‘Facing Stigma’ with Everett W.

“My interest in serving really started on 9/11 when I was a junior in high school in Greenwich, CT. Being that close to NYC and growing up in the area, I had a firsthand look at the devastation it caused in my community. I knew people who lost their mothers and fathers and had their entire lives uprooted by the course of that day. I was dead set on going into the military but wanted to get an education before signing on the dotted line. After high school, I pivoted away from collegiate sports so I could focus on going through the ROTC program at Wake Forest. It taught me a lot about what it meant to be a leader in respect to a military career path and further reaffirmed how much I wanted to join. After graduation, I signed up to be an engineer and a week later I was in Fort Sill at a basic officer leadership course. After going through a variety of courses, I graduate and then was sent to Fort Lewis where I was given command of a platoon that deployed for Iraq in April 2008. While deployed, our job was to drive 5 miles an hour for 14 hours looking for bombs. I got hit by three separate IEDs while I was there and it was one of those things where you just dust yourself off, reorganize, and keep driving. I led 163 combat missions before I ended up severely breaking my arm and being forced to finish that deployment as a battlefield liaison for my battalion. After coming back from that deployment, I spent the next few years doing brigade operations and it was a complete contrast to the environment I had just left. A lot of the guys from my unit, myself included, started having issues adjusting back to the normal day-to-day. After getting out of the military and moving to New York, the transition only got worse. I became more hyper vigilant and started drinking a lot to cope with everything. As I was trying to get everything sorted out and turned around, I received news that my good friend Frankie had died by suicide.

Frankie was somebody that I had gotten really close with during my time at Fort Lewis and a friend I confided in often. His unit had taken heavy casualties and he had to deliver something like 33 flags to the family members of the fallen. I knew it had taken a toll on him and I really kept at him to get help and talk to somebody. He turned to drugs and other coping mechanisms, but after his girlfriend left him everything spiraled. Just going through all of that changed everything and forced me to take an inventory of my own life and address some of my own issues; getting a grasp on my own mental health has been pivotal in enabling me to become the best version of myself. By seeking treatment through Headstrong, I have not only been able to identify my trigger points, but also understand what happened in my life to contribute to those triggers being present. The program helped me to retrain my brain to identify them so that I could process those feelings and develop tools to deal with the things I’ve experienced. In dealing with my own mental health and the loss of my good friend, my eyes opened to how pervasive these issues are in the veteran community. I knew I wanted to do something about the suicide epidemic in the veteran community and also honor the memory of Frankie, so almost 5 years ago we launched our charity, Operation: Heal Our Heroes. When we first decided to launch this effort, our goal was simple — if our efforts could save the life of one veteran, then it’s all worth it. That’s one of the things I really try to champion through HOH. That we’re all in this together and the only way to fix the problem is if we all work collectively to keep a lookout and inform friends and family of services available to them. I’ve taken a lot of pride in what we’ve done and I know Frankie would be proud of us.”

To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Everett, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/

Healing the hidden wounds of war