Better Together

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By Blayne Smith and Lonnie Martin

Several weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I was mindlessly scrolling though Instagram, when I saw an alert that Lonnie Martin had tagged me in a post. I’d met him once, during the pre-race pasta dinner at the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon. We took a quick photo together, but didn’t talk much. Here are Lonnie’s words (in bold italics):

My name is Lonnie Martin. I am a fourth generation Marine and my family has fought in every major U.S. conflict. I spent over 20 years in the Marine Corps and deployed sometimes more often than I was in country. I did a couple combat tours in Iraq that changed the fabric of who I am as a person. I came back with what I frequently call my “gifts” from combat. The gifts of PTSD, depression, TBI, Survivor’s guilt, insomnia, nightmares, migraines and cluster headaches, and the inability to hold employment due to the overwhelming effect these and many more gifts have on me. Basically my whole sense of self is so severely altered that most days I struggle to do anything.

I had, through the miracle of social media, become familiar with his travels and adventures as “Spartan Martin” (as he’s known on Facebook and Instagram), a Marine-veteran who was determined to fight back against depression and post-traumatic stress by engaging in (lots) of vigorous physical activity. He struck me as my kind of guy—honest and tough enough to openly acknowledge his challenges and to battle like hell to overcome them. Most of Lonnie’s posts were positive and upbeat, often funny. But this one was different, proven by the black-and-white photo of his clearly frustrated face.

Our warrior class is in danger. We are the strongest nation in the world militarily, but those warriors we send in harm’s way are quickly becoming endangered. We are taking our own lives far too often. I know because on my worst of days I have come very close to being a statistic. I have strongly considered ending my own life due to the rigors of the daily battle with inner demons. I still battle, but everyday is another struggle to persevere.

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In the post, Lonnie stated that one reason that veterans are struggling with isolation and depression (even suicide) is that nonprofit organizations (like the one I lead) are failing to effectively reach out and connect. I was flushed with a rapid series of emotions—from “Holy shit, we’re failing veterans!” to “How dare you put that on us when we’re trying so hard to help”. It took me several minutes to level off. Eventually, I decided that I would offer Lonnie my cell phone number and ask him—challenge him, really—to give me call. A few days later, my phone rang. I didn’t think Lonnie would call, but I’m so glad that he did. Because, as he had written in that post . . .

I have battled PTSD and depression for more than 5 years with very little improvement. I understand it better and have found ways to live with it, but it still can attack quickly. It causes me to isolate myself and dig in for the depression tide to surge back in. I hit my lowest lows in the past few months. I isolated myself. I started to give up. I just could not go on anymore. Suicide is seen as giving up. For me it was ending the pain. How do you battle that? Everything in me told me to battle it alone. This was my fight. After all I had been through in combat how could I not be able to conquer this. Unfortunately that just does NOT work at all.

After just 20 minutes on the phone, I gained a much better understanding for what Lonnie was going through. As a very active member of our Honolulu chapter, he had had his bad days, but was otherwise doing pretty well…until he hit a rough patch. Lonnie withdrew into isolation and stopped showing up. Most days, he felt alone, battling with depression, and wasn’t sure where to turn.

My girlfriend had seen enough and ordered me to get help. I found a PTSD support group locally sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project, which helped with getting out of isolation. I vented like many others in my support group about the VA and the mental health support. My group kept mentioning the Vet Centers as a great source of support. The Vet Centers are technically part of the VA, but operate in a way that you feel they have your best interests at heart by providing free and confidential counseling for combat veterans and their families. Far too many of us suffer alone in silence. I have been to the Vet Center now 3 times in the last week and have another appointment with a counselor tomorrow marking my fourth visit in 9 days. If I didn’t have my girlfriend pushing me so hard to seek help I don’t know if I would have. It was just a matter of time till I lost my battle.

This is where our conversation really started and illustrates how we, as veterans, often struggle to find resources, despite the fact that they are everywhere. Lonnie’s story delivered a few very powerful messages:

  • We, as individuals, have to be vigilant in our care for each other.
  • We, as veterans, must be willing to seek help when we need it.
  • We, as veteran-serving organizations, must work closely together.

 

No single person or organization can provide everything that every veteran needs, all the time. We have a collective obligation to provide what we can, when we can…and empower veterans to connect with other resources that may provide important services. It gives me great pride to know that while Lonnie found camaraderie and connection with Team RWB, he relied upon WWP for a PTSD support group and the Vet Centers for mental health counseling. However, he shouldn’t have had to experience such anguish before getting that help. That is why we, at Team RWB, are working hard to create working relationships with best-in-class partners in areas of critical need. As our chapters take root in communities, we must be aware of, and connect with, those delivering valuable resources. That’s why Lonnie and I decided to write this blog post, together. Lonnie says it really well.

We as an organization are not always best equipped to help folks like me. However, we are a powerhouse in the veteran community and touch more warrior lives than many other support groups. We within Team RWB are going to recognize those that need help first. We might be the only place that a veteran interacts with others outside of family. Heck, I spent more time with Team RWB than any other place. It was easier being with other veterans because of all the shared experiences. When we leave the military sometimes we feel alienated from civilian society, which makes Team RWB such a vital touch point for us to stay socially engaged. Team RWB has partnerships with other organizations that can provide the expertise and understanding of what it will take to win our inner battles.

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I cannot thank Lonnie enough for his courage. By sharing his story, he is shining a light, not only on the challenges, but also on the solutions. Please, keep an eye on each other. Know the Five Signs of suffering, and take action. Take it from Lonnie:

Don’t be scared to ask the tough questions. Don’t be scared to get up in their business. Hurt feelings are easier to fix than losing your friends to their inner demons. Reach out. Call that Eagle that totally disappeared from events. Notice that change in behavior, mood, amount of social contact. Suicidal thoughts are not normally the first sign. As a warrior it is the hardest thing in the world to ask for help, and fighting a solo battle is impossible to win.

 

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