Veteran shares journey of suicide attempt, sexual trauma in military to help others
By RACHAEL RILEY | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: September 28, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — More than 10 years ago, Heather Hennessey felt so overwhelmed during her transition out of the Army that she attempted suicide.
Hennessey has gone from that point of her life to being named the Veterans Affairs' first National National Peer Specialist of the Year.
She was initially nominated out of the Veterans Integrated Service Network 6 that includes VAs across North Carolina and parts of Virginia, along with 13 other nominees from other networks.
Peer support specialists are veterans who have a "lived experience" or medical condition and are far enough along in their recovery journey to be able to help other veterans navigate the VA system, said Chandana Kanithi, a clinical psychologist and local recovery coordinator and peer support supervisor for the Fayetteville VA, who nominated Hennessey for the award.
Born in the old Womack Army Medical Center, Hennessey was raised in a military family in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In 1997, she joined the Army, and Fort Bragg was her first duty station.
She was medically discharged in 2006 and said she felt the transition to civilian life was difficult.
In 2007, she attempted suicide.
"And the VA intervened and saved my life," Hennessey said. "So that's kind of how I got into the VA system."
After she was hospitalized, an Army chaplain told her about the Veterans Affairs services available — psychotherapy, group therapy and inpatient stays.
Hennessey said most of her treatment has been through outpatient mental health treatment, which is something she shares with veterans in their recovery process.
"I'm a survivor, and I'm very comfortable talking about that, 'cause I want to be able to kind of decrease that stigma," Hennessey said. "We're all walking around with different traumas. You just don't know it."
As a military spouse, Hennessey has moved several times and received Veterans Affairs care in Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
By 2013, she became certified to become a peer support specialist at a state substance abuse facility.
Moving back to North Carolina, she went through 80 hours of certification and joined the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs as a peer support specialist in April 2017.
She currently receives her own evidence-based treatment care through the Durham VA.
Hennessey helps other veterans navigate the VA system and develop their wellness recovery action plans, while also sharing her story when a veteran makes an appointment or signs up for group therapy sessions.
"A lot of veterans, when they come into the mental health system, they're kind of, like, nervous," she said. "They don't know what to expect, and so (peer support specialists) can really guide them along and share our experiences so that they don't feel like they're the only ones experiencing this."
Hennessey also shares her military sexual assault experiences, which occurred three times, with veterans.
One of the occasions was when she was at a platoon party where alcohol was involved.
She reported the assault to the chain of comman and was advised she could be reassigned instead of going to the military police.
"I didn't get any services," she said. "After that I kind of just used the normal back-in-the-day military of just drinking. That's how I coped with it."
She said she shares with others that it's OK to press charges, and that they shouldn't "suffer in silence."
"Please get help regardless of whether you report or not," she said.
One of the things Hennessey said she's learned is that the VA covers 100% of the care and treatment for veterans who are sexual assault victims.
Another thing she said she learned about the VA is its care for LGBT veterans.
"We practice affirmative care, meaning that the providers here are knowledgeable about LGBT issues and also care," she said.
Peer support specialists are available for the VA's mental health clinic, trauma recovery program, inpatient unit, substance abuse treatment program, peer support, homeless programs, women's programs and more, Kanithi said.
"As a provider, I can tell people that, like, treatment works, but it's different coming from a veteran who's lived it and walked in their shoes," Kanithi said.
Kanithi said for Hennesseey to receive the Peer Support Specialist of the Year award is "monumental."
"She cares about every single person that she has really the privilege of working with and the ones that she hasn't worked with yet," Kanithi said. "She is constantly striving to share education and information about services, decreasing stigma, letting people know about the resources available and really just motivated to help people get the help that they need and deserve."
An example, she said is Hennessey recognizing that rates of suicide in the LGBT community are higher, and joining the Fayetteville Pride Planning Committee for outreach.
Kanithi said Hennessey partners with community organizations to try to reach veterans who aren't in VA care.
Hennessey said she'll go to churches, speak at Fort Bragg or approach veterans wearing hats at the grocery store to see where they received their care.
"Being able to share my story and provide hope ... I love it," she said. "It fills me up every single day, and it helps in my recovery to stay stable to help others. So it's one of the greatest jobs in the world, I think."
Hennessey will officially be recognized with the award Oct. 17, which is Global Peer Support Celebration Day.