How to help troubled service members and veterans get through the holidays

Tis the season to be jolly. But military service members and veterans often experience a spike in depression or post traumatic stress disorder -- even suicide -...

Tis the season to be jolly. But military service members and veterans often experience a spike in depression or post traumatic stress disorder — even suicide — this time of year. For some of the warning signs and how you can help, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the Director of Admissions at Warriors Heart, Michael O’Dell.

Interview Transcript:  

Tom Temin And let’s begin with Warriors Heart admissions. You’re based in Texas, but you’ve moved to Virginia. What does the organization do?   

Michael O’Dell Yes. So we have two facilities, one in Texas, one in Virginia. And they both are here to treat veterans, first responders and active duty military who struggle with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress.   

Tom Temin All right. And so you have licensed counselors that are available to the folks that want to come in and avail themselves.   

Michael O’Dell Yes, sir. Fully licensed and accredited to include the joint commission. We’ve got doctors, nurse practitioners and all the clinicians they need to get their healing in order.   

Tom Temin And tell us about your own story. What led you to found this? Because you are a Marine Corps Veteran of Iraq and saw some heavy duty action there. Correct?   

Michael O’Dell Yes. I am from Bandera, Texas, which is where the Warriors Heart Texas location is. And I joined the Marine Corps when I was 19 years old, quickly deployed to Fallujah, Iraq and Ramadi. And when I got out of the Marine Corps in 2010, I struggled severely with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress. And I ended up finding myself about five years later, sitting behind bars in prison in Texas for substance abuse related issues. And I sat there for two years and wondered how I could have an honorable discharge, have served my country so well and honorably and then wound up in the penitentiary. And when I was released from prison, I actually found my place at Warriors Heart. And I’ve been here since almost six years now, serving this population in this community.   

Tom Temin And that’s kind of a double edged situation because if someone does end up in prison for some issue related to post-traumatic stress or whatever the case might be, that limits future employment prospects.   

Michael O’Dell Unfortunately, it does. It becomes very challenging. A lot of people will not look past your past and they only want to know what you’re about. And so I was I was blessed with the opportunity to be able to use the things that I’ve gone through in my past to help other people come out of that.   

Tom Temin And let’s talk about the holiday season, the Christmas season, Hanukkah season, whatever you want to call it, holidays. It does tend to magnify. What have you found with respect to the population you serve, veterans, people still in active duty military and first responders?   

Michael O’Dell Yes. So the holidays are tough, especially for military. A lot of us will deploy, we’ll be gone for the holidays. And we form this tight brotherhood, this camaraderie with our fellow soldiers and Marines and service members. And a lot of the times, some of them that we served with are no longer with us. Whether they died in combat, whether they succumbed to suicide, whether they committed that final act, they’re no longer with us. And so oftentimes the holidays can bring those memories back. They can bring back the trauma. They can bring back that loss that we suffered through. And then the first responders, a lot of them, we know that things escalate during the holidays, celebrations, parties, drinking, that the festivities that come along with it bring problems in. The first responders spend their holidays away from their families, trying to protect the community and respond to these situations through the holidays. So when a first responder might think of July 4th or Christmas or New Year’s, they’re not thinking about a picture perfect holiday. They’re thinking about the accidents that they have to respond to and then come home and act like it’s all okay.   

Tom Temin And watching the Army Navy game, you know, last week on television taking place up there in New England, Patriots Stadium, they had cutaways to different military units around the world as they were watching the game. And in that case, you had service members operating together somewhere far away from home, but at least they had one another. Even though it’s the holiday season. What’s the dynamic in which a service member then might be home, but the camaraderie and the fellowship of those service members around them are not there? And it’s just family and people on the street driving by.   

Michael O’Dell Yeah, it’s a you know, every time a warrior comes through the gates at Warriors Heart, one of the things that we do as an organization is welcome them home. Every warrior that comes through our gates gets welcomed home. And a lot of them don’t know what that means at first. It really is spiritual. When a first responder or a service member comes back from a mission. Or comes back from deployment. They might be home, but they’re not really there. Their mind is with their brothers in combat. Their thoughts are with them. And they’re acting like they’re home. They’re trying to be home, but they’re just not there yet.   

Tom Temin And those that are there with them, what can family members, friends, acquaintances do to help ease that situation and make them feel like they belong where they are? Because words can sound empty.   

Michael O’Dell They can. And, you know, I go back to my experience when I came when I was home, I was not well. I was not okay. I was I was not doing good. And people continued to ask me what was wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, or why are you not okay? Why can’t you fix yourself? And I know that they meant it. I know that they wanted me to do well. But those words pierced my soul. It just is set in stone that I’m not okay. And so I think one of the best things you can do if you notice a loved one is struggling, is to just love them and listen to them and when appropriate, support them. But I just go back to what’s wrong. Don’t ask them what’s wrong. Clearly, they’re not okay.   

Tom Temin And what are some of the external signs that people should look for to go into that mode of simply listening and being empathetic without trying to probe and give empty advice?   

Michael O’Dell Yeah. So there’s all kinds of signs and symptoms out there. So you can look for sadness on your on your loved ones face. You can a loss in appetite, a fatigue. You can see feelings of guilt and shame. And there they’re just not present. If your family member or loved one is not present and you can tell something’s wrong, something’s wrong. People crave presence. And when they don’t have it, something’s off.   

Tom Temin And what can you say then, that has meaning? Or is there a way to gently suggest that they go to a place like Warriors Hearted Missions? There are other organizations that offer these types of services. Is it okay to simply suggest check them out?   

Michael O’Dell It is. We highly recommend. So there’s a lot of good videos on YouTube. We have a documentary, Warriors Healing Warriors. It’s on Amazon Prime. And it really paints a beautiful picture of who we are and what we do and why we’re here. But what a loved one can do is, is just say, hey, I can tell that you’re struggling. I know that. You know that I know. And I want to be there to support you. I found this resource. And if you’d like, I can call. Or you can call or they can call you. My team is very experienced. I’m a veteran, as we talked about already. I’ve got retired police on my team. We understand what’s going on. So you’re not going to be talking to someone in some other country that doesn’t know what you’re going through. We get it because we’ve been there.   

Tom Temin And people that have troubles with alcohol, alcoholism, there is a heightened temptation, a heightened availability, heightened, pushing almost of drinking during the holiday season, holiday gatherings and so forth. How do you navigate that one?   

Michael O’Dell That’s a tough one, especially for folks that that truly do struggle with substance abuse because we want our holidays. We know we’re not perfect. We know that people know they’re not there. And when we know we’re not perfect and we’re seeking a perfect holiday, it adds stress, adds pressure, and then the pressure will explode. And people it’s okay for folks out there that have a drink with their family, loved ones, this that’s all fine. But for the ones that can’t do that, we try to be normal. And so we try to fit in. And then next thing you know, we’re not fitting in. And things have exploded from the pressure of just trying to be what we think is normal.   

Tom Temin So a pure eggnog without the rum. That’s not such a bad way to host a party then, is it?   

Michael O’Dell That’s not a bad way to host the party.   

Tom Temin All right. Any other thoughts? People should understand when having a loved one who is a service member, veteran or first responder around in the holidays.   

Michael O’Dell So there’s a lot of things that loved ones and the warriors themselves can do. If they’re in recovery, they can go to a meeting. They if they’re in recovery, they understand that service is key. Finding somebody they can serve, finding something they can do with their time that helps others and family members can engage in that as well. Take the family out and go serve somebody that brings so much more meaning to the holidays than just trying to make it so picture perfect because we know it’s not going to be that way anyway.  

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