Feelings of depression and anxiety or post-traumatic stress may be unseen. Yet, their presence weighs on the mind, manifesting itself through action or inaction in either feeding into the negative, unhealthful thoughts or addressing the depth of lows head-on through therapy and other forms of treatment. What is projected outward isn’t necessarily reflective of what is going on in the inside.
During the month of May, the Gary Sinise Foundation joins with organizations nationwide to raise awareness around mental health. What began in 1946 by the nonprofit Mental Health America to rouse attention to the oft-talked about topic, is today, a call to action to acknowledge those struggling with mental health, and to promote healthy habits in strengthening the resiliency and stamina of the psyche.
Since its founding in June 2011, the Gary Sinise Foundation has methodically taken steps to address the wellbeing of America’s heroes and their loved ones with mental health chief among the areas of focus. Regardless of the uniform worn, those who serve a greater calling in their community or the armed forces, are naturally predisposed to environments and circumstances that exacerbate the toll taken on their mental health.
For emergency medical services personnel, police, and firefighters, suicide remains an alarming cause of death. Within the armed forces and veterans community, suicide is an epidemic of even greater proportion. For Gold Star families, the harsh reality of having lost a loved one — never having had a chance to say a final goodbye, or tell their loved one for the last time, “I love you” — is a daily hardship. The emotional fatigue is unending for many whose husbands or wives, and fathers or mothers never made it home after a shift or patrol, or deployment or training.
The following stories reveal an array of troubling circumstances endured by those the Gary Sinise Foundation serves and honors. Collectively, the mental health needs of service members, veterans, first responders, and Gold Star families are addressed, whether directly or indirectly, through innovative and empowering methods found in the Foundation’s Relief and Resiliency program, including its Mental Health initiative.
Here, then, are the voices of the brave who have stepped forward to share their struggles in maintaining their mental health, and how, with the support of the Gary Sinise Foundation, they have renewed courage and grit to move forward, one step at a time on a path towards healing.
Out of eyesight and earshot of his fellow Marines stationed at MCAS Yuma in Arizona, Sergeant Andrew Bozeman was ready to pull the trigger and end an unraveling spiral he felt his life had taken. A toxic mix of feelings chipped away at his psyche, including depression and post-traumatic stress. The only way to solve the problem, he surmised, was to drive out into the middle of the desert and put a bullet through his head.
Notable Quote: “It was the simple fact that here is this celebrity who is giving up his time, his money, his everything to help serve us. It helps you realize that there are people out there who are willing to help you.” Andrew Bozeman, about Gary Sinise performing alongside the Lt. Dan Band at MCAS Yuma on March 30, 2003, the same day he planned to take his life by suicide.
New Jersey paramedic, Josh Fish, remembers like it was yesterday the fatal car wreck on the state’s I-295 he responded to as a rookie. The woman’s body lay in the driver’s seat, her wounds as horrific as the scene of the accident. She was dead on impact. The traumatic experience, like so many others, repeatedly plays in his head like a carousel.
Anxiety and depression built up in the ensuing years, alleviated only by abusing alcohol and drugs, and gambling. Josh Fish had lost his edge and nearly gave up a career born of altruistic service.
Notable Quote: “We would drink the bad feelings away. If it wasn’t drinking, I’d go out and gamble. If it wasn’t gambling, I’d work another shift just to be distracted and not think about what had happened.” Josh Fish about the state of his mental health.
Widows of fallen military service members and first responders bonded with each other during a three-day retreat in Los Angeles, California, at the beginning of March this year. Held three times a year, the focus of retreats is on healing and community support.
Organized by Never Alone-Widows of Heroes, women participating in the retreat came from across the country, having lost their husbands in the last five years. Some lost their husbands to service-related training accidents, and in the line of duty. Several lost their husbands to cancer. For others, the traumatic experiences their husbands routinely experienced ended up taking a deadly toll by committing suicide.
Notable Quote: “We have a third of our widows at this retreat whose husbands committed suicide due to PTSD.” Ginger Ravella, Gary Sinise Foundation Ambassador, and an organizer of the retreat.
More than a decade had passed since soldiers from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had seen each other. Deployments to Afghanistan and suicide had, over the years, taken a deadly toll on the 82nd Airborne Division unit known as the Red Devils.
Last November, during a weekend-long retreat in Dripping Springs, Texas, members of Charlie Company regrouped alongside several Gold Star families for a reunion that was as much about honoring the fallen as it was in rekindling relationships with one another.
Notable Quote: “It was something they needed that they didn’t realize they needed until they were actually there.” Retired Army Staff Sergeant George Serrano about Charlie Company’s reunion.
Melissa and Nathan Johnson were already living paycheck-to-paycheck when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) struck their community in upstate New York. Melissa lost her job as a part-time educator, placing added pressure on her husband, Nathan, a firefighter and paramedic diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from a combat deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
Nathan’s mental health had taken a beating after ten months of being surrounded by the sights and sounds of war. Thoughts about suicide trickled into his head and took a dark turn on four separate occasions.
Notable Quote: "People don’t understand what it’s like over there and what you do.” Retired Army Specialist and first responder, Nathan Johnson, about serving in a combat zone.
When her college sweetheart Army Specialist Jose Ruiz, was killed in action in 2005, Alexa was traumatized by the series of events that soon followed. A late-night phone call from Iraq from Jose's battle buddy informing her of her husband's death. The knock on the door by a priest and casualty officer from the Army whose message left her in disbelief and misery. Depression and darkness took hold of her life as a Gold Star widow and mother of a young daughter.
Notable Quote: “We’re the ones who live with the pain inside of us. We feel the loss and pain every day.” Alexa Ruiz, whose husband Jose was killed in Iraq in 2005 while serving in the Army.
Written by Brandon Black