'Give my all': A veteran's struggle and his fight against all military suicide
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 21, 2016
A crumpled-up brown paper bag has a permanent place at the bottom of Glenn Towery’s briefcase.
It’s a reminder of a difficult but “remarkable” odyssey, Towery said, that started after his return from the Vietnam War in 1972.
Towery, feeling dizzy, sought help at a Department of Veterans Affairs emergency room in 1975, and a doctor handed him a paper bag to breathe into.
“He said, ‘Mr. Towery, are you aware that you have been hyperventilating?’” Towery, now 64, told Stars and Stripes in a recent interview. “I started understanding. That was the first indication that something was wrong.”
In the decades since, he became homeless and worked his way off the streets. Developed a crack cocaine addiction and walked away from it. Tried and failed at college, but tried again and earned a degree.
With help, Towery has worked through a series of hardships, including disability and bouts of PTSD. Now, he’s trying to assist veterans who are considering suicide — something he knows firsthand.
“I’ve been homeless; I’ve been hungry; I’ve used drugs. I’m surprised I’m even still here,” Towery said. “It’s all part of the makeup of who I am as a person now, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t cut and run when a responsibility is there.”
Towery runs the Veterans Suicide Prevention Channel, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, out of his home 20 miles north of Austin in Round Rock, Texas. The website, vspchannel.com, runs all day, every day, and includes veterans’ testimonials, music, standup comedy and other videos aimed at providing encouragement that veterans and servicemembers might not find elsewhere.
Towery said he was “desperate” to get the word out to raise money for the channel, which won’t last long without funding.
“I felt like I had two choices: I could either sit around and watch people die, or I could participate in trying to help someone live,” Towery said. “Who knows if this channel will ever take off, but who am I not to try it? If I’m going to try it, I have to give my all.”
A complex past
Towery, 20, volunteered for the U.S. Navy in 1971, near the end of the Vietnam War, after seeing former schoolmates drafted and assigned to different military branches.
As a quartermaster on the USS Rupertus in Quang Tri province, he was loading munitions when he suffered burns from white phosphorus. He was medically evacuated and honorably discharged.
After recovering from his injuries, the transitioning servicemember struggled in other ways. At the time, post-traumatic stress disorder hadn’t yet been introduced as a diagnosis.
“You either had ‘shell shock’ or you were crazy,” he said.
The ER visit in 1975 was the first of a series of what he described as “breakdowns.”
After breathing into a paper bag and receiving an anti-anxiety prescription, Towery went on as usual. In the next few years, he attempted break into the film industry as an actor and screenwriter – and had small successes, he said.
In 1980, Towery sued ABC in Los Angeles Superior Court, claiming the concept for the detective and comedy series “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe” was taken from a screenplay he submitted to the network two years earlier. Towery’s account is that he lost the case and his acting and screenwriting career along with it.
That’s when he “totally fizzled out,” became homeless and started using drugs.
Friends he had met at L.A. theaters “showed me a lot of love,” he said. He had a friend and mentor in Edmund Cambridge, a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, known for developing multicultural plays and performers.
Cambridge showed up one day where Towery was staying in the mid-1980s and insisted he stay with him.
“That was the beginning of me getting back on my feet,” he said. “It was a slow process.”
With a recommendation from Cambridge, Towery was admitted in the early 1990s to Columbia College Hollywood, a private school in Tarzana, Calif., specializing in film, TV and digital arts. Because of his past and his failed attempt at junior college, Towery began school on academic probation. He graduated in 1997 as the school’s first black valedictorian.
While in college, Towery traveled to Washington to film the Million Man March on Oct. 16, 1995, when hundreds of thousands gathered at the National Mall to promote unity against economic and social issues in the African-American community. Towery produced a documentary about the march, “Long Live the Spirit,” in 2004 — nearly 10 years later — when he finally had enough money and time to edit what he captured on film.
Attending the Million Man March was Towery’s last big venture into the film industry. Inspired by the event, with a degree in hand two years later, he decided to get involved in his community in a different way: He began working as a counselor at a group home for young boys in the same LA neighborhood where he grew up.
“We got the boys nobody else wanted, and we’d work with them,” he said. “We were doing great work. Boys were coming in one way and would leave another.”
Several years later, a few events coincided that made Towery leave his job. The group home lost a boy to criminal activity, something that left him and others “shaken,” he said. He was also planning to marry his current wife, Juanita, and his son Keith, from a previous relationship, was living with Towery.
Towery went to work for a children’s mental health facility, a job he kept until his most recent (and most devastating) bout of PTSD.
Battling military suicide
A simple memory ignited Towery’s PTSD in 2008, nearly four decades after his discharge from the Navy. He remembered leaving his car at Naval Base San Diego when reporting for duty, and he never saw it again. The thought of his red Buick abandoned in a parking lot brought an onslaught of other negative memories and the realization he was living with issues from his wartime experience that he had never confronted.
“I was raising my son, I got a good job, a wonderful wife,” Towery recalled. “I worked my way up from an initial breakdown and being homeless. All that was behind me. But PTSD tends to take you back in time.
“It brought up a whole bunch of other stuff I wasn’t prepared for, and my world just went into a spin. After that, I realized I really hadn’t been OK all this time. I’d just been managing.”
Juanita Cole-Towery encouraged her husband to seek help at the VA Ambulatory Care Center in downtown LA. He was diagnosed with PTSD and went into a psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery center. Today, he has a 100 percent disability rating for PTSD. He’s been in counseling groups ever since, learning and practicing mindfulness, meditation and tai chi.
He has used his background in the film industry to find ways to prevent servicemember and veteran suicide, taking cues from his own counseling.
The Veterans Suicide Prevention Channel includes a class in tai chi for families and an interview from a VA benefits counselor. Towery said he has recruited military chef Andre Rush, who has served as chef at the White House, and Charles Johnson, an instructor at the Fort Bliss Culinary Arts Program, to host a series of cooking shows. Food can alter the mood of a veteran or servicemember who’s struggling, Towery believes.
When deciding to create the nonprofit two years ago, Towery remembered his mindset before his suicide attempt and what he needed to see and hear at the time, he said.
“I thought about the pain associated with what drives a person to that point,” he said. “That feeling inside, it’s hard to describe, but it’s the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s like an intense dread, a foreboding, like something that is standing inside and over you at the same time compressing you. You begin to say to yourself, ‘I can’t live like this. I want it to go away.’”
According a VA study released in August, about 20 veterans commit suicide nationwide every day. The study is more comprehensive than one in 2012 that reported 22 veterans die by suicide each day. The latest report shows 65 percent of veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 or older.
Veteran Will Richards, 52, struggles with bipolar disorder and PTSD, and has turned to the Veterans Suicide Prevention Channel to reinforce his value, he said.
“There’s a loneliness about veterans … we’ve been through situations that some people can’t understand even if they try,” Richards said. “There’s so many things that veterans can do to reach out to veterans, and that’s what the channel is about. That’s what Glenn Towery is about.”
The Texas chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars “believes in what he’s doing,” said Dan West, director of operations at the Texas headquarters. The group donated $3,000 to Towery’s nonprofit in 2015 to cover the cost of web hosting for one year.
“It’s a resource where we can get veterans to get information,” West said. “We can say, ‘Here’s some hope and some people you can reach out to.”
Towery said he’s unsure how long he’ll be able to sustain the organization, calling the situation “desperate.”
DeWayne Luster, who recently retired from the Austin VA as a certified peer support specialist, has appeared in videos on the site. He said he’s heard comments from veterans who said the site helped them when they were struggling.
“I think people have finally figured out this is a good thing,” Luster said.
Towery has recently kicked off campaigns to keep the channel going, including one in which he’s asking people to donate $22 to the organization, representing a dollar for each veteran who – according to the 2012 study – commits suicide each day.
‘Million brick walls’
Towery still struggles with his own PTSD symptoms. There are some things from his military service and subsequent years that he’s hesitant to discuss, even in counseling groups, he said.
One small reassurance he has is that paper bag, stuffed inside his briefcase in case he ever needs it again.
He also recently took up painting – which has served as a catharsis for him and helped lift his wife’s spirits after a 2010 breast cancer diagnosis.
Juanita Cole-Towery is an artist, but — with low energy while fighting the breast cancer — gave up painting.
“I used to sit and watch her paint, and when she paints she gets in the zone,” Towery said. “I tried to get her to paint, and she wouldn’t do it. I was angry at the cancer, angry at her, and I said, ‘There’s a clock in the den, why don’t you paint the clock?’ She said, ‘I hate that clock, you paint it.’ So, I painted it.”
When she saw the painted clock the next day, it lifted her mood.
The couple moved from LA to the quieter Round Rock in 2014, where a room in their home is dedicated to Towery’s 80 painted clocks. The designs range from colorful abstract art to some incorporating famous African-American men and women.
Venues in Austin have exhibited his work, and in 2014, he was featured in a creative arts festival hosted by the VA.
One of the first clocks Towery painted is orange and yellow, with “Life” in large, cursive letters in the center.
“I was thinking about a time when I made a choice, you know?” Towery said. “I remember I had already attempted to kill myself, and I was in one of those really down moods. And I chose life.”
If Towery had his way, he’d leave his art and the Veterans Suicide Prevention Channel as his legacy.
“I’ve seen him go up against 1 million brick walls,” Luster said. “I’ve told him before, ‘I need you to understand how powerful you are.’”