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Why veteran says 'getting it out and unpacking it' is key for mental health

Brian Helm: 'The Afghanistan pull out, I think how that went down has been very difficult for some'
Posted at 8:21 PM, Sep 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-13 00:37:35-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Suicide rates have been higher among veterans compared to nonveterans in recent years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That's why advocates are placing a big emphasis on mental health support for former service members this Suicide Prevention Month. This comes after the anniversary of 9/11 and the crisis in Afghanistan may be causing heavier emotions for some.

"You always think about your service, especially during times like this," said James Howard. "Was it worth it?"

It's an easy answer for him.

"I always say 100% worth it." Howard said. "We were an all-volunteer military. Even those who made the ultimate sacrifice knew what they were getting into."

James Howard
James Howard, founder of Veterans and Athletes United

The Richmond man began serving our country in 2002, the year following the attacks on 9/11. After medically retiring in 2010, Howard founded the non-profit Veterans and Athletes United.

He explained the goal is "to help other disabled veterans and people in the community to get back on their recovery paths."

While the organization focuses on exercise and adaptive sports, Howard knows his mission helps veterans reap more than just physical benefits.

"Getting involved where they give back and have a good purpose keeps their minds busy," he said. "I think it just does a world of good for your mental health."

Brian Helm
Brian Helm

"There's some stigma," Brian Helm said about the conversation surrounding mental health in the military community. "I think that the stigma is definitely changing over time, but it's still there."

Helm works as a clinical coordinator for Cohen Veterans Network at The Up Center in Virginia, which offers mental health care to post 9/11 veterans.

As a former service member of the Army, Helm understands the anniversary of America's darkest day can trigger a whirlwind of emotions for veterans and their families.

"When September 11th happened, it changed everything. It really did change the trajectory of the United States, and it definitely changed the military," Helm said. "And I think the emotions that come up with men and women that are either veterans or active duty, it's a real mixed bag."

Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 1.47.57 PM.png
(Left to right, top to bottom) Navy Hospitalman Maxton W. Soviak, Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, Cpl. Daegan W. Page, Cpl. Hunter Lopez, Cpl. David L. Espinoza, Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, and Sgt. Nicole L. Gee; (Not yet pictured) Sgt. Johanny Rosariopichardo

This year, Helm said those feelings are compounded by the crisis unfolding in the Middle East.

"With the war and the Afghanistan pull out, I think how that went down has been very difficult for some."

Helm went on to explain that the terror attack at the Kabul airport that killed thirteen service members has affected the entire military community.

"Especially for the people I've worked with that have been there and have seen lives lost, have wanted to save people but they couldn't, and have had to take lives," he said.

For veterans feeling the toll right now, Cohen offers this advice:

  • Acknowledge that your feelings are valid.
  • Unplug from your phone and TV.
  • Ground yourself in things you can control.
  • Seek support and connection.
  • Recognize changes that need to be made.

"Getting it out and unpacking it can be the best help," Helm said.

Fallen Heroes Memorial
Fallen Heroes Memorial

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For Howard, healing means living a life filled with purpose to honor those who risked it all.

"We all believed in what we were doing and still do," Howard said. "It stands for this American flag right here with all the names that are on it."

Helm wants people to know that while each service member wears the same uniform, they all have different experiences. He said the best way to be an ally is to open the door for communication and give them the space to share if they'd like to.