whom he served. The “guardians” he called them. And he speaks to an unparalleled bond with his fellow soldiers. Walsh made the decision to leave the Army as his four years was coming to an end, and his unit was being dismantled. “The machine just didn’t work anymore. I felt like I was being forced from the brotherhood.”

So, Walsh returned home to Ohio with no job and he limped along financially. Once home, he said it took him a full two and half years to fully process that he had been deployed. “I talked about it like it was a TV show I watched. It was like Narnia.” He describes the return from a war zone as a ride in a race car. “The car slows down just enough to kick you out and all the while you’re thinking, wait, I thought we were just doing laps? Now I’m tumbling. What the hell happened to me?”

He was going to school and therapy (including prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD) but was overwhelmed by debt and financial concerns. It was during one of his therapy sessions that he finally revealed to his therapist that he needed help. She stopped him mid-sentence, made a phone call, and by the time his session was over, he met a gentleman from The Ghost Rider Foundation who had him fill out a grant application. Within 24 hours, Walsh received a check for the full amount he requested. No strings attached. “Just an enormous sense of relief, and ability… it was overwhelming. My stress was gone immediately, and I was struck by the fact that people [cared] and they wanted to help. They did help.”

For Walsh, hearing that someone wanted to help him was somewhat of a shock. When asked if he ever asked his family for help, he replied, “I guess I could have asked, but I don’t remember ever asking.” Pride is a powerful thing. Reflecting, Walsh tries to describe where his head was. “I thought, whatever circumstance, I’ll rise to it,” he said. “But I was in a realm of loneliness and despair. It was sudden and dark and quick, and I couldn’t figure out why I was there by myself.”

But now, suddenly, there were people in his path who helped him see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that was a turning point. He immediately recognized that he needed to be that for someone else. “Otherwise why am I here on this earth?”
Walsh never specifically mentioned the horrors of war, nor did he speak to the immense losses his unit suffered or the horrific sights that he surely witnessed as he worked to treat and recover wounded soldiers while his unit fired thousands of rounds a minute to keep him covered. But there is a palpable sense of guilt. Guilt that he survived and so many others didn’t. His motivation to help others is part therapy.

Honor Our Heroes Foundation

Fast forward a few years, and like any good Ohioan, Walsh moved to Hilton Head Island, following his brother. Here, he began to surround himself with a new group of friends, courtesy of CrossFit Hilton Head, where he works as a CrossFit coach. There, he quietly observed the people as relationships began to form. “As a coach, I watch movement, work ethic, ambition—you see how people respond to stress both mental and physical.”

CrossFit is all about varied movement. Well, Walsh made a big move. He told fellow CrossFitter Joe Mezera about his idea to create a local organization to help provide life assistance to service members, veterans, and their families through direct support and referral services. Honor Our Heroes Foundation was born. “It was natural to ask Joe for help,” Walsh said. “I’d witnessed his selflessness in his interactions with others, and I’d witnessed it often.”

For Mezera, a Hilton Head resident since 1988 (with a brief hiatus) the answer was obvious. “Why wouldn’t I do this? I have no reason to say no. This is an opportunity to create something.” He was in.

Over the course of the next 12 months, other community members (including CrossFit Hilton Head owner Craig Hysell) were recruited to the board and an organization began to take shape. Today, Honor Our Heroes is committed to alleviating veterans’ stress and honoring their sacrifices. Their programs provide small business grants, short-term financial assistance, educational assistance, and mental health and wellness referrals to local veterans.

“We want to be the connector, the hub of the wheel,” Mezera said. “And, we want to offer what we have to offer in a way that is comfortable to veterans.” That might be their biggest challenge. Walsh believes that veterans his age—like him—spend some time putting off the real world. “We got to college because it was paid for…,” he said. But they don’t necessarily succeed because they are still seeking the brotherhood, the familiarity of someone who has been through the same experiences. “The familiarity is re-assuring,” Walsh said. “It’s why the VFW exists.” For Walsh to be able to give back this way, to make these connections with other veterans and if, for only a moment, to feel the brotherhood again, is a good thing. “It’s nice to give and walk away—maybe stay in touch; but it’s a gift. There is no stress in giving.”

The mantra of combat medics is: “Before they cry out for their mothers, before they cry out for God, they call out to me. I will always come for them.”

There are thousands of local veterans. We can’t leave them behind.

If you know a veteran who could use some help, contact Honor Our Heroes. Donate via the website or mail your donation to 2 Victory Square Crossing, Hilton Head, SC 29926.

    33 Office Park Road #A-122
    Hilton Head Island, SC. 29928

    — Jake Walsh    May 1, 05:37 pm   

  2. Wow. Amazing article. I’m proud to say that I’m friends with the man in this article. First class.

    — Mike Deans    May 20, 02:56 pm   

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