Dionne Williamson felt emotionally paralyzed after completing a 2013 tour in Afghanistan. Several years later, more warning signs emerged.
Williamson, a Navy lieutenant commandant, said, “It’s almost like I lost my way somewhere.” He had experienced disorientation and depression, memory loss, chronic exhaustion, and even mental illness. “I went to my Captain and said, “Sir. I need help.” Something’s wrong.'”
Williamson’s experience shines a light on what it is like for military personnel to seek mental health care. Most people find it difficult to admit their problems. What comes next can be frustrating, dispiriting, and even frightening.
Williamson, 46 years old, found stability after a month-long hospitalization and a program that included horseback riding. She had to fight for her help for many years. She said, “It’s amazing how I got through it.”
Lloyd Austin, Defense Secretary, announced in March that a committee was to be established to examine the military’s suicide prevention and mental health programs.
Defense Department data shows that suicide rates among active-duty military personnel increased by over 40% between 2015 to 2020. In 2020, the numbers increased by 15%. The suicide rate has doubled in Alaska, a long-standing suicide hotspot. Service members and their families have to deal with isolation and harsh climates.
The Cost of War Project conducted a 2021 study and found that four times as many veterans and service personnel have committed suicide since 9/11 than have been killed in combat. Study findings revealed that military personnel is more likely to be exposed to trauma (mental, moral, or sexual) than civilians. They also face the challenges of reintegrating into civilian society.
Multiple requests for comment were not answered by the Pentagon. Austin acknowledged publicly that the Pentagon’s mental health offerings, including a Defense Suicide Prevention Office, have not been sufficient.
Austin wrote that March was a crucial month for Austin. “We have more work ahead of us.”
The Army released new guidelines last year to its commanders regarding how to deal with mental health issues within the ranks. These guidelines included briefing slides as well as a script. But daunting long-term challenges remain. Many soldiers are afraid of the stigma associated with admitting mental health problems within an internal military culture that encourages self-sufficiency. Those who seek treatment often discover that the stigma is not just real but also compounded by bureaucratic hurdles.
A network of military-adjacent charities has attempted to fill the gaps, much like the issue of food insecurity for military families.
Some are recreational and others provide socialization and fresh air for service personnel. Some are more focused on self-care, such as the Armed Services YMCA Program which provides free childcare for military parents so they can attend therapy sessions.
Alaska’s situation is especially dire. After a series of suicides, Command Sergeant. In an Instagram post, Maj. Phil Blaisdell addressed soldiers. He asked, “When did suicide become an answer?” If you have any questions, please send me a DM. …”
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican from Alaska) stated that while Alaska postings can be a dream destination for some service personnel, they are a single nightmare for others. This needs to be addressed.
Murkowski stated, “When you see statistics jumping like they are, you have to pay attention.” “Right now you have everybody. The Joint Chiefs are looking at Alaska and asking, “Holy smokes! What’s up there?”
A shortage of therapists on the ground in Alaska adds to the stress. Christine Wormuth, Army Secretary, visited Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, earlier this year. She heard from healthcare workers at the base who said they are overworked, burnt out, and cannot see patients on time. Soldiers often wait for weeks to get help if they need it.
Wormuth was told by a long-time counselor that there are people in need of our services and that it is impossible to get them. “We need staff, and until they get them, soldiers will continue to die.”
Keith Manternach, the co-founder, said that the annual Combat Fishing Tournament was created in Seward, Alaska to “get the children out of the barracks and get them off the base for a day and get their heads out.”
This tournament was started in 2007 and involves over 300 servicemen. It includes deep-water fishing, followed by a celebration banquet. There are prizes for the biggest, smallest, and sickest catch.
Manternach stated, “I believe there’s an enormous element of mental health in it.”
It’s not only in Alaska.
Sgt. Antonio Rivera is an 18-year veteran, who served three tours in Iraq and spent a year at Guantanamo bay in Cuba. He freely admits to having severe PTSD.
“I know I need help. Rivera, 48, is currently assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. Rivera, 48, said that he didn’t want his children to be in pain because he wasn’t going to seek help.
He is doing yoga but feels he needs more. He is hesitant to ask for help from the military.
He said that he would feel more at ease talking to people outside of his company. It would allow me to talk to more people without worrying about my career.
Others say that it is difficult to receive assistance.
Williamson stated that even though she was constantly briefed and given brochures about suicide and PTSD, she struggled for years to find therapy and time off.
She was eventually accepted into a one-month Arizona inpatient program. A therapist suggested equine-assisted therapy to her after she returned. This proved to be a great breakthrough.
Williamson is now a regular at Cloverleaf Equine Centre in Clifton (Virginia), where riding sessions can also be combined with a variety of therapeutic practices and exercises. Horse riding has been used for years as a therapy for those with mental or physical disabilities, and children with autism. It has become a popular option for service personnel suffering from anxiety or PTSD.
“To work with horses you must be able to regulate your emotions. Shelby Morrison, Cloverleaf’s communications director, said that horses communicate by using energy and body language. They respond to the energies around them. They are sensitive to positive, negative, anxiety, excitement, and anxiety.
Morrison stated that military clients are often suffering from anxiety, depression, and PTSD. To get them out of their triggers, we use horses.
Williamson says that regular riding sessions have helped her stabilize. Williamson still has struggles and says that her long battle for treatment has hurt her relationships with many superior officers. She is currently on limited duty, and she isn’t certain if she will retire when she reaches her 20th anniversary in March.
She says that the equine therapy has made her feel more optimistic than ever.
She said, “Now even if it’s impossible to get out of bed I make sure I come here,” “If I didn’t come here, I wouldn’t even know where I would be.”