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OPINION

Address mental health with GIs at deployment

By DAN CERRILLO | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: January 15, 2020

Twenty veterans and active-duty personnel die by suicide every day. One in 15 veterans is dealing with a substance use disorder.

Let those statistics sink in.

As a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team 7 and SEAL Team 1 with many missions under my belt, I was fully prepared to lose my own life for my country. Although being at war is stressful and intense, I thrived on the call to duty. While I had prepared for war, I was not prepared for the pain of losing my friends in battle.

During my active duty, our team went on eight missions a night for two to three weeks straight. In our spare time, we’d get drunk to numb the pain of what was happening. This behavior continued for years.

Then, during a hand-to-hand combat encounter with an al-Qaida fighter in a doorway in Sadr City, Iraq, a breaching charge exploded and tore through the enemy combatant. I was severely injured: My back was broken, my lung collapsed, and my shoulder was destroyed.

I recovered, but suffered with nightmares, trouble sleeping and chronic pain from my injuries. My doctor said, “You’re depressed. Go to the gym, work out and get some sleep.” Instead, I ate six codeine pills a day and drank myself to sleep.

When I returned home, things got progressively worse with my family. I was short and gruff with my wife and three children, and I expected my home to be run with military precision. I became angry over the slightest things — shoes left in the foyer or dirty dishes on the counter. I was down to just 45 minutes of sleep a night because I couldn’t quiet my mind.

Three months later, I finally got a psychological referral to see a counselor. He was late, ended our session early, gave me a prescription for some Adderall and Ambien, and went on his way.

We all know the stories of the Department of Veterans Affairs being bombarded with veterans seeking treatment for life-altering injuries, chronic pain and mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The system is so overwhelmed that it simply can’t accommodate all veterans who need help.

There are community-based programs and nonprofits that are filling the VA gaps, but we must do more or we will continue to fail our veterans miserably. We can no longer wait until they return from combat to take action. There’s a lot of talk about suicide and addiction among vets, but these conversations are years too late for the thousands of men and women who have already died.

In order to truly turn the tide, we must be proactive. We must provide military personnel with resources in the field to teach them coping mechanisms before they become so far gone that they turn to a bottle, a pill or a bullet to end their suffering.

How does this approach work? It starts with getting the therapist out of the treatment room and into the field. For a guy who has been armed to the teeth, wearing 90 pounds of body armor as he trudges through the desert relying on his own skills for survival, walking into a counseling office feels like a dangerous mission. There’s no way he’s going to open up to someone in a dress shirt and tie who’s never even held a weapon.

By embedding counselors in-uniform with military units to interact with, relate to, and meet the warrior on their own terms, we can get our soldiers talking. We need counselors to be out there on the range, sitting next to these men and women in the chow hall, and living and working among them so they can truly understand what our nation’s heroes go through every single day.

We must do better. Those who have voluntarily served our country deserve the best care possible, and we have an inherent obligation to help these men and women get the support they need.

Dan Cerrillo is chief of staff for American Addiction Centers and is the Washington State Ambassador for the Navy SEAL Foundation. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Navy SEAL Fund. A graduate of BUD/S Class 194, Cerrillo served with SEAL Team 1, SEAL Team 7 and the Naval Special Warfare Advanced Training before seeking medical retirement after over a decade of service. As a veteran, he’s also worked as an executive coach, entrepreneur and high school and college football coach.

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