Retired Army National Guard Member Supports Veterans Towards Mental Wellness
Continued from Part 1 in the Feb. 19, 2021, issue.
Thinking of Those at Risk for Work-Related Trauma
Dec. 4, 2019: I am hiding alongside my first-year-composition students within a dark computer lab in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. We crouch down, lights off, staring at the door’s small glass square which can let people in the outside corridor peer into our room. We whisper about how to block that window using a simple sheet of paper from the lab printer. My numbness dissolves into an oddly focused panic: Why does nobody have scotch tape in their bags or backpacks? Following the PHNSY’s protocol for active shooters, my students have just shut down their computers (their lighted screens might call attention to our presence inside) and now crouch down in their chairs, quietly, hoping to remain unseen.
Minutes earlier, when these students had been finishing off their last writing assignment, not 45 minutes before the 3 p.m. foghorn-sounding shipyard “bell” would have pronounced the day’s work as over, a terse knock had sounded from the door. A uniformed soldier told me and my 20 students that there was a mass-shooter situation on base and THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Immediately, every room in our shipyard workers’ education building was locked down.
We use the lab phone to call the Dept. of Defense manager that supports our longtime AA-degree program for my students who are local DOD trainees just starting to learn to perform technical, mechanical and logistical labor behind the scenes at the Naval shipyard. But she discourages us from phoning again and does not provide much more info (“just follow the protocol”). Nobody tells us how close the shooter (or shooters) is (or are) to us; who if anybody has been shot; or if anyone has been killed.
A few students have been allowed to carry work-cleared cellphones on this secure base where no unapproved mobile devices or cameras can be brought into buildings. They call around to their fellow trainees still at their workplace to find out what is happening. The coworkers inform my students that there is only one man who had killed at least two workers in a different building, and that he has shot himself, too. The authorities are now sweeping nearby buildings to make sure he did not have any accomplices. Though this is unconfirmed gossip, the information helps us relax.
As we slowly realize we are safe that afternoon, and over the next day as well, students start to express shock, grief and trauma over the experience. Many talk about how it could have been they who were shot instead, as the 23-second incident happened at a work area which many had frequented. One shares with me that every day, walking to that area (where the shooting would eventually occur), she has felt anxious when having to pass by the Navy guards holding their weapons in front of military vessels such as Los Angeles-class attack submarine Columbia. Guards like Machinist’s Mate Auxiliary Fireman Gabriel Antonio Romero — the 22-year-old sailor from the Columbia who that day went on a shooting spree in my students’ workplace. Students are experiencing fear, confusion and PTSD even as they are being interrogated by follow-up investigators.
To the DOD’s credit, immediately over the succeeding days, the program leadership cancels our college-class meetings (though we will still teach students online) and instead holds conversations and therapy sessions among my students and other PHNSY workers, to process what they were going through: how they were feeling about their two colleagues being killed and one getting wounded on that Wednesday afternoon.
This well-organized response of canceling classes to attend to mental-health needs of the survivors made me feel hopeful that the other incidents of violence on U.S. bases that had arisen around the same time — in Little Creek, Virginia, and Pensacola, Florida — might have also been handled with similar attention to the long-term emotional responses of any civilian or military workers affected (see navytimes.com/news/your-military/2019/12/06/sailor-who-killed-two-in-pearl-harbor-shooting-spree-identified/ for more).
I might even venture to hope that future sailors and soldiers who are like Romero can be identified and intervened upon, far sooner. While Romero did not express suicidal feelings prior to the event, apparently he did suffer from mental-health difficulties as well as from being in an allegedly toxic work environment where suicidal ideation was not unusual among his fellow military members (according to civilbeat.org/2020/09/pearl-harbor-shooting-investigation-finds-deeper-mental-health-concerns-among-submarine-crew/).
This second part of this series on mental wellness is about on-the-job trauma and employers’ responses to workers’ mental-health challenges. Because after that 23-second on-base incident a year and two months ago, which turned into a couple of hours hiding out in a darkened classroom lab that afternoon … the terror and vulnerability and shock of those comparatively short moments, have not left me yet. We need to see our workplace colleagues with fresh eyes, recognize what is going on with them and help them heal courageously and without shame from any trauma or emotional struggles from which they might be emerging.
Stigma for Seeking Support
“The military is in the community and won’t go away any time soon. If our military can work with the community, and the community can help support its military, that is the best collaborative effort in what we can do,” summarizes the part-Japanese, part-Hawaiian and part-other ethnicities, quintessentially local veteran Brent Oto who in his retirement is encouraging the armed forces to improve their responses to the mental-health situations of former military members.
As a result of my PHNSY experience, when I ask Hawai‘i’s premier suicide-prevention specialist Dr. Jeanelle Sugimoto-Matsuda for people to interview about mental wellness, I am not surprised that she recommends this accomplished military advocate of getting emotional support for past and current soldiers.
Oto, Program Manager of the U.S. Army Garrison Hawai‘i’s Suicide Prevention Program, has been dedicated to helping veterans get back on their feet after the potentially traumatic and difficult work experiences they have undergone in attempting to serve their country. A tireless supporter of his military brethren — earlier, Oto had spent 20 years in the Army National Guard — his post-retirement career involved serving as a substance-abuse-prevention trainer, which he did for five years, prior to his current 11-year stint with the Suicide Prevention Program.
For Oto, the main impediment behind why some military members do not seek out mental-health assistance, is they fear that seeking help will jeopardize their careers. They are also concerned the stigma will affect not just their jobs and reputations but their own families.
“There is still stigma with military members, even veterans, in getting mental-health counseling. This has a relationship to marital problems and even to suicide. Some families do not understand what service members are going through. By the time they realize there is a problem, it is too late. The service members might be self-medicating through drinking alcohol, taking drugs — they develop an addiction, then self-harm. Families want to do something but do not know how to help.”
Of course, mental-health conditions such as PTSD are not new to service members in U.S. history; at different times, soldiers had called these traumatic responses “shell shock,” “battle fatigue” or “combat stress.” There was a lack of education about it during earlier wars, so soldiers suffering from mental-health problems would go home after combat but not get assistance or support.
The current military, however, has gotten better with providing employees and retirees with education and resources about mental-health services. Back in the Vietnam War era, for instance, there were no suicide-prevention programs and not too many mental-health resources for veterans. Today, by contrast, says Oto, there are a range of online resources, clinical providers and support programs aimed at vets.
“Younger people especially are coming out to get help — using apps, tele-health and other technological resources. They show us that you do not need to go into a clinic; you can get counseling on a mobile device or remotely from home,” he notes.
Oto has seen a lot of changes to how the military has handled the emotional health of its workers over time; his innovative work within the U.S. Army program has included prevention which comes with the training he offers, marketing, public awareness, exhibiting, outreach and guest speaking. He has worked across different military branches; for instance, with Navy colleagues, with military chaplains, with Veterans Administration civilians and with “postventions” (“activities which reduce risk and promote healing after a suicide death,” according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center) for former soldiers to get counseling services.
Today such mental-health and suicide-prevention training is an annual requirement for those in military careers, as are substance-abuse training and sexual-assault training and prevention. The military can, and does, make its soldiers and civilian workers go through these diverse types of training (though it cannot force military-family members to do so).
Strategies and Resources to Get Help
Oto’s suggestion to those close to military veterans who struggle with whether to get help is, “Try to change the stigma, to eliminate it. Get people to realize you do not need to walk up to a behavioral health clinic to get assistance — [you can] use a mobile device/cellphone and call the National Crisis Hotline (1-800-273-8255 opt. 1) or text the Crisis Text Line (741741).”
For Hawai‘i residents who belong to military families, he suggests, “If an incident happens, such as an individual having anxiety, severe depression or a feeling of crisis, you can get the right resources to support your military members, families or DOD-Civilians,” he advises.
For veterans experiencing trouble with those close to them, “If you have a marital problem, a relationship problem [or] you need to talk to someone, such as a friend or [a person you have a] relationship [with] … talk to a crisis hotline like Hawai‘i CARES (832-3100). Or text someone [see the Crisis Text Line above].
“These things you can do before it comes to getting clinical services — clinical services are usually for the extreme level, when you know you are thinking of harming yourself. In that case, call 911, or go to a hospital and get triage; they will triage and admit you,” adds Oto.
Watching for Aggression, Self-Isolation, Addiction
Family members can also watch for certain warning signs. Oto frankly states about some military members in the past or present, “Suicide is sometimes led by homicide.” So behaving with anger or with stress, showing aggression towards others, can also be “a sign to get help or get someone to help you with anger or aggression, so that it is not so raging. If someone can work with you or intervene, you will possibly not have that rage.
“Generally, know when your family member is angry,” he suggests. “If they cuss a lot, it might be a sign of aggression. If they are constantly moody, angry and negative — that could be a sign that their mental health needs assistance. Some people in the community do not know about this or where to seek help for this behavior.”
Also, Oto warns families to be aware that factors from COVID-19 can add extra risk to their soldiers’, civilian military workers’ or veterans’ mental health. “Self-isolation and distancing from family members — this causes people to be a little upset. But then they are also restricted from activities or events, which adds to more anxiety that can lead to depression.”
With military veterans, it is not just suicidal behavior, but also a broader range of mental-health situations and signs to watch for. Oto praises the Hawai‘i CARES Program, formerly the Hawai‘i Crisis Hotline [see the phone number above], for its outreach to the community in general. He has seen calls to crisis line Hawaiʻi CARES aid veterans with substance abuse, homelessness and a whole gambit of different problems, not just the urgent situation of suicidal behavior. He has worked with the organization’s hotline, mobile crisis and response team and praises its effective programs which he hopes to bring to the Army.
Hope for Veterans in the Criminal Justice System
As a moving illustration of one way the government can help ex-military members who struggle significantly with mental-health problems, Oto recommends the Hawai‘i Veterans Treatment Court Program (courts.state.hi.us/special_projects/veterans_court). Veterans turning to this program are often suffering from mental-health challenges to the point where they have become separated from society due to criminal or addictive behaviors and, as a result, have been identified for prosecution by the criminal justice system.
Oto has personally volunteered as a mentor to enrollees in this program, and experienced positive outcomes for himself and his mentees. Instead of convicting such emotionally struggling veterans and sending them to jail for crimes, the court offers the veterans a special “second-chance” track of mandated recommendations to get them back on the straight and narrow. Each veteran participant must go to court every week to check in with the judge or court staff, work with an assigned probation officer, undergo drug screening and be mentored by a military member or military retiree such as Oto.
The Hawai‘i Veterans Treatment Court Program, Oto explains, was started about six years ago by Ed Kubo, a former judge in the Hawai‘i court system, and was supported by many community and political leaders including the late U.S. Representative from Hawaiʻi and former State House of Representatives member K. Mark Takai (who like Oto had served in the Army National Guard).
“Without this program, most of them [veterans facing criminal charges, largely due to their mental-health issues] would be incarcerated by now — others would be homeless,” says Oto. The program has helped veterans of wars going all the way back to Desert Storm in the early 1990s, he added.
As an example of how meaningful this program is, Oto tells the story of a veteran he had mentored whose life experience testifies to its success. The veteran had served for four-to-five years in the U.S. Army, but ended up messing up and causing trouble, which got him discharged. He then got addicted to drugs and lived in the street, becoming homeless for 30 years, before getting incarcerated for drug possession. However, he went through this Hawai‘i Veterans Treatment Court Program, was supported and mentored by Oto, and after two years, was able to get his own place and also find a means of living, as a worker at a convenience store in a west O‘ahu community. He has since worked his way up from courtesy clerk to manager, Oto admits with pride.
Oto has mentored five to six such veterans. “Each has a different story; they are different cases, each one healing in its own way. Many have been there [in the court program] for a while and the hope is for all veterans to transition into society and become successful at living life again.”
The program could use other military veterans to serve as mentors, especially women, hints Oto to the Herald’s many readers who are (or know of) former service people. Especially military retirees of the “kupuna age” who have some time and want to give back to the community, support ex-service members and get involved in a great mentorship program for transitioning veterans. Oto’s promotion of this program is tireless and dedicated; “We also encourage Active Duty, National Guard or Reservists to volunteer if they have time available,” he recommends.
Helping Keiki and Teens
Like other mental-health advocates I have interviewed for this series, all of whom are tracking national trends as well as Hawaiʻi patterns of emotional problems, Oto notices many local youth with suicidal ideation and mental-health difficulties. He notes that for young people, bullying and suicide are seen together, and, emphasizes that we should pay attention to kids, as they do not know how to ask for help or how to connect with an adult who can help. It is up to us adults to ask them.
Oto observes, though, that “I have been seeing a lot of parents not wanting to talk to their kids about suicide, feeling they might be putting the idea into their heads.” The veteran points out that community-education classes teach adults to talk to children and young people about this seemingly thorny topic. For ideas on where to register for these types of sessions, parents can consult the Prevent Suicide Hawai‘i Task Force (health.hawaii.gov/injuryprevention/home/suicide-prevention/information/) or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Hawai‘i-Chapter (afsp.org/chapter/hawaii). [All counties also have their own suicide-prevention task forces.]
As I reflect back, I have started to view mental wellness as a sort of web — we need to be spinning it at all age levels, securing it at the workplace and across other institutions in our community, so that overwhelmed people can be “caught” in networks of love and care should they fall into crisis. I recall how my own employer/s, the University of Hawai‘i, had shown a mixed response to my traumatic experience at the Naval shipyards. The UH community college I had been working for when the incident occurred did provide me with limited counseling services as is owed to state workers who undergo on-the-job emotional harm. However, faculty mentors and administrators at my other employing campus, a UH research university where I had gotten long-listed for a tenure-track position, advised me not to request putting off my job interview. I had wanted to reschedule it a few weeks later, after the winter break, instead of just two weeks after the shooting. But instead, I had to go through that interview while experiencing a modicum of PTSD. Recalling that time, it is striking me that the U.S. military took the incident’s mental and emotional impacts upon its workers seriously while a highly esteemed institution of higher learning had minimized it (based on my limited experience). When an organization’s leaders do not value mental health as seen through such actions, it is not likely to create policies to support workers more broadly in their own mental wellness.
We can organize to demand that employers, and institutions in the community, step up — adding nodes of support to this mental-wellness web. Or as community leaders and professionals, we can commit to creating that steady, self-aware, socially responsible unit that takes care of its own.