‘Facing Stigma’ with Derek Coy

“I never felt any pressure from my dad to join, despite the fact that he was a Marine and my grandfather was as well. In fact, he encouraged me to go to college instead, but there’s this great quote by James Baldwin that I think of when I look back at this time in my life, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” In theory I always wanted to be a Marine because I saw the military as a chance for upward mobility, but to be honest I thought it would be too tough for me. I didn’t know if I had the necessary attributes to be a good Marine so I decided to go to community college out of high school instead, which is when I ended up losing one of my best friends to gun violence on September 11th of 2004. When you lose a good friend at 19 you develop an understanding of just how fragile life really is. I was also in this haze and fog after his passing and just wanted to get away. I decided to join the Marines in October, I went to boot camp in December, and by August I was in Iraq. My year in Iraq was tough but it gave me a lot of perspective and taught me a lot about myself. It really changed me and really made me who I am because of the experiences I was able to have. Those years in the military had the biggest impact on my life compared to any other time. I ultimately decided to get out and was actually excited to make that transition back into school. I was dating someone seriously at the time and I figured my next steps were to get my degree and get married. I had those goals in my mind but the reality was i had a hard time dealing with a lot of undiagnosed trauma from my time in the service, as well as dealing with the loss of my best friend and earlier issues from my childhood. I tried to run away from all of these problems, only to have them finally catch back up to me.

I assumed my transition would be easy but it really blindsided me. Within months of leaving the military I was dealing with issues like anxiety and depression, and before long I was having suicidal ideations. I didn’t know what was happening inside me so I started self-medicating out of fear to numb those feelings and suppress what was going on. People close to me notice something was different and shortly after my relationship crumbled I ran away to New York City and tried to start over. That’s when everything really hit me. When I got there I was so lonely and isolated. I never imagined my transition would be harder than my time as a Marine, but looking back on everything, that was the hardest times of my life. One day by happenstance I got an email from this organization called Headstrong while working at IAVA. I had tried therapy before and hated it, but by that point I was having so much difficulty adjusting that I was down to try anything. I called Headstrong and did an intake with Gerard almost six years ago today, and it has been one of the best decisions of my life. It’s like having a personal trainer for your soul. It’s so much more than just having somebody to talk to, it’s like having a life coach that can help you get through whatever life is throwing at you. Thanks to their amazing team, I’m back up on my feet and have been given the opportunity to help others that are struggling in my role as the Veterans’ Health Officer at the New York State Health Foundation. One of the biggest honors of my life was being able to invest back in the Headstrong project and help spread their amazing work across New York State. It has been gratifying to be able to help the organization that helped me, but it’s been equally fulfilling to share my story with others. It’s one thing to get help, but it’s another thing to be open about it. I want to be able to talk more about my mental health struggles because I want people to realize they’re not alone and there are resources like Headstrong that can help them.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war