The Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs met together on Feb. 24 to conduct a study on veteran affairs.
Veterans appeared before the committee to discuss their experiences with mental health and suicide among veterans. The first of these was Wes Hillard, a retired colonel and chaplain who is the current pastor of Heritage Church in Van Buren. He spoke about his experience in working with suicidal veterans, and those affected by their suicide. His goal is to help those who have been deployed make a healthy transition back to citizen status. He recounted his experience as a chaplain in Iraq.
“I didn’t realize my role as an installation Chaplain was exposing me to a lot more trauma and grief than those in my unit,” he said.
Hillard worked with children, civilians, soldiers, and those affected by attacks. There were about 12,000 people in his installation. He said all these experiences left him with post-deployment post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Multitudes of negative thoughts about his past and his future led him to suicidal ideation.
Hillard offered three things to the committee that they could address. First, he asked that they recognize the special challenges that veterans experience, including the great isolation when they come home. They have no time to decompress and rationalize their experiences because they have to immediately deal with everyday life, and those experiences are buried inside of them.
“There’s a high temp that doesn’t allow our soldiers to find healing,” he said.
The second point he made was that veterans are not damaged goods, but are people with experience that the majority of people don’t have.
“It’s not a disorder. It’s a mark of experience,” he said referring to PTSD.
Finally, he mentioned that, from experience, when someone struggling with suicidal thoughts signs a contract saying they would not harm themselves before contacting someone, they follow through. Hillard says that in 28 years no one has broken the contract.
Lt. Col. Jeremy Miller approached the microphone and led the committee in prayer. Miller is the Senior Army Chaplain for the Arkansas National Guard. Miller said that a major part of being a chaplain in honoring the dead. He recounted the moment when he had to deliver the news of a soldier’s death to his family. A 4-year-old boy approached him and said, “I don’t have a daddy anymore, do I?”
This experience was at the beginning of Miller’s service as a chaplain. It pushed him and inspired him to honor the dead. Martin mentioned that seven days before and seven days after a drill weekend are the safest times for a veteran. It gives them a connection to those who are like them in an otherwise isolated life, as Wes Hillard mentioned earlier.
Veterans Upward Bound
The next speaker was Lt. Col. Tommie Campbell. Campbell is a 23 year veteran of the U.S. Army. He was representing Veterans Upward Bound, an organization designed to assist veterans in their educational careers after they have served. There are currently three Upward Bound programs for veterans in Arkansas.
According to the 2010 Census, there are 670,000 veterans in the state of Arkansas. Campbell currently has 120 Veterans in his program at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. Just for those veterans they brought in $1.1 million dollars in federal funding. Campbell mentioned that those who go into the military aren’t typically prepared for college after they get out.
“That veteran isn’t the same person that went into basic training,” Campbell said. “When they come back they are a totally different person.”
Veterans Upward Bound offers tutoring, college prep assistance, mentoring programs, and many more services that ensure a successful college career. Campbell says that if they can graduate four out of ten of their graduates, that's twice the national average. His goal is to have 100% graduates.
In 2005 Aaron Mankin was wounded in Iraq after his amphibious assault vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device. Four marines were wounded and 11 were injured. Mankin survived the explosion with injuries that severely burned his face and took his nose and ears.
“I gave my nose, ears and my fingers to my country,” Mankin said.
He appeared before the committee to speak about his experience and the programs that helped him. Mankin was the first patient of Operation Mend. This project provides advanced surgeries for medical treatment for post-9/11 era service members.
Mankin has undergone 60 surgeries in nine years of recovery. He encouraged the committee to look at the program’s website and look at the photos of those who have gone through it.
“Look at these warriors from beginning to end,” he said. “When they joined the program and when they left. Tell me you don’t see a spark in their eyes.”
Mankin spoke about hope after tragedy, and that he sees so many people go through the Operation Mend program and receive a new quality of life after having so much taken from them. He showed a picture of him planting flags at the National Mall for every service member they had lost that year up to that point.
“If we were to do this exercise in Little Rock today, we would plant 1,210 flags,” Mankin said.
The soldier expressed his thanks for the opportunity to speak to the committee and the projects that have led him to speak about what he has experienced. He left with a standing ovation.
Reboot Combat Recovery
Reboot Combat Recovery was brought to Northwest Arkansas by Ozark Mount Veterans. Sgt. Vincent Eastwood was a founding member of the OMV. The program is a faith-based trauma/healing course designed to address the spiritual and moral wounds of war. They utilize cognitive processing therapy, exposure therapy and deep breathing and yoga.
“When I ask for your support, I’m not talking about money,” Vincent said. “I want you to let the people know.”
Getting the word out about programs was important for Eastwood. He wanted the committee to know that if they were to push the various projects and utilize their positions to inform they could save many lives.
Paul Boss joined Eastwood and read statistics about veteran suicide. He mentioned that between Vietnam and Sept. 11, 2001, there were an estimated 175,000 veterans who took their own lives.
“Our government about four weeks ago changed the 22-a-day to 25-a-day,“ Boss said. "That is the number of veterans that take their own lives a day, and since 9/11 there have been over 200,000 suicides."
Service dog programs
Lucas Bishop is a retired Marine veteran who now trains dogs as service animals. Bishop brought along a service dog named Johnny Cash who sat beside him as he spoke. Bishop spoke about the important job that a service dog can do for a service member suffering from PTSD, and the social stigmas surrounding service dogs. He went on about veterans being harassed because of their service animals, and go to college and are turned away as service dogs are not allowed.
He wanted to express to the committee that things should change when it comes to service dogs.
“When I train the dogs I train the people,” he said.
The dogs and their owners are taught how to handle certain situations.
Bishop wants to change how service dogs and their owners are treated, and allow for them to live normal lives.
Ashley Haeberle shared her personal experience with veteran suicide. Her husband took his own life just weeks ago.
"The thing with suicide is that there isn’t a lot of closure,” she said.
Haeberle wanted to share her experience in the aftermath of a suicide. Her husband left behind a wife and three children. Haeberle mentioned how many times she was told how great of a soldier her husband was. He would mention thoughts of suicide, but they got help and she thought everything was fine.
About a year ago, her husband hit rock bottom and it led to his sudden death.
"His biggest fear was not being a soldier,” she said.
Her speech encapsulated everything that was spoken about that day. Isolation, fear, mental health issues and even counseling were all part of what she had to say.
Jennifer Hosley was a last minute addition to speak to the committee. She had a proposal for the committee that involved a program called Thrive. This program is to help soldiers transition into civilian life. She asked for the state representatives to form a committee that could study the transitions of active duty servicemen and women. She would hope that this would lead the way to better programs for them to live easier lives.
According to the committee, they had many things to think about that day, and although it was a somber affair they were left with new information that they hope will lead to easier lives for veterans and active duty soldiers.