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Officials urge veterans to seek help if needed

With the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan complete, officials are urging veterans to seek help if they’re being retraumatized by the news and images coming out of the country. We hear from Kelly Fitzpatrick, the director of the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Jerry Glesmann, an Army National Guard veteran who served in Afghanistan.

The number for the Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255. For additional resources, visit linesforlife.org.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. With the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan complete, officials are urging veterans to seek help if they are being re-traumatized by the news and images coming out of the country. That goes for veterans of the war in Afghanistan, but also people who served in earlier wars. The concerns are tied to alarming statistics. In June, a new study found that while about 7,000 service members have died during military operations since 9/11, more than four times that number have died by suicide. If you need help or want to talk to someone, you can call the veterans crisis line at 1-802-273-8255. You can also text the crisis line at 838255. We asked if any of you had experience serving in Afghanistan and we got a few responses. We’re going to start right now with one of them. This voicemail is about three minutes long:

“My name is Sean. I’m from southern Oregon. I was a member of the special operations community for 27 years. I spent the last 10 years of my deployment in Afghanistan. My deployment, to me, winning the war in Afghanistan or for me fighting over there for so long and watching so many of my close, close personal friends die and be wounded and maimed, a lot of my family and friends said, “Why are you still doing this? Why are you still over there?” It was the little girls. I have two daughters. And when we got there, little girls, they were abused, just simply abused, openly in front of us. And after about five, and about seven years they began to go to school and fight to go to school. In 2010, it really broke. And you know I’ve watched little girls start school and I watched him go all the way through school just like my daughters and to me, I hope that that brings an enlightenment, a systemic change, this 20 years that we’ve been there, there’s 10 years of good schools while we’ve been there brings about that systemic change that you know the girls say enough is enough. You know this bombing that just happened. Yes, we lost 13 servicemen, my heart broke. They lost 150 people. In the last year, they lost over 30,000 troops. They have been paying the price. And my hope and prayer is that they have received enough information about what it is to live without tyranny and to live within freedom that they will say as a people, enough is enough. I have to cling to that. I have to cling to that, that that is what’s going to happen because over a third of my life has been spent fighting these people and trying to help the people that they have victimized and abused. You know you might think it’s funny this big bad scary special operator is concerned about the little girls. I have two little girls. I was away from my little girls helping these little girls go to school. Watching the seeds come out of Afghanistan these last couple of days and not having a forum, it’s been like I felt like I had a gag in my mouth. I’m tired, I’m tired because I spent the last 20 years fighting a war and I’m tired because it doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere with politics in America.”

Dave Miller: For more on the mental health toll on veterans, right now, I’m joined by Kelly Fitzpatrick. She’s the director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and Jerry Glesmann is with us as well. He is a retired Sergeant Major from the Oregon Army National Guard. He served in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Thanks very much to both of you for joining us today.

Jerry Glesmann: Thanks, Dave.

Dave Miller: Jerry Glesmann, first, I’m just curious what stood out to you in that voicemail we just heard from Sean.

Jerry Glesmann: Well, every veteran is gonna have a different response, but I think most veterans are feeling the pain. Again being in the country for 20 years trying to improve it, both human rights and women’s rights along with other items like schooling was really important. I think the other important thing that we did while we were there was we also kept terrorists at bay from our homeland. And so that’s important. So I can see his frustration. But it’s important for veterans to make sure they connect with each other if they’re having these types of feelings and/or contact a professional, if a battle buddy isn’t available.

Dave Miller: Has the US withdrawal, the military withdrawal from Afghanistan affected the way you think about your deployment there?

Jerry Glesmann: It has to some extent. I try to keep on the positive. And, we air-lifted, what, 120,000 Afghani people out? My hopes would be that they find refuge here in the US, and that they eventually, hopefully go back to their country and are able to make it a better place. I like to stay positive. It’s frustrating to see how we exited. It’s frustrating to see that we lost 13 more service members, but their loss isn’t in vain. There’s 120,000 again, Afghani refugees that have the potential for a good free life.

Dave Miller: Kelly Fitzpatrick, what are your biggest concerns right now in terms of the mental health of both the veterans and active service members?

Kelly Fitzpatrick: My biggest concern with veterans, Dave, and active service members is that they seek help if they need help, if they’re feeling depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, they need to understand that they are not alone. There are many resources available to help them. Although the warrior ethic has always been ‘be strong, don’t let anybody see that you’re weak’. And unfortunately our society often stigmatizes behavioral health needs. So I am saying to those individuals, please understand that if you know that you need some help, be strong. This is a strength. Get out there and seek the resources that are available to you from the federal VA and other resources from the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dave Miller: I should point out there is a local Lines for Life number as well that provides help both for active duty service members and for veterans. Their number is 888 457-4838. Kelly Fitzpatrick, I was struck by the way you phrased that, talking both about the stigma historically in terms of seeking help for mental health issues. But it seems like you’re trying to flip that script and say that asking for help can be in its own way, a kind of strength. What do you mean?

Kelly Fitzpatrick: Yeah, well, because ordinarily, we have to see inside ourselves and recognize what we need. That requires some strength, some moral courage to have that psychological self knowledge and then to act on that. And many people don’t understand that the military tends to think of themselves more as the physical courage aspect. So in this case, there’s a certain essence of moral courage that goes into understanding oneself and then reaching out for help.

Dave Miller: A kind of courage or strength in showing vulnerability in a sense.

Kelly Fitzpatrick: Yes.

Dave Miller: I want to play another voicemail for both of you. This came from Aaron Barrow, who said he works in a VA hospital in Vancouver and sees many veterans:

“Our veterans that served in Afghanistan are having a hard time. But we’re seeing that our Vietnam era veterans are also having a very hard time with this because it’s reminding them so much of when we pulled out of Vietnam and the chaos that ensued, and all of the hurt that it caused with the people of Vietnam.”

Dave Miller: Jerry Glesmann, have you seen that as well?

Jerry Glesmann: I have actually, my brother, my older brother is a Vietnam vet. He actually did 3 tours over in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Division over there. And, it’s frustrating to him. The images, of course, the news media, made both the Vietnam withdrawal and Afghanistan withdrawal, put two similar photos up, which I think struck a note with our Vietnam veterans even more so, and again, every veteran will be a little bit different. And if you’re having a hard time, I guess my message is, just like Kelly’s is, you’re not alone. You got your battle buddies, you got professional folks that are willing to help. You’ve got civilian family and friends that are willing to help. The key is seeking that help, talking, getting your frustrations out, even getting your anger out in a healthy way. I think both of those are very important.

Dave Miller: That’s your message for veterans or current service members. I’m curious if you also have a message for people who haven’t served in terms of what they should keep in mind. Either if there are veterans in their lives or if they encounter veterans.

Jerry Glesmann: Well, first thing is don’t make it confrontational, whatever your feelings are, whatever your political views are, whatever, it’s never good to confront the veteran, especially one that’s going through some tough times. We’re all one country and our civilians are very important to support our veterans that have gone overseas and served. So I think the biggest thing, and I think a lot of the hardest thing for people is to just simply listen, be there, be available, listen, don’t try to fix a problem with them, just let them vent if you would, if you run into someone that’s having a hard time. I think more so, they just need to get it out.

Dave Miller: Kelly Fitzpatrick, we just have about a minute left. The 20th anniversary of September 11th is right around the corner. What role does that play in everything we’re talking about?

Kelly Fitzpatrick: Well, certainly that creates another layer of stressors on top of a number of stressors that we’re all experiencing, the Afghanistan tragedy, wildfires, Covid and isolation. So the 9/11 anniversary is just another stressor making it more important than ever for anybody who served in the military, women veterans, LGBTQ veterans, veterans of color, all of whom experience these types of events in a very different way. As Dave said, as Jerry pointed out, every veteran experiences these things differently. But if you’re a friend or a relative of a veteran, look for signs like hopelessness, anxiety, agitation, rage or anger, increased alcohol or drug use and get that person some help, reach out.

Dave Miller: Kelly Fitzpatrick and Jerry Glesmann, thank you very much.

Kelly Fitzpatrick: Thank you.

Dave Miller: Kelly Fitzpatrick is director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, Jerry Glesmann is a retired Sergeant Major from the Oregon Army National Guard. Again, the Veterans Crisis line number 1-802-273-8255. Or you can text the crisis line at 838255.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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