Combat Wounded Veterans of South Mississippi looks to aid those returning
It's a bleak statistic.
Twenty-two veterans take their lives every day. That's one every 65 minutes, according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
Most suicides are the result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans Affairs estimates PTSD afflicts 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, as many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans and 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan.
It's an issue veterans are well aware of, and for many of them, it's one that flies below the radar.
Seeing the need from her work as a Wounded Warrior case worker at Keesler Air Force Base, Donna Anderson founded the Combat Wounded Veterans of South Mississippi in 2011. On Saturday, the organization held its second annual meet-and-greet at Beach Park in Pascagoula, where about 30 veterans and their families turned out.
Some smiled as they recounted life in the military. Some were teary-eyed for the same reason.
Group helps those with PTSD
Symptons of PTSD can manifest itself in flashbacks and nightmares, or lead to a tendency to isolate from others, a sense of emotional numbness or social anxiety. Often, PTSD can lead to alcohol or drug abuse.
Anderson told why she founded the organization.
"The focus of our organization is assisting with the emerging needs of our wounded warriors, our combat vets who are attempting to transition into civilian life."
"It's a valuable service," former Marine Corps infantryman William Lafitte said of the group.
"This is better than any medication," he said of Saturday's gathering.
Lafitte sits in a wheelchair next to a picnic table where he talks with two other veterans.
Lafitte lost a leg while he was in the military, though not in combat. A transport bus Lafitte was riding in flipped over, killing one Marine and injuring Lafitte near Alabama's Fort Rucker.
"I'll never walk again," he said. "I went through that depression of losing a leg. I know what it's like. It takes some time to deal with.
"But no matter how bad you think you have it, there's always someone out there who has it worse then you, so be thankful for what you got."
Sitting next to Lafitte is David Alan Knight, a former Army airborne infantryman. He served in Iraq in 2006-07 and 2009-10.
The first in his family to go into the military, Knight said it's difficult for relatives to understand what he is going through.
"You know we have physical scars that can be seen," he said. "But no one can see the mental scars we bring back with us."
It's been difficult for him to find work.
"It's hard for someone like me to get a job. If you're honest and you say you have mental-related issues on the application, they don't hire you.
"It never goes away. You can forget the past but the past ain't going to forget you," he said.
Anderson's group has been one of the places he can express himself.
"Groups like this do save lives," he said.
A difficult transition
Shane Wallis is a Wounded Warrior veteran who volunteers with the organization.
A former Army infantryman, Wallis was wounded in Bosnia when he was blown out of a Humvee. He said he doesn't like to talk about that attack, which left shrapnel in his body. He suffers from severe PTSD. Not unlike many other veterans, it's the transition from always being on guard back that is difficult to shake now that he's back in civilian life.
"The adjusting, the shifting gears from military life to civilian life. You perceive everything as a threat," he said. "Some of us are still in combat gear, we're combat ready. We're still stuck there.
"We like to hang out here because we understand what each other has gone through, what's happened. We can find someone to talk to."
Veterans need advocates
It can be difficult to diagnose a veteran with PTSD, Anderson said. Many believe if they speak out about what they are experiencing, their benefits might be taken away or they will be kicked out of the military. Others, she said, believe admitting they need help is a sign of weakness.
"If I help just one person, I think it's worth it," she said.
Anderson said it's not uncommon for veterans to feel isolated when they come back home.
"They see things on TV or in the movies and have flashbacks. They're with their families and they don't want anyone to leave the house because they still perceive a threat constantly around them," she said.
"Every veteran needs to be assigned an advocate."
Anderson can be reached at www.cwvsm.org. She encourages veterans suffering from PTSD to contact her. She said she's always looking for volunteers.