‘The invisible battles we fight’: At Veterans Day ceremony, calls for mental health support

SPC Andrew Worcester, a U.S. Army veteran, at Muskegon Community College’s Veterans Day Ceremony. Photo by Pete Koryzno/Muskegon Community College

With coats in hands and hats on heads, veterans who served in the United States military over the past seven decades, from World War II through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, entered Muskegon Community College’s Bartels-Rode Gymnasium, brushing bits of snow from them as they packed the bleachers for the school’s Veterans Day ceremony on Monday, Nov. 11.

There, joined by family, friends, students, and other community members, former military members from throughout Muskegon County listened to their fellow veterans as they spoke, their voices often wavering with emotion, about the country’s 100th Veteran’s Day. A national holiday that began as Armistice Day in 1919 to commemorate the end of World War I—which killed about nine million troops and was known as “the war to end all wars”—Veterans Day has evolved into a day honoring veterans of all wars.

They spoke of the power of honoring those who served, of remembering what they have gone through and those they shared their lives with during their months and years of service. They spoke of the battles that killed their friends and left them to tend to the wounded and ride side-by-side with those who just died, of the bombs that seriously injured them, of the wars that waged inside their heads after returning home. They spoke of post-traumatic stress disorder, of the bravery it can take to ask for help. 

And they spoke of the importance of people being there: at today’s service, when veterans ask for help, when they need help but have yet to find the words to talk about it.

“It is important to acknowledge how important it is that each of you are here today, that you’ve chosen to take some time out of your day to be here with us,” said U.S. Army veteran Jerry Conrad, who emceed the event.

He paused and his shoulders shook a bit. People in the crowd peered at him, a bit confused as to what was happening. But, within seconds, they realized: Conrad had collapsed into silence because tears were choking his words. Others in the audience began to shake, quickly and quietly, wiping away tears.

Sometimes, there are no words. Sometimes, after you’ve told, and heard, of roadside bombs and the deaths of friends, of spending your days in a hospital after being seriously injured, of the mental health wars that rage after you return home, the words stop coming. And what is left is you, looking out at the people who’ve come to join you—strangers and friends, those younger and older—for a Veterans Day ceremony in Muskegon. What is left is you, and all of them, and an understanding of the people and memories and stories that fill that silence. That make it hard to breathe. That make the tears come.

The Veterans Day ceremony speakers. Photo by Pete Koryzno/Muskegon Community College

“I’ve seen bravery firsthand on many missions, but most memorable on Aug. 8, 2012 in Asadabad, Kunar Province Afghanistan,” said U.S. Army Specialist Andrew Worcester, a Muskegon Community College student who served as an Army medic in Afghanistan. “This day we encountered two suicide bombers who attacked our soldiers, leaving four of our brothers KIA [killed in action] and many others wounded.”

“These are memories that will never leave me,” Worcester said.

Worcester went on to urge veterans to reach out for help if they are struggling with PTSD or other mental health issues.

“Coming home from deployment is not the hardest thing to do as a veteran…the hardest thing to do is being normal after living in an abnormal environment and experiencing abnormal realities,” Worcester said.

Veterans have long faced what is now called PTSD—the Greek historian Herodotus was one of the first to make mention of the psychological warfare, describing a soldier who had gone blind after the soldier next to him was killed but he himself had not been wounded. More recently, in a study of 30,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and 30,000 veterans of other wars, 13.5 percent of the veterans screened positive for PTSD, and other studies report the rate to be as high as 30 percent. More than 500,000 U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD.

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Individuals suffering from PTSD too have high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. An average of 17 U.S. veterans kill themselves every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ data from 2017, the most recent figures available. In 2017, 6,139 veterans died by suicide, a rate that is 1.5 times higher than non-veteran adults.

“I have to address something near and dear to my heart: the invisible battles we fight as veterans are overwhelming,” Worcester said. “…The psychological warfare continues to take lives of men and women.”

“We have been through hell and back, so I ask you to help me help each other,” Worcester continued, urging his fellow veterans to reach out for help with mental health. 

Of course, a crucial piece to winning the war against PTSD, and other mental health challenges veterans face, is support from the general public, Michigan Army National Guard Major Derik Van Baale said. Currently the suicide prevention officer with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where he has worked for the past 17 years, Baale was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a field artillery officer. He was awarded the Combat Action Badge and the Bronze Star.

“If you see a veteran out and about today, thank them for their service, and, if they’re willing to tell their story, take a chair and listen,” Van Baale said.

Justin Pelham, the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce’s communication specialist and an MCC alumnus, was seriously injured by an improvised explosive device while serving in Iraq in 2006. While he was recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his spirits were buoyed by fellow members of the military giving him what are known as “challenge coins,” or medallions that denote your service.

“The military has a rich history of traditions, and one of those traditions is the giving of a challenge coin,” Pelham said. “In my own personal experience, as a wounded veteran lying in the hospital at Walter Reed, I was given challenge coins by those who were higher ranked than me as a sign of honor and respect.”

Veterans display their challenge coins from MCC. Photo by Pete Koryzno/Muskegon Community College

With that in mind, MCC wanted to respect each veteran attending Monday’s ceremony and gave them a commemorative challenge coin honoring the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day.

As the ceremony ended and the crowd began to make its way to the gymnasium floor for refreshments, people in the audience cried out to one another in greeting.

“I’m so happy to see you!” one woman exclaimed and hugged a veteran walking past her. They sat down on a bleacher, surrounded by people doing much of the same. The scene that played out—people embracing one another, sitting with one another, listening to stories and asking about each other’s family members—was one encouraged by a number of the ceremony’s speakers, including MCC Alumni and Donor Relations Manager Rachel Stewart.

“We are here to celebrate the strength, courage and dedication of our veterans,” Stewart said. “…Don’t just say thank you to our veterans; show it.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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