Army officer fought and conquered his own depression
By NANCY LAVIN | The Frederick News-Post (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 6, 2016
Drinking saved Robert 'Rob' Reed's life.
Reed, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was serious as he explained how his inebriation botched his suicide attempt. He was so drunk that fateful night in 2008, he didn't realize he'd looped the rope with which he intended to hang himself around a rotten tree limb, he said.
He jumped. The rope snapped. He was still alive, on the ground of his then-home in Virginia.
Reed, 41, who lives in Frederick, Md., had no qualms in a Tuesday interview talking about his attempted suicide, or the depression, anger and alcohol abuse that led him there.
Sharing such a personal, sensitive moment has become a way for him to advocate for mental health support and awareness in the military community. Reed formerly served on the board of directors of Platoon 22, previously known as 22 Needs a Face.
Platoon 22 is a non-profit advocacy group started by fellow veteran and Frederick resident Danny Farrar to raise awareness and provide support to veterans battling mental health issues. The name refers to the estimated 22 veterans who die by suicide each day.
Reed has since left the Platoon 22 board because of work commitments; he works as branch chief for the current operations division of the National Guard Bureau, the organization in Virginia that oversees the various components that make up the National Guard.
He has continued to advocate for the organization's message, though, both in formal speaking engagements and informal conversations.
He purposefully leaves the last letter off the acronym to refer to his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I don't put a 'D,'" he explained. "It's not a disorder, it's not disease. You can overcome it. I am living proof of that."
"You think you're not going to not promoted if you're active military and you come forward with PTS," he said. "But I did, and I have been [promoted.]"
It's a lifelong battle, he acknowledged. He still suffers from night terrors, and avoids big crowds.
When entering a room, he scans for the exits, and never sits with his back to an open space. But it's a far cry from his condition when he returned from his deployment in Afghanistan, by far the most traumatic of his tours overseas.
"It was hell," he said, recalling the frequent combat, death of both Afghan and American members in the small, embedded training team he led.
Returning home in 2008, he began drinking heavily. He slept in a trench he dug in his front yard, just like he had while in Afghanistan. When his then-wife left for a business trip, he tried to hang himself.
Tattoos cover both his forearms, reminders of those lowest of lows and the messages of hope that helped him along his journey to recovery. He lifted the sleeve of his Platoon 22 shirt to reveal more inked designs.
A flag with a Biblical line his training team read before embarking on missions covers his right shoulder, his deployment dates below it. On his left shoulder sits an eagle, accompanied by the dog tags of his dad, a Korean War veteran. A heaven and hell battle scene plays out below it, and a lit candle beside a Bible.
"I'm not particularly religious," he explained. "I don't go to church every week. But I was in darkness, and I found light."
It was a long journey to recovery, and not an easy one.
Following his suicide attempt, he sought treatment through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The quantity and doses of medications left him feeling zombie-like, he said.
A turning point came when he was transferred to Ft. McCoy, a base in Wisconsin. Guided by VA professionals there, he found yoga and meditation. His "demons" were still there, but he learned how to cope with them.
By 2011, he was no longer taking any medications, except those prescribed for sleep.
"I say I got sober off meds," he said.
He still meditates, and practices yoga from his home.
He was already well on his way to recovery when he met Farrar through their mutual participation in Desert Knights of America Motorcycle Club, which includes veterans and civilians.
"That's what really saved my life," Reed said. "You have to find that flame that burns inside of you. For me, it's getting on that steel horse and riding with my brothers."
Farrar, who described Reed as one of his best friends, said he's seen progress in Reed's recovery since then, too.
"The ease with which he's able to start having these conversations in public and with other people [has increased,]" Farrar said in a Thursday phone interview. "I can't see Rob, three or four years ago, sharing his story with a newspaper like this."
And though Reed will drink a beer or two with his buddies, his days downing a fifth of Jack Daniel's whiskey are over.
"I will hug that bottle and kiss that bottle but I will never drink it," he said.
Reed remains proud of his his military service, and hopes to continue until his mandatory retirement in 2027. Being separated from his son, who lives with his now ex-wife in the Midwest, has been hard, he said.
He also wished he knew about mental health and PTSD earlier so he could help fellow veterans, those from his generation and from earlier, like his father.
But he adamantly maintained a "no regrets" standpoint. His convictions about destigmatizing mental health in the military community were just as strong.
"Somebody has to be the guy or girl who talks about it," Farrar agreed. "There will always be somebody in the crowd or who reads the story in the paper who has never heard it before. And that's why we do it."
(c) 2016 The Frederick News-Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.