New campaign featuring soldiers’ stories aims to reduce veterans' suicide rate
By NARA SCHOENBERG | Chicago Tribune | Published: November 9, 2018
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — In Afghanistan, Chris Groleau was a minesweeper — the soldier who walks ahead of his platoon, waving a long metal device back and forth over the ground, listening for the array of beeps that can signal a deadly bomb is buried underfoot.
It made perfect sense that he was in a state of high alert, he said. But when he came back to the U.S., he couldn’t turn off that nerve-jangling feeling of life-or-death danger.
And then, too, he was struggling with the loss of one of his sergeants, who died at the end of his deployment.
“There were multiple very serious issues that I was dealing with at the same time,” said Groleau, 28, a senior at DePaul University who served in the Army.
“I was stressed out all the time; I was crying myself to sleep a lot, drinking very heavily. It was a very hard time.”
Groleau is one of 22 veterans who agreed to be interviewed for Lionhearted, a new Veterans Day campaign that seeks to reduce the high veterans’ suicide rate with videos and a short film telling stories of combat and healing, as well as a related piece of art on display at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.
The art is the work of Air Force veteran and painter Shawn Ganther, who sketched each veteran onto a piece of body armor, then connected the pieces to create a 430-pound American flag.
The veterans’ stories are diverse, but a common theme emerges, according to Lionhearted project producer Tim Drnec, director of consumer marketing at Safariland, a manufacturer of public safety and military products and the creator of the Lionhearted project.
“If you get a chance to listen to (Air Force veteran) Roger Sparks’ video, he sums it up quite concisely,” Drnec said. “There’s a natural tendency when one goes through trauma to somewhat isolate yourself from others, isolate yourself from your loved ones, because you want to protect them from that trauma. You tend to hide away. His revelation in going through this was the minute that you rebel against that thought of isolating yourself and bring your loved ones (in), is when you can start sailing home to yourself.”
In 2016, the age- and gender-adjusted suicide rate for veterans was 26 per 100,000 — 1.5 times higher than the rate for nonveterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). A frequently quoted 2012 VA report found that 22 veterans committed suicide per day, but that figure included active-duty troops, Stars and Stripes reported in June. Stars and Stripes broke down more recent VA numbers, reporting there are 21 military suicides a day, including 17 by veterans and four by active-duty service members, Guardsmen and reservists.
Chicagoan Brent Webb, who appears in Lionhearted, said that after leaving the Air Force, he suffered from a sense that he had lost his mission in life. He’d joined the military when he was 17, serving from 2006 to 2012. If he wasn’t an airman, what was he?
“I was a collection of different stories that didn’t have any connective tissue between them, just sort of these floating ideas and feelings in empty space,” said Webb, who served in Afghanistan. “The core sense of self — the thing that binds all your thoughts and feelings and guides you — had dissolved overnight.”
Webb, now 30, eventually found help at a close-knit American Legion post in Los Angeles, where he was living at the time. The other veterans understood what he had been through, and he could talk to them about his experiences. For the first time since he had left the Air Force, he felt he was part of a cohesive group, he said. His sense of purpose started to return. He had a lot of support, and he had ways to volunteer.
Today, he’s post commander at the American Legion’s Tattler Post 973 in Lincoln Square and a district officer.
“I’m doing very well,” he said. “There are new challenges, as far as work and continuing to build relationships outside the military, trying to be prosperous in the United States of America in the 21st century, which ain’t easy all the time. But ultimately, I feel the primary reason (I’m doing well) is because of my involvement within the American Legion.”
Groleau said his time in Afghanistan was intense and difficult, and he built coping mechanisms, including a belief that he wouldn’t survive.
“If you just accept that you’re going to die over there, then you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” he said. “You can just function and do your job. You don’t have to be constantly terrified all the time that you won’t make it back.”
When he got back to the U.S., he struggled with readjustment as well as the death of his sergeant, the only person in his troop who was killed.
“I wasn’t suicidal — but I can easily see how people get there,” he said. “What kept me going was I was just so determined that I would do whatever it took to get better, and I was seeing progress from the things I tried, whether that was talk groups, meditation or therapy. Every time I was involved in something, I was seeing progress and that kept me going.”
He had to do a lot of work on himself, he said: writing about his experiences, talking about them, going to therapy. Even so, he said, he’s never going to be the same person he was before deployment.
“I’ve had to focus on moving forward, and becoming a better version of myself,” he said. An environmental studies major at DePaul, he’s more confident than he was before his military service, he said. And he’s more focused on the things that are important to him.
Asked about his message for fellow veterans, he said, “Life gets a lot better.”
“Don’t settle for mediocrity for yourself or for your friends when it comes to living a full, happy life and being able to process all those traumas and experiences,” he advised. “It’s hard work, it’s not always pleasant, but it’s worth it, and we owe it to ourselves.”
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Brent Webb, who served in Afghanistan, is featured in a new Veterans Day campaign called Lionhearted, which seeks to reduce the high veteran suicide rate, at American Legion's Tattler Post in Chicago on November 6, 2018.
JOSE M. OSORIO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS