It’s no secret that many returning service members feel like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to adequately care for them.
In recent years, the bureaucracy has been plagued by highly publicized lengthy wait times, a health care philosophy some see as overly reliant on medication, and a scourge of suicides, among other problems.
But instead of waiting for the government to improve, some veterans in the Philadelphia area have started groups for their fellow service members that help ease the transition to civilian life and provide the sense of community and mission they had in the military.
“A civilian is not gonna know what to do. They’re not gonna know how to talk our language,” said Marty Kenny, a 30-year Marine Corps veteran who retired in 2015.
“I’m glad you care and you wanna help, but, you know, money’s not the problem. Medication’s not the problem. It’s community, mission, and getting these guys feeling important again.”
A mission back home
Every Sunday before many of us have had our first cup of coffee, area veterans are already gathering at CrossFit Inspire in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
They’re there for a grueling, 25-minute workout offered free of charge to vets and their families.
Kenny started the group called The Weekly Fight late last year, after a Marine who’d served under his command overseas committed suicide in New Jersey.
“It really hit me hard, because I knew the Marine. I knew the Marine’s family. I knew the Marine’s kids,” said Kenny. “All I could think of was, ‘This is the kid’s Christmas from now on. This is what they’re gonna think about every time this time of year comes by.’ And I was like, ‘I gotta do something.'”
Kenny began hosting the free CrossFit workout for local vets and their families earlier this year, after the owner of CrossFit Inspire agreed to open his doors to the service members at no charge. (One Sunday a month the group goes on a hike instead.)
“When I bring these guys together, we get ’em here, and they get to sweat a little bit, they get a little pain, there’s a little suffering, and there’s a lot of jabbing back and forth about putting out max effort and everything else,” said Kenney. “It brings some of that community and that sense back to what they’re missing. And I that’s the beauty of what we do.”
After warmups, but before the full-throttle workout, the group dedicates its routine to a veteran who, as attendees say, “lost their battle with combat PTSD.”
It creates a mission out of what would otherwise be another day at the gym.
“There are some little things that I’m working through. But the reason I say little is because I’m not gonna let ’em be big, because what we’ve got going on is bigger,” said Marine Corps veteran James O’Flaherty, who first attended The Weekly Fight at the suggestion of a friend.
O’Flaherty, who continues to struggle with combat PTSD after several combat deployments to Afghanistan, said attending The Weekly Fight helps him manage the stress. “Yeah. Without a doubt. No question about it. No question about it.”
Weekly gatherings help with daily struggle
Marine Mark Abbott, who attends the weekly workout with his wife, HaLeigh, said sweating through a CrossFit workout reminds him of some of his worst days facing combat PTSD.
“Having come from a period in my life when I was having some really dark thoughts and I was really low and just grinding through that, a lot of that reminds me of these 25-minute workouts, as silly as that sounds,” said Abbott.
“But just that drive to keep your head down, focus on the mission, don’t focus on anything else, you’re not focusing on your hands hurting or your arms burning … I want to get comfortable there. I want to push myself to the point where I’m dying inside and just look up and smile, ’cause I can. You know?
“Say, whatever it is, whatever that deep-down, dark, scary, nasty thought is, just look at it and go, ‘nothin. I’ve done worse. I’ve seen worse. I’ve been through worse. I’ve had worse days.'”
The Weekly Fight is part of a growing number of groups for vets and created by vets to provide an outlet for service members who struggle once they return home, some of whom have combat PTSD.
Winden Rowe, a Kennett Square therapist who specializes in trauma, said the VA can too often rely on medication when many vets simply crave the feeling of usefulness they had in the military.
“The question always is: How do we support veterans? Is it that we give them money? Well, not necessarily, you give them purpose and task. Something to do. And something that has meaning,” she said.
Some vets who struggle once they return home often isolate themselves, Rowe said. But others begin to thrive once they’ve found a community of fellow service members or a mission worth their dedication.
“But it doesn’t happen with, ‘Here’s your pill. Take it. Everything’s gonna be OK,'” she said. “It’s not working.”
‘You’ve done things that aren’t normal’
According to its most recent data, the VA estimates that about 20 U.S. veterans commit suicide each day.
Previous estimates put that number at 22 veteran suicides per day.
That statistic was one of the reasons that motivated Joe Dimond, a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant who oversaw security for the bomb squad in Fallujah, Iraq, to start a video series on combat PTSD.
When Dimond first returned from a tour in Iraq, he got divorced, started drinking, and briefly lived out of his truck until a friend took him in.
“When I moved in with him, I started talking about things. I started having discussions and [wasn’t] feeling judged,” said Dimond, of Mullica Hill, New Jersey. “Almost immediately after, I started feeling better, because once I started talking, I could actually start analyzing the feelings I was having.”
With no media experience, Dimond decided to start a low-budget video project, “The Stain of War,” to interview other veterans with combat PTSD. He wanted vets to share their stories and coping mechanisms, but he also hoped the stigma around combat PTSD would erode if the public could better understand it.
“PTSD, in some form or another, goes back to the beginning of man. It goes back that far. War changes you. I don’t care how strong you are. I don’t care how tough you are,” said Dimond. “You’ve seen things. You’ve don’t things that aren’t normal.”
“The Stain of War” has grown in popularity and scope since its inception. Dimond hopes to eventually create a documentary film.
Veteran to veteran
While the project gives the public a chance to learn about combat PTSD from veterans who have it, it also gives the interviewees the opportunity to discuss their experiences with a fellow service member — veteran to veteran.
“It was actually very easy for me, because it was just like me and Joe shooting the breeze,” said Marine Corps veteran Brian Fisher of Upper Darby, who surprised even himself by opening up in a “Stain of War” Interview.
“It wasn’t like just somebody — no offense — just asking questions,” he said. “It was one Marine who had been there talking to another Marine.”
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Fisher and his fellow Marines were among the first Americans to cross the border. “Because of my vivid memory of the Iraqis burning on the side of the road, anything burning kind of triggers something in me,” he said in an online video.
Fisher said that participating in the project helped him open up to friends and family.
He added that it also made one of his friends, a fellow Marine, realize that he needed to talk about his experiences, too.
“He came up [from Maryland]. We had lunch. We sat there for about two and a half hours just talking about old times — good times, bad times, everything,” said Fisher. “And he said ‘thank you. It really helped me out.’ And it helped him deal with it a bit better.”
Fisher hopes that projects such as The Weekly Fight and “The Stain of War” will help combat vets and civilians better understand each other, so that talking about and dealing with combat PTSD will one day not be taboo.
“We’ve come so far as a country in the past 20 or 30 years, as far as veterans dealing with PTSD, that in the next 20 years, I can only imagine that there won’t be that bridge,” he said. “It’ll be all connected.”
Correction: This story previously stated that Joe Dimond was a bomb squad technician in Iraq. Actually, he oversaw security for the bomb squad.