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Father shares story of son's passing to raise awareness, help veterans overcome trauma

Posted at 2:13 PM, Sep 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-01 15:13:55-04

WACO, Texas — Videos of Afghans clinging to an airplane as it took off from the airport in Kabul and the images of coffins draped with American flags grabbed Americans' attention watching on through their television screens.

This iconic photo shows Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, as the final U.S. service member departing Afghanistan.

Just a few instances of the chaos and violence taking place ahead of remarks from President Biden on Tuesday, defending his administration's manner and method of bringing an end to America's longest war.

For some Vietnam Veterans, contemplating America's involvement in Afghanistan traces back to the 1950s when one of the most expensive U.S. foreign-aid projects funded the construction of dams along the Helmand River.

An undertaking is done with the perhaps good intention of development. But it ultimately yielded a lasting and profitable drug trade, with American-irrigated providing prime poppy cultivation real estate, in a nation continuously marred by corruption.

Or maybe the 1980s, when the U.S. provided aid in the form of arms and money to the Afghan mujahideen groups fighting against the occupying Soviet forces.

For most Americans, the conflict traces back to al-Qaida's attacks on Sept. 11 in New York City and Washington in 2001.

"Remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place?" President Biden asked in his Tuesday remarks defending the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. "Because we were attacked by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda on September 11th, 2001, and they were based in Afghanistan."

The Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop in Waco, TX.

"We delivered justice to Bin Laden on May 2nd, 2011 -- over a decade ago. Al Qaeda was decimated."

It was one reminder, followed by another. But one perhaps overshadowed by the shocking videos and raw photos we've seen dominate the recent news.

"18 veterans, on average, who die by suicide every single day in America -- not in a far-off place, but right here in America," President Biden said.

A stark reminder that the trauma of experiencing war is a burden Veterans carry with them during peacetime.

"All of my Afghan vets have talked to me specifically about a person, that they left behind."

Rick Allen is a Case Manager with Veteran's One Stop located within the Heart of Texas Region MHMR in Waco. It's a place where veterans and their family members can find support—everything from shoes for their feet to counseling services.

"One today said they keep waking up thinking about this little girl, in this village, that needed help. And I'm wondering what's going to happen to her?"

This week, Allen is seeing more Afghanistan Veterans reach out, seeking a safe place to discuss their service. Most of his Afghan vets, Allen said talk about a person left behind in Afghanistan.

Hanging on the wall in Rick Allen's office at the Veterans One Stop in Waco. Allen's son Nick served in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the United States Marine Corps.

"The other guy that I talked to today was saying, I'm wondering about the school that we helped to clean up after the Taliban had destroyed the school," Allen explains. "We put it back together for them and I wonder if it's going to be here a year from now?"

Allen said he's getting between eight to ten calls a day, from veterans reaching out for counseling. A number he said he expects to go up.

"Not all of those are Afghanistan or Iraq veterans either," he said. "I'm getting calls from my Vietnam vets, asking to talk."

While the videos and images of the war in Afghanistan spurred shock and emotion among civilians watching here in the U.S, the images resonate differently for veterans of America's wars.

"So the people who walked on the soil of Afghanistan are worried about the people of Afghanistan. And I think that was true after Vietnam."

Allen said the questions asked by his Vietnam veterans and Afghanistan veterans are sometimes similar. Two wars Allen said are too much alike.

"They're too much alike," he explained. "There's no parades. For Iraq, there were parades when those guys came home, there were parades in WWII. There were parades. I didn't see any celebrations on Sunday or Monday. And that reminds me of Vietnam. People getting off planes, and there's no one there to say 'hey do you need to talk?"

The conversations Allen has with veterans walking through his door can be as difficult as they are important. Today, an unyielding desire to help and an overarching fear of even one veteran not reaching out for support when they need it, fuel Allen in his mission.

It's a mission Allen has been on for 10 years after his son Nick killed himself after returning from war in Iraq in 2011.

"We had an adopted son, Nick, who came back and could not handle what happened in Iraq and committed suicide," Allen explained. “It’s been 11 years now, and I can talk about it without crying.”

Rick Allen looks on at his son Nick's picture which hangs in the Wall of Heroes at Veterans One Stop in Waco, TX.

Nick's parents died in prison, and Allen said his early childhood, left a hole.

"He lived with us," Allen said. "My son became his brother and my daughter became his sister."

And Nick found a family that loved him dearly. Allen gushes as he talks about Nick.

He was a true Boy Scout, a true ROTC kid, a corporal in the United States Marine Corps, a solid guy," Allen said with a smile as he shows off his picture hanging on the wall of heroes in the Veterans One Stop in Waco.

Nick's service took to him Iraq, where Allen describes his personality shined through in calls to home.

"He was never a guy for formality, he was relaxed and on point," Allen said as he looks upon his son's picture. "Every new person I meet, I bring back here to introduce to Nick."

Rick Allen points to his son Nick's picture on the Wall of Heroes at the Veterans One Stop in Waco. Allen said he comes and looks at Nick's at least once a day. Nick served as a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps during the Iraq War and passed away in 2011 when he committed suicide. Today, Allen uses his story to advocate and bring awareness to suicide prevention.

For Allen, telling Nick's story is the core of his mission.

"A trauma occurred after coming back home from Iraq," Allen said in describing Nick post-deployment. "After three years working, going to school, and going to the VA to stop drinking. A trauma occurred that he had not anticipated and it brought back all the hurt from his childhood"

In advocating and raising awareness for suicide prevention, Allen tells Nick's story leading up to his passing. He described the efforts of a Waco PD officer doing their best to convince Nick not to kill himself.

"We were not there for him,” Allen said. “I didn’t have the tools to help him and he committed suicide four hours after he decided to commit suicide. Four hours. You know, that’s not a lot of time for anyone to help."

Now, every minute of every day, Allen tirelessly works in making sure no veteran goes without knowing there's support and resources available to here in the community to help them in their time of need.

“I got this job because I don’t want others worrying, there’s not anyone there for them," Allen said. "I didn't want other families of marines to have to go through what we went through."

Amid a time where the pictures we see on the television screen of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the wars born out of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Nick's story resonates across generations for veterans and family members finding difficulty in discussing trauma today. One that Allen hopes lets veterans know they're not alone, and their service matters.

"Your service meant something because you stepped up to the plate," Allen said. "The war ending should not measure whether or not it was a worthy goal. You have to go and fight the fight if the fight needs to be fought."

For more information on the services The Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop in Waco provides visit this link.

The Veterans Crisis Line also provides free, confidential support and crisis intervention, 24 hours a day. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to838255, or chat online. You can visit this link or view the Tweet below for more information.