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From service to substance abuse: Veteran details how military injuries altered his life in a path all too common for veterans

Posted: 7:00 PM, Jun 04, 2021
Updated: 2021-06-04 20:09:55-04

Each year, thousands of men and women enlist in our military to fight our enemies and protect our freedoms. But when they come home, these heroes face an enemy that's become all too common for veterans- substance abuse.

Richard's time in the U.S. Navy was short, but the military's impact has been life altering.

“When I got my first orders, I had an accident boarding the first ship that I was on, and I injured my leg and my, and I hit my head. And then on the second ship, I did the same thing. And on the second time I fell, they told me that my leg was, was to the point that I would have to have six months of physical therapy, and they wrote in my report that I was at that point undeployable," he recalled.

“At that point I was, I was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk. Virginia, where I had, was diagnosed with a bleeding sub hematoma. I was in the hospital for quite a while. They had called my father and told him they didn't think I was gonna make it. But by the grace of God, I, I survived, and they sent me on leave. And two days after me being on leave, I was in a major car accident that damaged my left arm really bad and got nerve damage," Richard continued.

Richard was discharged and told he needed to follow up with the VA for his medical issues, but his discharge did not qualify him for benefits.

“I got out, I didn't have any benefits with the VA. I didn't have any physical therapy for my left arm. I had no follow ups," he said.

That's when Richard turned to alcohol.

“So I just learned to live with my disabilities, and the way I cope with it was drinking and, you know, I drank for like 30 years," the veteran confessed. “That was my go-to for like when I was having the headaches and I was telling them while I was in the service, you know, ‘Hey, I got these headaches,’ and they would just give me basically, I guess, Moltrin, you know, which wasn't, wasn't helping with the headaches. So the alcohol would help relieve the pain.”

“Was there a moment whenever you were in the midst of this dark time that you thought, ‘Okay, now I need to go get help and I can't do it by myself?’" asked 25 News reporter Sydney Isenberg.

“Yeah. That was in 2019 when I, when I was talking with that representative from the Workforce Solution," Richard recalled. "When he saw the signs, you know, he said, ‘Yeah, you need to get tested.’ And I believe on a couple of the questions that they asked you for the PTSD deal, we didn't get past the third question before I ended up going to Baylor Neurology for them to do an assessment on me to see you know, exactly what was going on, and what their report is, where I have multiple, multiple cases of depression, anxiety.”

Richard was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“One of my friends and former boss used to always say that I wasn't getting the proper care that I needed," the veteran said. "Once I found out about the issues that I got from the military, you know, it made sense and I haven't had a drink since."

The road to recovery hasn't been easy.

“For the longest, everybody thought I was just the old alcoholic, you know, but it wasn't that. It was me medicating myself," Richard said.

“I was in a, in a drug and alcohol class at the VA, because I went through mental health into this substance abuse training program, and in my group, one of the guys was an officer, and I was explaining how, when I first came back, how detrimental it was me to, to, you know, I had to have my drink, and I would pull up on police officers and even though I knew my directions where I was going, I would ask them for directions, and the instructor asked the other person that was in the class, that was a police officer at one time, he asked him, he said, ‘What do you think about his behavior at that time?’ And he told him he was, he would see me as a suicidal by cop.”

Richard's story is far too common for members of our military.

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According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about one in 10 returning veterans seen by the VA have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

Oftentimes veterans and active duty personnel do not seek help.

“The individuals who end up with a substance use disorder usually don't know that that's the path their headed down until later on. You know, their, their buddies aren't drinking as much, but they still are… and then of course, if they go through war or develop PTSD-like symptoms and stuff, it causes more problems," explained Lisa Grady with Veterans One Stop. “My brother is, he was 24-year Air Force veteran, and he served through Afghanistan and all that, and one of the things that I noticed with him was he said there was a lot of fear and going to anybody of rank to let them know what was going on, and so he saw friends getting discharged, dishonorably discharged from the military, because they weren't coming forward.”

“At first, I used to feel like I didn't want that label on me, but when I look at then and now, I'm thankful that I can say that I've went those experiences, and without God, I wouldn't have made it through a lot of things, and you want to change, you can. All you have to do is reach out and ask and somebody will be there to help you," said Richard.

Without of the support of his family and friends, Richard says he wouldn't be where he is today.

“They seen when I was, the times that I was sober, the good person. They knew the good person before I went into the military, and it's... I have a sister, my oldest sister, and when she found out, she works for the VA, she's an occupational therapist, and when she found out that I had, had that bleeding sub hematoma, she immediately changed her thoughts. She's like, ‘Richard, I never knew that you had a brain injury.’ She said, ‘If I had a known when you came home, we would have worked on that right then and there.’ And I mean that's, you know, within itself, you hurt my heart to know that I was going through, I was going through some really, really hard times, physically and mentally, and, and didn't nobody know exactly how to help me.”

If you believe a loved one has a problem, Grady says it's important to be kind and understanding.

“I call it planting a seed, and sometimes it's just something to say, you know,’is there something going on? I've noticed that, you know, you've been drinking a little bit more,’ or, ‘I'm a little concerned because I've noticed that you're spending a lot of time outside smoking weed. I mean, not being in here with our kids, is there something going on I can help you with?’ And most of the time, people with substance use disorders are going to blow it off and they're going to deny that they have a problem and then you leave it as a family member. You got to walk away from it and leave it for a minute, and that it just gets the person thinking about it and thinking, ‘You know, am I drinking too much? Am I using too much?’ Because they probably already thought it themselves.”

“I think a lot of people get hung up on that idea that if you don't want to drink, just don't drink, and, and I witnessed it from a lot of people that, you know, I care about said things like that, and so understanding that these individuals, if they could make the decision not to drink or to use what’s causing problems in their life, they would," Grady continued.

Despite the dark times, there is light on the other side.

“Life is getting better, you know, I'm thankful for all that I have and thankful for the things that I've gone through. And, you know, I'm happy to have a lot of the people that are in my corner right now," Richard said. “Instead of looking at negative things, I can take negative things in to look at it and find the positive out of it. I'm learning how to be more patient with people in situations."

Through everything, all the Navy veteran wants to see is change.

“I know it's millions of veterans out there that's not receiving the help that they deserve, you know? I just pray that the system in itself would, you know, would change and, and help those, you know, who, who are suffering," he said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The hotline is free, confidential and available 24/7.

If you or someone you know is a veteran in need of any type of assistance, contact Veterans One Stop at (254) 297-7171. For a list of services offered, click here.

If you would like to help Veterans One Stop and their mission of serving local veterans, click here to donate.