With his car-repair charity, veteran fights to dispel mental-health stigmas
By GARRETT RICHIE | Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald (TNS) | Published: December 24, 2014
(Tribune Content Agency) — When Larry Mendivil was 17, he wanted to join the military and had dreams of one day becoming a general.
In 2003, at 21, Mendivil was serving as an Air Force aircraft mechanic in Kurdistan when he had to be medically evacuated to a hospital in Germany because he was having non-stop panic attacks.
"They were concerned that I was already having severe effects of (post-traumatic stress disorder)," Mendivil said.
From that time on, through five more deployments and a refueling accident in Qatar that badly damaged his knee and lower back, things were never the same for Mendivil.
His PTSD and other mental health issues developed from experiencing what he would only describe as "terrible things."
"I can't ever relax," he said. "The last time I ever felt like I could relax was before I was medically evacuated."
Mendivil, who is president of Miracles For Vets Customs Inc. — a charity that repairs donated vehicles to give to veterans — is one of a concerningly high number of veterans in the community balancing war-related mental health issues with his everyday life.
Although statistics are shocking — 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs — experts say increased awareness among the military community and better treatment options are helping ease the stigma of mental illness for veterans such as Mendivil.
In addition to chronic physical pain, Mendivil said he has trouble socializing like he used to. He sometimes can't talk about anything but the war, has trouble focusing on one task at a time and struggles with anger issues.
"Sometimes I don't want to talk about it all," Mendivil said of the war. "Sometimes I feel like I tell it too much."
Statistics regarding veterans and mental health issues, including suicide, are both abundant and alarming.
"Veteran suicide is huge in our country right now," said Ellen McKinnon, an outreach specialist with Support Services for Veteran Families.
According to an article published by Mother Jones magazine that compared statistics from the VA and the Center for New American Security, veterans account for 20 percent of suicides in the U.S., although they make up 7 percent of the population.
And this epidemic isn't limited to veterans. According to an October 2014 Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center study, suicide was the leading cause of death of U.S. active military personnel in 2012 and 2013 — higher than combat fatalities.
In addition to suicide, PTSD, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are also of major concern for veterans.
In fact, since October 2001, more veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD than have been wounded in combat, according to the Mother Jones article.
Mental illness can also lead to other issues, including homelessness and substance abuse.
"About 80 percent of veterans who are experiencing more than one episode of homelessness have either mental health or substance abuse issues," said Diana Hall, supervisor of the Veterans Housing and Unemployment Programs at the Fargo VA.
Mendivil said he has seen this happen to veterans he knows in the community who have tried to cope with mental illness on their own.
"I've seen vets turn into alcoholics or do street drugs, and it's horrible," he said.
Many of these veterans, Mendivil said, are turning to destructive options because they aren't sure what else to do. Many have had troubles working with the VA, and others have had a hard time asking for help in the first place.
Asking for help
Dressed in black work bib overalls, a camouflage long-sleeved shirt and a "support our troops" bracelet, Mendivil is a big man whose strength is apparent.
But if it weren't for a $1,500 knee brace and muscle relaxers, Mendivil said he wouldn't be able to walk.
Nevertheless, he stands up to shake peoples' hands when he meets them and continues working on cars when he can for Miracles for Vets.
Mendivil, like many in the veteran community, is reluctant to ask for assistance.
"We vets don't like to beg for help," Mendivil said. "We like to tough it out. But if we're begging for help, we need it."
McKinnon, whose work with Support Services for Veteran Families involves serving homeless veterans who have chosen to live in the woods or away from society, said a reluctance to ask for help is common among many veterans, especially those from the Vietnam War era.
Chris Werkley, a clinical social worker with Altru Health System who served in the Air Force from 1970 to 1990, said PTSD wasn't officially diagnosed until 1980.
Prior to that, understanding of PTSD was limited, said McKinnon.
"There was no outlet (for relief)," she said. "Guys were told to suck it up, to be a man."
Mendivil said he is often concerned with the stigma that PTSD and other mental health issues might have on Miracles for Vets. That is why he always tries to deflect media attention regarding his charity toward his other workers so they don't associate it only with him.
"I don't want people to think about Larry with his problems. I want them to think about the idea of vets getting help unexpectedly," he said.
However, thanks to updates in treatment, increased media attention to mental health issues among veterans and U.S. military personnel and more careful attention to mental health in the military, the tough-guy stigma is disappearing.
"I think that's a positive thing," Werkley said of the national attention. "I'd really encourage (veterans) to contact the VA or mental health providers."
In addition to encouraging veterans to get help, educating the community about how PTSD manifests itself — not just through flashbacks, but also through irritability, hypervigilance, depression and other subtle symptoms — is critical to helping families identify symptoms that veterans might not see themselves.
"We can make a big difference," McKinnon said. "I think education is absolutely the key."
Mendivil began to notice his issues because he was having trouble holding a job, which led him to seek help.
"I started to lose jobs between my PTSD and my anger issues and not being able to focus on tasks," Mendivil said.
He then began seeking treatment at the VA clinic in Fargo, N.D., and also traveled to California to attend the Pathway Home, a six-month residential program for veterans suffering from severe PTSD and other issues.
Mental health help
For those unable or unwilling to go as far as California, the Fargo VA has been increasing its mental services over the last decade.
"It's definitely been a high focus and the VA has had multiple hiring initiatives and an enforced increase in our mental health capacity in hiring providers and nurses all different kinds of roles," said Keith Zander, administrative officer with the Fargo VA Mental Health Service. "We've really bumped that up pretty consistently over probably the last 10 years."
Through the VA, resources are available for a wide range of mental health needs. At the VA clinic in Fargo, veterans can receive everything from short-term inpatient care for severe or life-threatening mental illness or regular outpatient care for more moderate illness.
For veterans with serious mental illness who have problems functioning in day-to-day life, outpatient care is available in a psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery center.
In a similar vein, Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs are available for veterans. The programs provide mental health services as well as education and job training needs in a structured environment.
Diana Hall said there is a Veterans Justice Outreach Program, which helps veterans struggling with mental illness to avoid potential incarceration in order to receive treatment.
"We reach out to the justice system and the courts system," she said. "We look for veterans that might have undiagnosed mental health issues and we seek to provide them with the treatment they need instead of incarceration."
Mendivil moving forward
Through everything, Mendivil has persevered by investing his time and energy into Miracles for Vets.
Mendivil wants to donate a car to a veteran living at the Northlands Rescue Mission. He is also gathering a group of veterans to write letters to Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., advocating for better service for veterans from the VA.
"It's been a rough road, man," Mendivil said near the end of an interview. He stopped to rub tears from his eyes. "I don't know how I haven't given up."
Despite his toughest days, Mendivil is thankful for Miracles for Vets.
"Motorsports and helping the vets are the only things I can do that help me," he said.
©2014 the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Larry Mendivil, left, president of Miracles for Vets, and company vice president Marcos Frederick stand in front of the Miracles for Vets garage on Sept. 11, 2013, in Grand Forks, N.D. The nonprofit organization provides vehicle repairs and modifications for disabled veterans and their families.
XAVIER NAVARRO/U.S. AIR FORCE