Veteran Recovers Strength, Optimism Through Mental Health Telephone Support Program
Veteran Eric Haynes remembers July 4, 2007 like it was yesterday. He was honorably discharged from the United States Army earlier that year and was looking forward to celebrating our nation’s Independence Day with family and friends. Like everybody else, Eric and his group laid out blankets and picnic items at the local park and waited for the fireworks to start – however a different series of explosions was waiting to erupt.
As Eric watched his eldest daughter jump around and laugh with a friend, something triggered inside him, and what transpired next would take him more than a decade to repair.
“I just went off on her,” said Eric. “I screamed and yelled, became angry and aggressive. I was flailing my arms around, getting closer and closer to her. It caused a huge scene. My daughter was terrified. Looking back, I have no idea why the police were not called to intervene. I have no idea why I went into a rage. This one event ruined the health of my family’s life for a long time.”
In hindsight, Eric would pinpoint that moment as a major life event in reckoning his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). It was one of the moments he shared first when he agreed to take advantage of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) and its WWP Talk program – a free mental health telephone support line that provides a safe, non-judgmental environment for warriors to connect with trained staff members.
Taking part in WWP Talk was an important step in Eric’s healing process. But until that outreach, many years would pass filled with darkness, confusion, and anger.
Military life: cranes, forklifts, and concrete barriers
Eric operated cranes and drove forklifts in the military. During his deployments to Iraq, Eric built barriers for bases, laid blockades in roadways, and collected convoy trucks that were destroyed by rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) or improvised explosive devices (IED), which according to Eric happened quite frequently.
“We were sent out at all hours of the day and night,” said Eric. “Our platoon was small, so we moved around to different regions of the country.”
One particular job Eric’s platoon worked on was helping rebuild watchtowers for several Iraqi hospitals that were under constant attack by enemy forces. During one watchtower rebuild, Eric fell off his crane, landing on his head.
“I was knocked unconscious for about 10 minutes," said Eric. “I got up and went right back to work because that is what you do in the military. I did make it to the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital where I received Tylenol, but I was cleared and sent back to work.”
Eric didn’t realize it at the time, but that fall caused his TBI. In addition to the PTSD from being under the constant threat of enemy ambush, his wounds wouldn’t become evident until after he was honorably discharged from service and he returned home to his family.
Silent, invisible wounds
On the surface, life was enjoyable, normal. After spending years in the military, with two of those being deployed back and forth to Iraq, Eric was looking forward to the next phase of his life. He and his wife had purchased their first home. His daughters were growing up healthy, and he was feeling good about transitioning back to civilian life.
That July 4th event revealed a different story taking place below the surface. Eric’s life was spiraling out of control.
“My night terrors followed that event, and my kids could hear me screaming and cursing throughout the night,” said Eric. “I had to sit my daughters down and explain to them that daddy was dealing with something he didn’t know how to deal with.”
Eric’s troubles didn’t stop there, and he continued to struggle with PTSD and TBI.
He noticed his memory wasn’t as resourceful as before. He was feeling angry more often and couldn’t understand why. He and his family were involved in a car accident that flipped his car three times, adding more damage to his TBI and PTSD. The new house he bought for his family was in foreclosure. With his inability to understand or gain control of what was happening to him, his relationship with his wife and children deteriorated.
Eric admits he was on the road to becoming a statistic of suicide. He wanted, and was ready, to take his own life.
A daughter’s plea
Eric continued struggling with depression, TBI, and PTSD while receiving treatment and trying to get his life together. He worked to make amends with his daughters and put his education to use. With a Bachelor of Science in Religion and a Master of Divinity, he served as a pastor at his local church and as chaplain for the VA in Pittsburgh. Despite being able to help others, Eric dealt with several major mental breakdowns, and he couldn’t find a way to break the cycle.
“I was masking my pain effectively to the point where I had myself fooled that I was doing better,” said Eric. “Though deep down, I was wondering how I could be helping people when I didn’t have a handle on my demons.”
The next significant moment in his life came back full circle to his eldest daughter – the same daughter he verbally chastised nearly 10 years before.
“During another altercation with my daughter, she said something I will never forget,” said Eric. “And it changed the course of my life – this time for the better.”
Eric explained that during that argument, his daughter yelled, “Daddy, you never came back from Iraq, and you need to!”
Those words pierced Eric’s innermost core, and for the first time in many years, he felt that he could finally see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Somehow his daughter’s moment of clarity, anger, and resolve was now his, and he knew he had to accept his challenges and work harder to overcome them.
A life-altering phone call
Eric began making changes in his life. He finally recognized his PTSD and TBI and applied for social security benefits. He also accepted his marriage wasn’t working and divorced his wife of 24 years. Somewhere along the way, he saw an ad for WWP and went online to register.
Eric attended a few WWP connection events, which are designed to bring warriors together to foster support and build a peer networking group. He attended a Syracuse University football game and participated in outings such as bowling and going to the movies. He had found a source of strength and understanding that had been missing.
Around February of 2018, Eric received a phone call from a WWP staff member asking him if he had ever heard of WWP Talk. He listened with great interest as he learned about the program.
“What happened during that phone call changed my life forever,” said Eric. “I knew there was something special, encouraging, and calming to me when she spoke, and when she listened, I knew there was nothing else more important to her at that moment than what I had to say.”
Eric willingly agreed to participate in the program, which consisted of receiving weekly calls from a WWP staff member to connect and talk. The program is non-clinical and designed for veterans to establish a scheduled time to talk about anything. Conversation topics include (but are not limited to) family life, military experience, work, and relationships. The WWP talk program aims to help warriors build resilience, develop coping skills, and achieve goals that improve quality of life.
“Over the next weeks and months, we spoke at great length about my life and military experiences,” said Eric. “I shared things that only a few people know. Being able to share difficult thoughts and experiences was life-changing, and talking about them openly filled me with a strength that I hadn’t felt in a very long time.”
Participating in WWP Talk opened many new doors for Eric that added to the growing network of support needed to overcome his obstacles and regain a positive outlook toward the future.
“I learned about Team Rubicon and their work in helping others in the community. I signed up to help out when needed,” said Eric. “Wounded Warrior Project helped me find a PTSD service dog who I love dearly. I also joined physical health and wellness events like Soldier Ride® where I met more Wounded Warrior Project team members who shared a love of cycling.”
That was just the tip of the iceberg for Eric. The personal successes he experienced through engaging in the WWP Talk program allowed him to reconnect and make amends with his kids, and reach out to heal a strained relationship with his estranged brother.
“After 30 years of not talking, I found the strength to reach out to my brother. Wounded Warrior Project made that a reality,” said Eric. “To celebrate, we went to a Penn State football game where we met the players, toured the facility, and were honorary team captains. Now, when we see each other, we say ‘I love you’ – something the Haynes brothers never did.”
The journey was not easy for Eric. Before that first phone call with WWP, he felt he was deteriorating mentally and physically. He was starting to succumb to the years of depression and pressures of life that were dominating his daily thoughts. He secluded himself, rarely went out in public, and harbored thoughts of suicide on more than one occasion.
Now, that is a thing of the past.
“Recently, I went out to an open mic night and sang a song in public in front of people I didn’t know,” said Eric. “I could never have done this had it not been for the people of Wounded Warrior Project, or programs like WWP Talk.”
Eric credits WWP and WWP Talk for saving his life and now looks forward to the future with pure passion and enthusiasm. He is planning to start a nonprofit program for veteran service dogs, a domestic violence shelter for men, and is even practicing for an upcoming audition for “America’s Got Talent.”
"Saying thank you is not enough, but let me say thank you," said Eric. "Wounded Warrior Project has shown me how to live again. I wake up in the mornings knowing I have a purpose in life and that each day is an opportunity to make a positive difference in my life and in the lives of those I love."
It’s important for warriors to talk to people who understand what they’re going through. In a WWP survey (https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/survey) of the wounded warriors it serves, more than half of survey respondents (51.6 percent) expressed they talk with fellow veterans to address their mental health issues.
To learn more about how WWP is giving every warrior a positive future to look forward to, visit https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/wwp-talk.
Contact: Perry Athanason – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.654.2193
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: http://newsroom.woundedwarriorproject.org/about-us.