James Washington said 246 veterans committed suicide last year, more than the number of soldiers who died in combat.
“How can we help? By letting individuals know they have a place to go to get help,” said Washington, a Prattville native who retired from the Army in 1985 after a 21-year career. He worked in Seattle for the King County department of Adult and Juvenile Detention for 22 years before retiring and moving back to Alabama in 2007. The National Association for Black Veterans chapter in Montgomery that he now commands was founded in 2009.
Washington told stories of veterans who told friends or relatives they were going to kill themselves, and succeeded in doing so because nobody knew where to take them for help.
“They used to call it shell shock, now it’s PTSD,” Washington said. “You are the front line to help families figure out what to do.” He said veterans frequently say “I’m OK” while suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and isolation as post-traumatic stress disorder goes untreated.
“Some of you right now still have the effects of PTSD in your lives and you’re not willing to admit it,” he told his audience.
“I grew up in Alabama going to church every Sunday whether I wanted to or not, with the preacher always saying, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Then six months later I’m standing in a rice paddy with rain coming down on me, trying to kill somebody who didn’t even step on my blue suede shoes. How do I turn that off when I come back?” he asked.
Washington said the PTSD problem spreads into every American community because so many who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were in National Guard or Reserve units. They didn’t return to a military base for debriefing; they returned directly to their communities and families and former lives with no visible support system in place to help them transition from war.
“I’m recruiting you as soldiers again. We need to help the young men and women who are returning. You’re already serving, but there is more we need to do.”
He emphasized the need for female veterans to work with women returning from war. Some may have been victims of sexual assault, and those veterans especially need women as confidantes and advocates, he said.
Washington also called on every veteran to apply for their Veterans Administration benefits, and if denied, to apply again and again.
“You served, and you did this voluntarily. The VA is not going to knock on your door to give you your benefits. All you have to do is fill out the application. If you don’t need the money, put it away for your grandchildren or give it to a community organization that needs it. You’re not taking anything away from anyone else when you claim your benefits; you’re receiving what you deserve. Ask not, get not.”
During the program, Vietnam veteran Joe Teel Jr. honored prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, and Dawn Stevens of the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter presented a tribute to veterans and the flag.
Ginny Archer, director of the Talladega County Retired Senior Volunteer Program, highlighted the contributions veterans make in the community through volunteerism, and Jon Hall, president of Vietnam Veterans of American Chapter 945 in Sylacauga, gave thanks to all veterans and expressed the importance of teaching children about the contributions and sacrifices made by members of the American military.
Following the program, lunch was served inside the American Legion post.
Contact Bill Kimber at email@example.com