Local group wants to raise awareness of PTSD

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A local veteran who has struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide now is trying to help other veterans through a non-profit organization he started.

Kevin VanHoosier started Awareness 22 to spread awareness of PTSD. The number 22 is in reference to the statistic that on average 22 combat veterans commit suicide daily stemming from PTSD and alcohol and drug abuse.

“Being actually almost one of the 22 and with all my combat experience, stuff we’re exposed to, it’s like I can relate to the soldiers and the veterans that go through this,” he said.

Kevin said that May 19, his wife, Tammy, “pretty much pulled a gun out of his mouth.” Kevin said he told his wife to call 911 because he knew he needed help and he was taken to Mercy Health – Tiffin Hospital where he stayed a night. He then spent a week at Mercy Health – St. Charles Hospital before spending six weeks at Cleveland Veteran Affairs Medical Center.

Kevin said he got the idea for the organization June 27. Tammy said one of Kevin’s best friends he met in treatment, Jon Caito, helped come up with the organization. Kevin said it came out of their minds sitting in inpatient care. He said it was like once the light turned on for them, they wanted to get the light turned on for others.

He said he and Tammy already have talked a couple of veterans out of suicide and to get help.

“It’s just one of those things I wanted to take my nightmare and turn it into somebody else’s dream,” Kevin said. “I wanted to take my faults, my personal defects and turn it around into something positive that can help save lives. It’s one of those things, it’s already worth it because we already helped save a couple lives so if we don’t save another life, it was still worth it.”

Kevin was born and raised in Sycamore and was a 1992 graduate of Mohawk High School. Joining the U.S. Army after graduation, Kevin started off as a mechanic and platoon sergeant on an Apache helicopter before going to flight school where he flew a CH-47. He said he had an incident in Iraq and went to logistics and retired out of U.S. Army Central as a chief warrant officer 4.

Kevin served from February 1993 to April 2013, and in that span he went to Bosnia three times, Iraq once and Afghanistan twice, accruing about 6 1/2 years of combat time.

After returning to civilian life, he said he thought the world changed, but he didn’t realize it was him. Depression sunk in and he was hyper-vigilant, had nightmares, flashbacks, high anxiety and a lot of panic including not being able to be around crowds, Kevin said.

“I can’t be like normal people it’s like, even if I go to a concert or anywhere, I have to have my back against the wall where I can see everything. Even going to Walmart, the first course of action is you got to look for an exit route, a safety strategy and look around for threats and harms and see if I see bulges of guns or knives or anything like that,” he said.

Kevin said he was in an inpatient hospital about 12 or 13 different times after he got back from Afghanistan and he had one good friend, Brian Halm, who he met at the hospital. Halm designed the logos for Awareness 22.

“(Halm) kind of helped me along when he’d see me get to a low point, he would pull me back up and check on me and it really did help because just having that one person that kind of understood really pulled me out, but then I sank back down,” Kevin said.

Kevin turned to alcohol, which he used to “numb the pain,” but he didn’t know he was an alcoholic. He said when you get pulled out of your military environment and go back home, everybody expects you to be who you were, but one of the most common symptoms of PTSD is substance abuse.

“Alcohol is mainly because it’s legal and for me, that’s where I started was the military to cope with my combat stresses. We would get drug tests a lot, so it’s like, I’m not going to go that route or I probably would have because I was self-medicating and it became an addictive behavior,” Kevin said. “When I got out, that stayed with me and that’s all I had was the bottle.”

He said he didn’t know how to cope and couldn’t distinguish reality from non-reality.

“I’d mutilate myself, I would drink. I would play roulette with myself, I would stab myself. If I hit an artery, if I do, I do; if I don’t, I don’t. I guess it wasn’t my time to go though,” Kevin said. “For probably 5 years, I wasn’t suicidal, but I didn’t care if I died or not, I was just very numb.”

He said from day one, the military starts training to desensitize you to act under pressure and be successful in combat. Kevin said that feeling does not go away when you re-enter civilian life.

“Without proper help, you’re just going to get worse and worse because every day, you lose relationships, you lose contact with the outside world because they don’t understand or you come off as abrasive and don’t know any different…,” he said.

Kevin said he felt that nobody understood him or wanted to be around him because he was inapproachable, and he didn’t want to be around people because he felt like he had to constantly explain himself.

“Ever since I was diagnosed with PTSD, most of my family have turned their backs on me. So, I would lay around three or four days at a time and just think, ‘Is this all there is to life for me? Did I already peak? Is this what I got to live for?’ So, it’s like if I take my life, those I love, I can pay them back through life insurance money and they won’t have to deal with my outbursts and my pain and misery anymore,” he said. “I know if I felt that way, obviously more of them do every day.”

By bringing awareness to PTSD, they can make the topic not taboo and safer so people can talk about it, Kevin said.

“When I finally was at my last rope and had nothing else to live for, when I (attempted suicide), I didn’t realize the support that I would get from people. That’s what I want those in their bedroom right now thinking of ending it — to know that people love them and support them and that it can turn around because it did for me,” Kevin said.

After an incident in inpatient care where he panicked when Veterans Affairs was out of his medicine for two days, he said he relapsed and self-medicated with cough medicine, which calmed him down, but then “God woke him up.”

“The next day, it’s like I got hit by a lightning bolt and it was like I went through a 12-step program all at one time. It was really weird because it was like I had a spiritual awakening. I was so overridden with guilt and I started thinking of everybody I had done wrong and started seeing myself from their shoes and I understood so much,” Kevin said. “I went and did a Facebook Live video. I was pretty much talking about PTSD, talking about what alcohol had done to me, those I’ve hurt, just a little bit of everything, but it kicked off and it went viral.”

He said many people contact him after the video to show support or say that their loved one watched the video and it was nice to know that they’re not alone. Kevin said he is making videos every two weeks about his experiences and he encourages people to watch them because it has helped others.

He said the goal of Awareness 22 is to bring awareness and help save those that risk their lives for ours. Kevin said many civilians don’t understand PTSD, and therefore those affected bottle up their emotions and don’t seek help.

“If you weren’t over there, you don’t understand,” he said. “So that’s what this is doing with this organization. We’re not only spreading awareness but we’re educating the population on everything we go through. We are helping those that need talked to and talking them out of suicide. Guiding them where to find help, how to find help, making sure they get the help.”

Tammy said she and Kevin make sure to tell people that they’re not doctors, psychiatrists or counselors, and they speak from their personal experience.

“We can give a little bit of insight or tell them where to get help or lend an ear to listen and just say, ‘I’m not telling you what to do, but this is what we did’ and just kind of give them another angle or perspective of the playing field of what’s going on,” Kevin said.

Tammy said for spouses and family members of those affected by PTSD, the most important thing to do is get educated on what people with it go through and to get counseling for themselves as well.

Kevin said loved ones should be patient with those struggling with PTSD and show support and love because it is a mental illness. Kevin said like most people, those with PTSD don’t like being told what to do or being shamed for what they already are ashamed of.

“We have our moments, but just show love and support and patience regardless of how they feel because we’re struggling day to day and if we don’t get that love and support and patience towards us, we read into it, overthink it or whatever, and it makes it worse,” he said.

Tammy said she grew up a farm girl and had two uncles and a grandfather who served in the military.

“They never talked about it for obvious reasons that I understand now,” she said. “Just educate yourself and if you don’t want to educate yourself, then don’t allow your stupidity, I’m sorry if that’s the wrong word, but don’t allow your stupidity to judge veterans or anything. I mean, PTSD is a thing not just for combat … but there are other things in life that can happen to cause PTSD and that’s why we said civilians can benefit from this program too.”

Kevin said they hope Awareness22 can eventually raise money to get people help. On their Facebook page, they also advertise state and federal programs offered for veterans. Tammy said many veterans don’t know about the programs, and though VA has great programs, it doesn’t always make it easy to get help.

“Even if it’s just taking our laptop and helping a veteran and sitting down and filling out that half hour questionnaire to help them get that, we just want to be able to help,” she said.

Awareness 22 is to offer

merchandise and hosting fundraisers. Find the organization on Facebook and donate through the organization’s website at www.Awareness22.com or through PayPal at paypal.me/awareness22.

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