Friday, May 30, 2014

National Mental Health Awareness Month

By Anthony Del Signore

"I’m neither psycho nor mentally weak, and I don’t need some shrink telling me about my feelings or solving my problems!"  I vividly remember uttering these words four years ago to my now ex-wife, as my emotions and life were drowning in a vast body of water without a life preserver to stay afloat.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have spared myself months of emotional and mental turmoil.  Four years ago, I believed only the mentally ill or mentally weak required help.  I now know and believe everyone can benefit from working with a mental health professional.  I gained this insight while personally working with two counselors over the last four years.  The experience has changed my life, inspiring me to change the stigma associated with mental health services.

I understand why many people, in particular service members and veterans, struggle to ask for help—our society and the military culture teach us to be tough, to show no weakness, and to hide our feelings and mask our pain.  Society views those who seek help as unstable, undependable, or even crazy.  Unfortunately, this fear of being labeled leads many to rely on unproductive, and perhaps, damaging ways of coping with mental and emotional stress, such as alcohol and substance abuse, destructive behavior, and many other counterproductive coping mechanisms.  Many end up living empty lives lost in the confusion of darkness and pain rather than suffer the stigma associated with receiving mental health services.  In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I hope my story may enlighten others in similar situations and provide encouragement to seek help instead of resorting to harmful ways to hide or avoid pain and suffering.         

Prior to 2010, I considered my life a successful one —I graduated college with honors, had a successful career as a Marine Corps officer (to include a combat deployment to Afghanistan), achieved career and financial success as a civilian, and had a loving family with two beautiful children.  I thrived and was most comfortable in fast-paced, high-stress environments.  I was confident that I could handle anything and solve any problem, personal or professional.  Failure was not a part of my life until I was confronted with a problem I could not solve.

In the summer of 2010, I began to sense something was wrong with my relationship with my wife.  The affection was gone, we only talked about what needed to be done to manage our household and children; our relationship was more business than romantic.  We were traveling in different directions—we had different friends, different interests, and different priorities.  I reached out and asked her to find ways to reconnect and make our relationship a priority.  She agreed, but it never came to fruition.  I attacked our problems head on, as I would attack any problem.  She avoided them and resorted to passive aggression as a way to undermine my attempts to fix whatever had gone wrong with us.  I developed anxiety, feelings of desperation, and suffered emotional and mental anguish, all of which were foreign and unclear to me.  This can be immensely difficult for a type-A personality—I could not control the actions or feelings of another person, and it was becoming difficult to control my own.  I experienced sporadic and unpredictable bursts of anger, sadness, and frustration, causing more problems within our relationship.  

Then, one Saturday morning, a text message came through to my wife’s phone reading, “good morning sweetheart.”  My wife explained the message by stating it was a friend playing a joke.  I did not sleep for the next couple of days, as I was questioning whether or not to believe her.  I checked the phone records and discovered hundreds of messages from the same number in a short span of time.

Everything happened so fast; I did not know who to trust, and could not process or regulate my emotions.  My instincts told me she was having an affair, but my wife—the person who had promised me trust, love, and loyalty—was denying it.  I began to question myself, which exasperated my stress, causing me to be hyper vigilant and defensive.  I started feeling crazy and alone.  I coped by drinking more and lashing out in anger; I did not sleep and was often sick.  I was not eating and was always nauseated.  Within a month, I lost 40lbs, missed work, and became unfocused and paranoid.  I did not respond to my friends' phone calls, and I shut myself off from the world.  My behavior was erratic and risky; I was on a path to self-destruction.   I was also angry with myself for what I perceived as a weak response.  I had never imagined my life could be so out-of-control.  I had been in many stressful environments and had always maintained my composure.  I was disappointed in my behavior, but could not change.  On my wife’s birthday, three months into my depression, I had a party for her.  I had too much to drink and caused a major scene, ruining her birthday and frightening most of the guests, including her mother.  This was the turning point for me—I needed help.

I sought individual counseling as a last resort.  Luckily, I realized that if I could not regulate my emotions or mental state, I risked destroying my career or hurting myself or someone else.  I was already on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, which provided no relief.  What did provide relief were my counselors.  It was a hard decision to ask for professional help, considering my feelings towards the mental health profession and my own fear of being labeled or shunned.  But I can now admit that these sentiments and fears were completely wrong, and frankly, ill-informed and stupid.  Throughout the rest of 2010 and all of 2011, I saw two counselors—one at work and one in the private sector—often, twice a week. I credit these two women with saving my life.  

Through my counseling sessions, I gained insight into my behavior, accepted my role in the destruction of my relationship, and learned constructive techniques to cope with the emotional and mental pain and to adjust to the loss of my family and the drastic changes that followed.  I found a renewed confidence in my ability to endure future emotional stress, and these sessions also offered me a chance to review my life and discover new meaning and purpose.  Prior to seeking help from a professional, I genuinely believed I was mentally and emotionally weak and on the verge of losing control, which was almost as difficult for me to comprehend as losing my family, and this belief was a major contributor to my emotional and mental state.  However, what I learned through counseling was that my reaction was a natural response, which often manifests when confronted with loss or other traumatic experiences; it is called emotional intensity.  Emotional intensity or dysregulation often occurs with significant relationship loss, such as infidelity, physical or psychological trauma, traumatic loss, and even medically retiring from the military—a career one had hoped would be life-long.  This understanding allowed me to view my emotions and feelings within context, giving me perspective into my emotional and mental response.  This simple realization was the catalyst that enabled my recovery and established a sense of normalcy.

I am now working on a master's in social work, and I make it a point to reach out to others who might be struggling emotionally.  I feel obligated to share my story, knowing there are many people who share the same negative attitude and fears that I once had, especially military active duty members, veterans, and men in general.  Much work still needs to be done to remove the stigma and negative labels associated with mental health services.  It shouldn't be so hard to accept.  If we have physical pain, we see a physician.  If we have tooth pain, we see a dentist.  Do we think we are immune from suffering emotional and mental pain?  We are often encouraged to receive annual physicals to ensure we are healthy.  Why should we not receive annual mental health check-ups to ensure we are mentally and emotionally healthy?  I would argue that we all should treat our mental and emotional health the same as we treat our physical health.  We all have problems and struggles that affect our emotional and mental well-being, and we could all benefit from occasionally speaking with a mental health professional.  

Even though I have been out of the Corps for eight years, I still do my best to live by the Marine Corps Leadership Traits and Principles.  My favorite principle is “know yourself and seek self-improvement.”  Working with a professional is the best way to fulfill this principle and evaluate and improve one's strengths and weaknesses.  You are not weak if you ask for help; it requires more courage, strength, and self-knowledge than the alternative. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Golf Fix to Air a Special Veterans Episode June 2

For its fifth year in a row, Golf Channel will air a special episode of The Golf Fix featuring veterans who love the game of golf and Hope For The Warriors®. The following testimonials from veterans explain how working with host Michael Breed and The Golf Fix improved their game and outlook on life since appearing on the show. (The year they appeared on the show is in parenthesis.) 

The special episode of The Golf Fix airs Monday, June 2 at 7 p.m. EST.

Joel Hunt (2013)

Michael Breed reiterated to me that I'm human. I forget that just because you have a disability, you can still adapt to everything. You have to finish the swing no matter what life throws at you.

Nick Bradley (2011)

Michael Breed and his team on The Golf Fix helped my game is so many ways.  Not only did Breed help me get my swing on plane, he also gave me the best putting advice I have ever received.  He told me nothing was wrong with my putting stroke I just needed to practice aiming. And that is exactly what I did.  It has improved my golf game ten fold.  I owe much thanks to Michael Breed and the Hope For The Warriors® team for making this possible.

Nick and Domingo at an LPGA Tournament in Mobile, AL

Domingo Eslava (2012)

Working with Mr. Breed was pretty much the start of my golf career.  From that moment off I knew I wanted to do something in the golf industry.  Other than playing golf any chance I got, I also volunteered my time by helping others get interested in the game of golf.  This sport really helped me with my depression and got me focused on a career outside of the military.  Before golf I was lost, I was scared, and I really didn’t know where to start.  Hope For The Warriors® was a huge help in changing my life, they gave me so many opportunities in and outside of golf.  They helped me above anything I could have ever expected.  When I got the call to go to Florida and meet with the Golf Channel I had no idea what was in store.  It wasn’t until the morning of the meet and greet that I found out I was going to be on the Golf Fix with Michael Breed.  The experience alone was a great highlight of my life and the motivation Michael Breed and Hope For The Warriors gave me really helped me move onto a new life without the military. 

When I retired from the military I relocated to South Carolina because, of course, the golf is all year round.  I searched for many courses to join and set my heart on Crowfield Golf and Country Club.  Robert Brock who is the Head Professional at Crowfield really helped me get settled into the area and made me feel comfortable at my new home.  I spent a lot of time trying to develop my game but never knew where to start my career.  My current golf coach, Kurt Adamski, the Assistant Professional, came to me with a great opportunity.  He offered me a job working at a Pro Shop attendant recognizing my aspiration on making golf my new career.  After being hired, both Mr. Brock and Mr. Adamski really took my under their wings and showed me the ins and outs of the golf industry, while also getting me ready for the Player Ability Test to begin my training in the PGA Program.

In March I played my Players Ability Test at The Walkers Course at Clemson University and was able to make my qualifying score to move on into the PGA Program.  I am now registered as a PGA Apprentice and currently seeking employment as an Assistant Golf Professional so that I may move forward in my PGA career.  I would like to thank Michael Breed and everyone at the Golf Channel for the great opportunities they have given to me and all of us service members who see golf not just as a hobby or a game but the perfect therapy to get us through the hard times.  A special thanks goes out the Kurt, Rob and everyone at Hope For The Warriors® for changing my life and other lives with your contributions.

Bobby Joseph (2011)

I didn't know what I was getting myself into meeting Michael Breed and learning how to swing with a bad ankle, which was one of the injuries that I sustained from the Improvised explosive device (I.E.D) on the third tour in Iraq. I didn't want to go because I just had my ankle worked on, which was hard to walk on and very tender. Michael Breed taught me a unique swing without putting pressure on my left ankle and held my balance. I was the happiest Wounded Warrior ever! Who would of thought that in my lifetime that I'd play golf and enjoy it.

Wyatt Larkin

In the spring of 2011, I chose to participate in the Birdies for Charity program through the AJGA Leadership Links. The organization I picked was Hope For The Warriors®, which helps our wounded service members get back on their feet after serious injury. The first time I heard about Hope For The Warriors® was on the Golf Channel show Golf Fix with Michael Breed. Marine Bobby Joseph and Airman Nick Bradley were guests on the show. While watching, I felt serious compassion for them. I felt the need to take part in helping provide them with what they need. I had a desire to help make their life as enjoyable as possible, especially after all they've done for my family and our country.

My experiences with Hope For The Warriors® have been life changing. I approach my personal challenges with a different attitude now. The challenges we face at home are easy compared to what the soldiers face in combat while fighting for our freedom and what they face when they return home with injuries. Listening to their stories makes me work harder than I ever have. I think it is important to show that there is a younger generation that wants to help.

For the second consecutive year, I visited Camp LeJeune and played in the Scarlet & Gold Invitational with wounded Marines. Their stories were amazing and they taught me to be happy no matter the circumstances. They are true heroes. With the intention of helping them, I am amazed at how much they have helped me. I am truly humbled.

I was invited to attend the Bush Center Warrior Open in Dallas, TX and had the honor to talk with President George W. Bush while he graciously signed my copy of Decision Points. My dad and I had a blast watching the warriors play. Their ability to hit golf balls while dealing with numerous disabilities is miraculous. 

My intention is to continue supporting worthy causes like Hope For The Warriors®. Hopefully other young golfers will see the importance of giving not just money, but their time. Golf is a “gentlemen’s game;” Gentlemen are helpful, kind, and will give when needed. The PGA has a tradition of supporting charitable causes. We need to continue that spirit to keep the reputation of the sport held high.

You now have the chance to tweet the golf pros your questions throughout the 
day Monday and during the airing of this special episode of The Golf Fix. 
Use #TheGolfFix to join the conversation!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Donate a Mile to Send a Veteran and His Family Home

Hope For The Warriors® is proud to grant Lance Cpl. Hector Sanchez, USMC (Ret.), and his family of four, a trip to his native Puerto Rico this summer. Sanchez was born in Puerto Rico but adopted as an infant and raised in the United States. Granted as part of the A Warrior's Wish® Program, the Sanchez family hopes that this trip will be an integral part of his therapeutic recovery by connecting him with his culture and history.

Now we ask for your help granting this Wish to the Sanchez Family. It is approximately a 1,500 mile plane ride from the Carolinas to Puerto Rico.  We hope to raise $5 for every mile. Your donation will send Hector and his young family home again.

Hector served eight years in the Marine Corps, including a total of 19 months deployed to Iraq. During his two deployments, he endured the impact of five IEDs and witnessed severe combat conditions. When he returned home, it was clear to his wife Aida that he was suffering from PTSD. Aida saw significant psychological recovery in Hector after various types of counseling, but felt another fulfilling step was needed. Aida then turned to Hope For The Warriors® and applied to the A Warrior's Wish® Program on Hector's behalf.

These important steps have allowed Hector to give back to his community and reconnect with his family. His daughter and son were very young during his deployments and are now able to get to know him. Hector also volunteers with the Department of Juvenile Justice, Big Brother, Big Sister, and the Food Bank.

Hector is an avid photographer and uses this art form to understand and appreciate his identity and passions. Returning to his origin of his birth will serve as a "cultural expedition" and give him the unique opportunity to document his time in Puerto Rico both personally and through the camera lens.

You can help grant this Wish. Again, we need to raise $5 for every mile of the 1,500 to send the Sanchez family home. Donate to support 1 mile or 100 miles--every donation counts!

Hope For The Warriors® has granted this Wish to restore self, family, and hope to Hector, Aida, and their children.  The Wish includes plane fare, hotel stay, and basic necessities during the week-long visit.  This is not a lavish vacation.  But it is one that will strengthen the bonds within the family that were strained during deployments and Hector's recovery.  We are proud to grant this Wish and hope that there are others that want to help.

You can learn even more about Hector, Aida, and their two children through a blog story posted in April, Month of the Military Child.

To support the Sanchez Family's Wish, please donate a mile today!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Wish Inspires New Life for Photographer

This is a testimonial written by veteran Travis Dowling as a follow-up blog published in February 2013. His original story can be found here.

About two years ago I asked Hope For The Warriors® for new camera equipment as part of the A Warrior’s Wish® program. At the time I had just been medically retired from the Army after 11 years of service and had to sell most of my equipment to pay bills and provide food for my family. After the Wish was fulfilled, it drastically changed and continues to have a huge impact on my life.

Today, I am living out my dream of taking photos at sporting events. I am the Sports Editor at the Northern Light Newspaper, the student paper at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where I am currently on pace to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Public Communication in May 2015. Through this position, I have had the opportunity to photograph NCAA basketball and hockey events, along with landscapes around Alaska. Upon graduation, I am applying to Indiana Purdue University to pursue a Masters Degree in Sports Journalism.

My education at UAA and my love and passion to tell stories through the lens of a camera gave me the chance to make a documentary about homelessness called Homelessness: Giving Hope to Those in Need, which can be viewed here. The documentary was screened at the UAA Student Film Screening. To read more about Homelessness: Giving Hope to Those in Need, please visit the Alaska Commons review article here.

It is my desire to use a variety of cameras to bring attention to the public about social issues such as homelessness. My next goal is to purchase a new Nikon digital camera with video to continue pursuing my career. Once I am able to purchase the new camera, my goal is to make a documentary of the effects of war on the children that had parents lost or injured in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

All photos credited to Travis Dowling

All You Need to Know: Jacksonville Run

If you're participating in this Saturday's Run For The Warriors® in Jacksonville, NC, here's all the information you need to know about packet pick-up, registration, and scheduling.

Friday, May 16, 2014
11:00 am - 1:00 pm--Packet Pick-up at Marston Pavilion, aboard Camp Lejeune
3:00 pm - 6:00 pm--Packet Pick-up at the Jacksonville High School Stadium 

Saturday, May 17, 2014
6:00 am - 7:00 am--Same Day Registration & Packet Pick-up at the Jacksonville High School Stadium
6:50 am--Opening Ceremony 
7:00 am--Half Marathon Start (Each race will begin 5 minutes after the start of the previous race in order)
10K Start 
5K Start 
1-Mile Walk/Run Start 

11:00 am--Award Ceremony

Not running but want to help?  We can always use more volunteers!  Contact Leslie Hunt for more details.

Vintage T Anyone?

This is the 9th annual run in Jacksonville which means that we have a lot of different T-shirt designs out there!  Wear your vintage Run For The Warriors® T-shirt on Saturday and show us your long-time support to Hope For The Warriors® and to our military families!

Bonus Tips for Race Day:

We strongly encourage you to do packet pick-up Friday, May 16, to save time Saturday morning. We also recommend getting to the race early on Saturday to ensure that you are there for the ceremony and the race start.

Happy running!