After 30 years in the Army, Tonya Oxendine retired with the highest enlisted rank as command sergeant major. It was only after she retired that her life started to unravel. She faced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, even after securing a promising new career on the civilian side.
“I was struggling with my mental health and had suicidal thoughts regularly,” Tonya said.
Asking for help was not a skill Tonya was encouraged to use often, especially after ascending to a leadership position in the Army. It was difficult for her to ask for help even when she knew it was a sign of strength, not weakness. Tonya ultimately found strength in her deep sense of duty and accountability to others.
“There was a time when I did not want to live,” Tonya said. “But then I realized I was accountable to my sons. I was also accountable to my mental health professionals who had been working with me.”
She eventually found WWP Talk, a free mental health phone support line provided by Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). The program provides wounded veterans with free emotional support and tools to help them set and achieve goals.
Tonya started talking with a teammate from WWP Talk and participated in other WWP mental, physical, and financial health programs.
Through WWP Talk especially, Tonya realized how important it is to take care of herself for her own sake. “The truth was, at the time, I didn’t think that I mattered.”
WWP Talk offers individualized emotional support over the phone. Each participant is paired with a WWP Talk partner who will call them at the same day and time each week. They will typically talk for 20 minutes and work through setting goals and finding solutions that fit.
WWP Talk helps veterans like Tonya with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. It lets them know they are not alone.
“When I started talking with my WWP Talk partner, I felt alone and isolated,” Tonya recalled. “But soon I came to look forward to talking with him and took notes on what to share with him in between appointments. I knew he would want to know how I was doing.”
Tonya recalled how her WWP Talk partner changed her outlook with skills she could use “to cope with day-to-day anxiety.”
“My WWP Talk partner wasn’t pushy, he just listened,” Tonya said. “Sometimes I would just be crying and even his silent listening was comforting.”
His calm silence was a contrast to the raging storm inside her and had a calming effect. In addition, he was steadfast and reliable. “He never missed a call, and he was always genuine; he wasn’t reading from a script,” Tonya said.
Tonya learned to set her own goals and change them as needed to maintain focus.
“I’ve been doing counseling since 2012,” Tonya said. “As soon as I feel myself starting to go through that storm and start to get whipped around again, I use what I learned to refocus.”
With resolve and practice, Tonya began to feel as if the storm’s revolutions calmed down. Now, she has a list of things she can do to protect herself during tough times.
“Sometimes it’s something as simple as doing a Sudoku puzzle or taking my dog for a walk,” Tonya said. “I have resources to be safe. I can get through the storm quicker, and I can be prepared for what’s ahead and what cycles I go through.”
Today, she’s able to talk openly with her sons, now 33 and 27 years old, about things she overcame, and things she swept under the rug. Tonya also shares her story with other veterans, and she inspires many through motivational speaking, writing, and a podcast series.
“Thanks to WWP Talk, my counselors, and my mental health providers, I am now able to express myself in ways that can help others, which in turn helps me,” Tonya said.
Tonya is aware of the ongoing challenges veterans face. “You can be positive every day, but that doesn’t mean that every day is guaranteed to be good.”
Tonya observed that some days might still be difficult. The recent disruption of services and routines during the COVID-19 crisis is an example of that. “It truly takes effort and execution to reach out for help and to figure out how to be a little better every day — especially in times of social distancing. Even a micro-effort every day helps.”
These days, Tonya loves getting feedback from others and knowing she’s been able to help in any small way. After 30 years in the military, watching soldiers develop into leaders and encouraging younger soldiers helps her “keep the pulse on life.”
Through her work as a veterans advocate with WWP, Tonya has the opportunity to interact with veterans and civilians, and share positivity.
After overcoming the storms of life, having the opportunity to share her story with others produces a calming and joyous feeling: “I feel like I’m helping all of them, and it makes me feel like I have a sense of belonging, empowering others to increase their happiness.
“I really want people, especially veterans, to know it’s okay to ask for help,” Tonya said. “When we don’t ask for help, we can’t help others. It’s hard to do, but the effort is what’s needed to take that first step.”
What would she tell her former self? “Don’t be so independent,” she said without hesitation. “I didn’t ask for help. I thought I could do it better by myself.
“I would say to younger soldiers to reach out and ask for help. Sometimes we put ourselves in a corner. It’s okay to ask for help throughout life. That doesn’t mean you’re a burden or weak. It means you’re doing something for the team.
“WWP Talk is about resilience,” Tonya added. “It helps build resilience and find ways to be happy, better, and healthy. In helping my mental health, I’m going to be able to help other people find happiness.”
Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.426.9783
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.