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Saturday August 24th 2019

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AHERO: Healing the Wounds of War

By Rick Outzen

In September 2011, retired Marine Lt. Col. Dave Glassman brought two men to Inweekly’s office to discuss the high rate of suicide among veterans, mainly troops who had returned home from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan (“When Yellow Ribbons Aren’t Enough,” 9/22/11).

“We have 18 veterans a day killing themselves—6,500 a year,” Glassman said when he set up the interviews. “We’ve lost more by suicide than combat over the last two years. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions.”

Unfortunately, the tragedy has gotten worse over the past eight years, with the suicide rate climbing to 20-22 military and veteran suicides occurring daily, which has put the yearly average over 8,000.

Glassman and others have fought to reverse this deadly trajectory. A decade ago, fellow Marine Major Lee Stuckey (active duty) founded AHERO (America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors) to bring together veterans with patriotic members of local communities by organizing outdoor events and social activities and thereby heal the physical and psychological wounds of war and military service.

Stuckey suffered a brain injury from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in 2007 and has received a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a “V” device for Actions of Valor during combat, Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and other military ribbons/medals for outstanding service. He nearly committed suicide due to the brain injury and the emotional trauma of several combat deployments.

On the AHERO website, Stuckey shares that he was tired of dealing with the nightmares and stress and put a gun to his head. As he was pulling the trigger, his cell phone rang and displayed the word “Mom.” He immediately dropped the pistol and realized he needed help.

Later, knowing that thousands of veterans were silently dealing with similar trauma, Stuckey began visiting Walter Reed Hospital and other military hospitals. He connected with the servicemen and women that he met at these facilities and shared his story. AHERO sprung out of those encounters.

“You could say AHERO was born into a family of military-minded folks who shared a love of the pastime of hunting,” shared Glassman, an AHERO board member. “They also shared a powerful interest in reaching out to connect with other servicemen and women affected by military training experiences and combat. When they weren’t in the woods, they would spend time in the hunting lodge engaged in what became known as ‘screened porch therapy.’”

In Pensacola, the outdoor event Warrior Hook-Up Pensacola Beach has been built around a day of fishing, which will be held this year on August 22-25. In May, The Wharf at Orange Beach hosted its inaugural AHERO Warrior Hook-up.

“We’re in our eighth year,” said Glassman. “Wounded, injured and disabled veterans travel from all over the country to join our local veterans and citizens for a fun-filled, therapeutic, extended weekend on Pensacola Beach.”

Ricky Mamoran participated in last year’s Warrior Hook-up. A sergeant in the U.S. Army, he was hit by mortars while operating in the Al Anbar province of Iraq.

“I was later told, during surgery, that my heart had stopped twice,” Mamoran shared in the latest edition of AHERO Magazine. “There was a 30 percent muscle loss to my right leg and lower extremities, and I eventually became partially paralyzed due to the trauma to my spinal cord. In addition, the total of 13 concussions I’d suffered during deployment, including this one, had resulted in traumatic brain injury (TBI), a PTSD diagnosis and 80 percent hearing loss in my right ear.”

Today, Mamoran gets around with the help of an exoskeleton, wheelchair and his service dog, Asa.

Of the Warrior Hook-up, he said, “It was a stress-free and truly adaptive social experience that pushed past the boundaries of what a disabled veteran like me would normally encounter. The atmosphere was relaxing, and the secure setting was perfect for service members and their spouses to unwind and recover. You knew that this was where your brothers and sisters of combat always had your six.”

Mamoran was impressed that AHERO was fully prepared to not only adapt to his special needs but also accommodated Asa—“It’s just the kind of thing they do.”

“Seeing organizations with vets at the helm is what truly gives me the focus and ability to enjoy myself during an AHERO event,” shared Mamoran. “It’s all in knowing that someone with an experience and situation similar to your own is in charge.”

Retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Heidi Luke also attended last year’s event with her service dog, Hero. She has stage 4 cancer and has battled PTSD as the result of sexual assaults during her 16 and a half years of service.

“My military service left me with a lot of mixed feelings,” Luke said. “I was excited and proud to join and would do it again. But it was bittersweet. I had great experiences, met great people, but then I had those awful experiences and so much trauma. Ours is still a very male-oriented military.”

Like suicide, sexual assault in the military has continued to rise since Inweekly reported on the problem six years ago (“Not Invisible Anymore,” 4/4/13), when 19,000 males and females in the military were being assaulted every year. According to the latest Department of Defense’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, there were 20,500 instances of “unwanted sexual contact” in the 2018 fiscal year—an increase of 38% from the previous survey in 2016.

A flawed military justice system protects the predators, according to Luke. She said, “Back when I served, your first sergeant would be your judge and jury. But what if that’s who the perpetrator is? You try going above that superior; then you’re the one in the wrong.”

The experience left Luke feeling isolated.

“When you have a sexual trauma … at some point, it just breaks you,” she explained. “I had been able to compartmentalize it, but then I couldn’t anymore. And that’s where the D part comes in, the ‘disorder.’ Because anyone who has had a traumatic experience has post-traumatic stress, PTS, but when you can’t get over it, you can’t go forward. That’s when you end up going backwards.”

Hero has helped Luke cope with her cancer and her PTSD. “I didn’t know how bad my emotional state had gotten until after Hero came,” she said. “I didn’t know until one day when I was out with him, around people. That’s also when I realized I was okay.”

Together, they attended the 2018 Pensacola Warrior Hook-up.  Luke said, “I met a few young female service members and was interested to hear how they are coping. Hopefully, I helped a little bit by listening to their stories. It was great to be with other vets.”

If you would like to help with sponsorships, donations or volunteering your time, visit aherousa.org.

Special thanks to Dave Glassman, Tristessa Osborne, Connie Conway and Dave Calametti for their contributions to this article.