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Football legend Herschel Walker speaks to Marines about mental illness

HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Herschel Walker looks like he could still rush for 1,000 yards in the National Football League.

He looked Tuesday like he could drop to the floor for push-ups and match anyone packed in the theater at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. He even jogged down the aisle to begin his talk with Marines.

The 52-year-old former Georgia football standout wanted the Marines to know that a tough shell shouldn't be used to disguise problems.

"Never put anything off," he said. "Go get help, because I did."

Walker was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder more than a decade ago. Now he travels the country — he said he has visited more than 90 bases — talking to service members about mental illness as part of The Patriot Support Program's Anti-stigma Campaign, which seeks to end the stigma mental illness and substance disorders carry in the military community.

He spoke at MCAS Beaufort on Tuesday morning before a planned stop at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

In a 2008 book, Walker revealed his dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. He is a spokesman for Patriot Support Programs, which provides service members support with depression, post traumatic stress, addiction and other behavioral health issues.

Walker drew laughs throughout his talk Tuesday, even during its darker notes.

He said he asked for help after stalking and nearly shooting a delivery man who had failed to show up for several appointments. He played Russian roulette. He wrote about killing and death in his journal.

When he approached his now ex-wife, Cindy, about his problems, she revealed that she was often afraid of him, Walker said Tuesday. His inner circle was not supportive.

"When I decided I needed help, all my guys left me like I was a vampire," he said.

Col. Peter D. Buck, the air station's commanding officer, said the first action for a Marine dealing with mental illness or other issues is to take it up the chain of command, first notifying an immediate supervisor.

Buck said there are a variety of programs available to those with mental health or other issues and that it is essential to ask for help, that Marines need to know they can trust one another.

"There is so much available to folks," Buck said. "It is a crime that someone would not come forward."

Pfc. Jose Ortiz, a 23-year-old from Chicago, said it was easy to talk to friends about various topics, that everyone dealt with similar circumstances, and he said a family intervention helped when a family member contemplated suicide.

But he said it could be more difficult to take issues to a superior officer.

"Bringing it up the chain is kind of hard, because you don't want multiple people to know," Ortiz said. "But in my (unit), all the people are great leaders. I can bring up anything to them, and they understand. They all have family problems and things going on."

The Marines lined up after Walker's talk as he signed footballs, Georgia flags and a stack of photos at a table in the theater lobby.

A man told Walker he was named Dallas for the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted Walker in 1985.

"This is the best thing I think I've done," Walker said of his participation in the campaign.

Walker said he was bullied through middle school for being overweight and stuttering and that a fight in eighth grade prompted him to begin a regimen of thousands of sit-ups and push-ups a day.

By the time he was a senior at Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Ga., Walker was the nation's most prized recruit. His suitors included Georgia, the favorite of those in his hometown.

But Walker wanted to join the Marines and said he flipped a coin between joining the service and going to college. The coin came up for college, and so Walker repeated the process to decide between Georgia and Clemson and Georgia and Southern California.

He joked with the Marines on Tuesday about finishing third to George Rogers in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1980 and second to Marcus Allen in 1981 before winning the Heisman Trophy in 1982.

He talked about his three years with the USFL and 11 years in the NFL, with stories of his eccentric owners, Donald Trump and Jerry Jones. Walker said the anger he felt from the early bullying episodes and perceived slights throughout his career helped fuel him on the field.

The anger manifested itself off the field. Walker said he only stopped from drawing his gun on the delivery man when he saw a "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper sticker on the man's car.

With treatment, Walker said he has learned to care less about what others think. He points to his various business ventures of proof of how well he has done despite his diagnosis.

He talked about beating opponents half his age in mixed martial arts fights.

"I had anger that wanted to kill me," he said. "The way I deal with it is going in and talking about it. Whenever you talk about it, you can see the light."
 

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