San Diego Vets Part Of Campaign That Asks Public To Go 'Beyond The Thank You'
Not too long after Army veteran Marcus Priolo completed an addiction treatment program at Veterans Village of San Diego, he relapsed.
"(I) used some pretty hard drugs and I lost my mind, was gone for a weekend where I was jumping off bridges and I tried to extinguish the light in myself, tried to commit suicide," Priolo said.
He would do it again and again. Each time, fellow veteran and friend Al Lejarde would continue to support him, including when Priolo landed in jail and Lejarde had to track him down.
"I remember just sitting, talking to you on the other side of this glass wall, talking over the phone, just saying, 'Hey man, what are we going to do now?'" Lejarde said to Priolo in an interview about his struggles transitioning to civilian life.
Their conversation at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic of Veterans Village San Diego, one of 14 such mental health facilities in the United States, is part of a recently launched national campaign that encourages the public to offer former services members more support. The "Beyond The Thank You" awareness effort features conversations between local vets and their loved ones that were produced in partnership with NPR's StoryCorps.
In his interview with Priolo, Lejarde said leaving the military feels like leaving a part of yourself behind.
"The things that we struggled with when we were transitioning from our military service to civilian life was our identities and what happens when our services end," he said.
Navy veteran Ashley Tatum, who was interviewed by her two children, said she experienced that when she changed out of her uniform for the last time.
"It was like I didn’t know who I was anymore," she said. "Everything that you needed to know about me was on my shirt — from my pay grade to my last name to the medals that I had earned, to the air warfare qualification that I had. When you take that off, people tend to forget that you did what you did."
Former Marine Priscilla Rodriguez recalled a similar feeling in a conversation with her cousin, who also served.
"When you take that uniform off, it makes you second guess yourself. You’re like, 'Wait a minute, I can no longer say I’m a Marine,'" she said. "And they say, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine,' and other marines definitely reinforce that, but it is different. Because you don’t have that camaraderie."
Rodriguez said losing that support when transition out can be debilitating.
"When you’re in the military, you become a family, and then you’re torn away from that," she said to her cousin, who agreed.
Navy vet Tatum said that’s why she felt it was important the public to do more than orally thank veterans for their time in the military. When her children asked how she would like to be thanked for her service, she suggested civilians volunteer at a veterans-serving organization.
The Cohen Veterans Network found about half of the 218 former and current service members it surveyed felt the same way: 49% were uncomfortable being thanked for their service and 58% preferred people donate to or volunteer at groups that help former service members.
Tatum, who works at the Cohen clinic in San Diego, said veterans must also play a role by seeking out services and asking for help.
"Whether that’s maybe you’ve seen some scary things and your brain needs help, or you need help finding a job, or a house," Tatum said in the interview with her 10- and 11-year-old kids.
For Army veteran Priolo, asking for help was one of three "saving graces" he and Lejarde discussed.
"When I asked for help and I see that my brothers and sisters are willing to help me, it’s like a family; It’s a brotherhood. It’s a sisterhood. It’s a camaraderie," Priolo said.
Priolo said helping other veterans and building his family also contributed to his stability. He is now managing his sobriety and engaged to the mother of his recently born son.