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Medal of Honor recipient Kyle White, new clinic in Hawaii seek to assist veterans

President Barack Obama leads the applause for former Army Sgt. Kyle White after presenting him with the Medal of Honor at the White House on May 13, 2014.

C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: November 11, 2020

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Former Army Spc. Kyle White's very bad day in eastern Afghanistan began in 2007 with a meeting of 14 Americans and local elders in a remote village, progressed into an ambush firefight on a cliffside trail and ended with two concussions and five fellow soldiers and a Marine dead.

In between, the then-20-year-old with Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne ), 503rd Infantry Regiment returned fire while his platoon was pinned against a steep mountain face.

A rocket-propelled grenade knocked him momentarily unconscious. When he came to, he exposed himself to enemy fire repeatedly to provide medical aid to two others and secure a radio to call in information before another explosion rattled his brain again.

White received the Medal of Honor in 2014.

"In the face of imminent danger, he never quit, " Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno said at the time. "He always put his mission first. He never accepted defeat. Above all else, he never left his comrades."

White left the Army in 2011, but for a long time that firefight didn't leave him.

"It was the worst day of my life, and it would be followed by many hard years caught in an endless battle inside my head, " the 33-year-old said in an opinion piece Monday in military.com.

As a COVID-19-reshaped Veterans Day is honored today, White continues to advocate for veterans getting help sooner than later — and for a new Cohen Veterans Network mental health treatment center that recently opened in Mililani Mauka to help do just that.

White is an ambassador of sorts for the clinics, giving some of his time to support their mission.

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Child &Family Service had a "soft opening " on Sept. 8 for its 9, 000-square-foot mental health facility at 95-1091 Ainamakua Drive.

Providers will be able to care for some of the more than 30, 000 post-9 /11 veterans and and their families and nearly 60, 000 family members of active-duty members in Hawaii, the organization said.

The Mililani clinic is the 17th Cohen clinic to open nationally. All are backed by a $275 million commitment from financier Steven A. Cohen. The organization said Cohen's work with veterans began with a personal connection : His son served in the Marine Corps.

Child &Family Service, a private nonprofit social service organization that has been involved in Hawaii since 1899 and gets most of its funding from state and federal contracts, operates the clinic.

The Cohen network "is a private philanthropic network, and they basically are funding these clinics across the U.S. They are not coming in and running the clinics, " said Karen Tan, president and CEO of Child &Family Service.

The Mililani center is being funded at about $2 million a year, Tan said.

"I think it's absolutely the best thing that can happen for our community, " Tan said. "There are so many veterans and their families living in the islands." Hawaii has the ninth-largest population of post-9 /11 veterans and family members in the nation, officials said.

Veterans Affairs also provides services, but John Alamodin, clinic director, said "we like to consider our collaboration like a force multiplier."

Even if there has been a downtown in deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, "we may not necessarily see a downturn in need, " Alamodin said.

In 2018 Veterans Affairs announced a partnership with Cohen Veterans Network to increase access to mental health resources and reduce suicides.

Post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, anger, grief and loss, family issues, transition challenges, relationship problems and children's behavioral problems are areas of focus for short-to medium-term outpatient mental health care support, the network said on its website.

In general, 12 to 18 sessions of counseling can be provided weekly or every other week, officials said.

"We fill gaps, " said Traci Kaopua, the outreach coordinator, noting that the Cohen clinic takes veterans who may not have built up VA eligibility or have an other-than-honorable discharge.

Some might not have the ability to pay insurance for services, but "we don't turn anybody away for financial reasons, " she said.

Because of COVID-19, services now are through telehealth. A Hawaii Army National Guard substance abuse support group meets on Zoom.

White, the Medal of Honor recipient, said "things were tough " after he returned from the 2007-08 deployment to eastern Afghanistan. He was suffering from post-­traumatic stress, wasn't sleeping and was having nightmares.

"My realization that I needed help was not unlike so many other service members. It was the people around us that recognize the change within us more than we do ourselves, " the North Carolina resident said in a Zoom interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

He was engaging in behavior that was not typical, including self-medication.

The mentality within the Army and unit he was in was, "We're tough as nails and nothing can happen to us." He finally came to the realization that he couldn't base the rest of his life and his health on the mindset of some of those people.

Once he understood that "I've got to put me first, " he went in and got help. "And it was not an easy process. It wasn't a quick one, either, " White said. "I spent a couple of years in and out of different programs, especially as I moved duty stations."

What he wants veterans to know is that his biggest mistake was he didn't seek help sooner.

A similar ambush would be sprung in 2008 involving the same unit—Chosen Company—in the similarly remote village of Wanat in Afghanistan.

In that battle, nine Americans were killed, including 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, 24, who grew up in Hawaii.

One of the battle's participants, Ryan Pitts, who also received a Medal of Honor, is active with White in the Cohen Veterans Network.

White said it was his and Pitts' personal connection to the support philosophy of the network that got them on board.

"What I mean by that is encouraging mental health treatment, " he said. "Post-­traumatic stress and kind of erasing the stigma is a large part of Ryan and (my ) mission as not only veterans, but Medal of Honor recipients."

Sharing their stories "tends to resonate with other veterans that may have went through different experiences but had a lot of the same challenges we faced."

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