Editor’s Note: Alina Wright graduated from Norwich University this past December, but shared this story about her family friend with The Guidon due to the large interest and number of people touched by PTSD in the Norwich community. Wright was a studies of war and peace major from Vassalboro, Maine.
Three years ago, Rich Brewer had a brush with death when two decades of suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caught up to him. Sitting in a chair in his office one night, he contemplated taking his own life, viewing it as the only way to escape the years of running and hiding behind a facade of “being okay.” The “war within” had reached a point for him where it was unbearable; he couldn’t hide from his demons any longer. However, something stopped him from pulling the trigger.
PTSD is not a new issue. With the two front war being fought by a small percentage of Americans, it is no surprise that many of them are returning with both physical and psychological injuries.
The fact that, according to the Veterans Administration, on average, 40 combat veterans attempt suicide each day, and 18 succeed in taking their own lives, shocks most people, who are unaware of the real cost of war. Veteran suicide rates are well above those of the rest of American society, and it may be hard for civilians to understand how the statistics are so high.
For Brewer, his near-suicide attempt was the last straw. He could no longer run, the only option was to face his injury head on. Out of his personal struggle, “One Warrior Won,” an organization dedicated to decreasing the daily number of veteran suicides, was born.
When asked what motivated him to start this grassroots organization, he stated: “My personal struggle with PTSD, and my eventual brush with taking my own life from PTSD was the entire driving force behind starting One Warrior Won. I spent almost 25 years of the prime of my life running from people, careers, relationships, thinking somehow I could out run the demons; only to finally realize no matter how fast or far you run – they come with you. The other aspect is struggling with survival guilt, why was I not taken when so many so close to me were, why did I live? This organization and its mission has begun to allow me to understand why I survived, to help others realize they do not have to waste decades before they can start reclaiming their lives.”
Brewer’s life was on the fast track. He graduated six months early in high school, and enlisted in the Marines at 17, rising to become a sergeant in just 19 months. But the wounds he suffered in the military affected the rest of his life.
After his brush with suicide, the next step for him was seeking help. The first action taken by the Veterans Affairs Hospital (VA) in treating his injury was the pharmacological approach; prescribing medication to treat the symptoms and physical pain he was suffering. The only real option from there on out was “talk therapy,” which in his words is ineffective. As he soon discovered, the government does not do enough to take care of their own – his experience in dealing with the VA left much to be desired, prompting him to start an organization to help others in the same position.
One Warrior Won provides resources to veterans who may have been left discouraged by VA treatment options, including promoting alternate coping mechanisms aside from talk therapy. These therapies include Emotional Freedom Tapping (EFT), which uses tapping pressure points to de-escalate anxiety attacks, acupuncture, massage therapy, and practices that focus on controlled breathing, such as yoga.
The name One Warrior Won indicates the personal connection Brewer has to the cause. The warrior who “won” was himself, and he is using that experience to help others fight a winning battle against whatever demons may haunt them as a result of combat experiences. Make no mistake; he is still fighting his battle. The success came from not taking his own life; PTSD cannot be cured. While he travels around sharing his history and experiences with groups from colleges to corporations, it is never easy for him to discuss.
“I don’t think it ever gets “easy,” so to speak; I always have a physical, visceral reaction when going into detail about it. But what I’ve come to understand is to get people to even come close to feel the pain and sacrifice given by these young warriors they have to be brought as close to the action as possible – they have to feel your words and see your pain, and I am willing to do that to help others who have not yet found the strength to do so.”
As a Marine with “enough fruit salad to dress a small army,” (referring to the colored ribbons worn in a dress uniform), much of his time in the Marine Corps was spent overseas in locales such as Beirut, Liberia, and Somalia and Chad. His deployments to Liberia and Somalia were both in the mid-80s as a member of a special reactionary team dedicated to providing security in various hotspots, and time in Chad in 1985 was spent working with the French to quell an uprising in the former colony. In Beirut, Lebanon, Brewer had the honor of serving at the U.S. Embassy, working to evacuate Americans from the country. Embassy security duty has been a proud responsibility of the Marine Corps unofficially since the birth of the Corps, and officially since 1946.
His time there from 1983-1984 was in the midst of the violent civil war ravaging the country. On Sept. 20,,1984, a suicide truck bomb destroyed the embassy and in the blast Sgt. Brewer suffered burns, a broken arm, lacerations and shrapnel wounds. The difficulty of this experience did not end with the healing of bones and burns; as he found out, the real struggle would come after his time in the military was over when the “war within” began.
This experience is common to many returning veterans, he said. They count down the days until they are home with their loved ones, and suddenly their deployment is over and they are thrown back into “peacetime” life. For families and friends, the hard part is over. It can be difficult for them to understand why their loved one came home “different”, but as Brewer told me, “No one comes back the same.”
For veterans, this time may be harder than facing enemy combatants. They may be fighting a new, less understood, war against memories and nightmares, anxiety and depression, and interaction with a population who doesn’t understand their experience only complicates process of reintegration. This internal conflict, referred to by many as “the war within,” is linked to many suicide casualties.
When Brewer got out of the Marine Corps in 1987, the internal struggle took a toll on his professional and personal life. Never staying someplace more than four years, he made sure no one broke through the wall he had put up to prevent anyone from knowing what haunted him. Jumping around from place to place, he was able to put on a face to the outside world that everything was okay, when really he was trying to run from his past.
Several jobs and one failed marriage later, Rich settled down with his wife Pam in 2000. With the birth of his first child years later, he began to feel trapped in his own home. Babies can act as anchors for someone with PTSD, he knew he would no longer be able to run from his problems. With the birth of a second child, he began to feel that there was no escape, and that his home was not a sanctuary any longer. The cries or squeals of his children sent him back to Beirut, where people cried out for help while trapped in the rubble of the embassy. His nightmares “came to life” during the day, and he couldn’t avoid them at night. Feelings of inadequacy with regards to his ability as a father and husband plagued him, and the idea that his family would be better off with him gone led him to that chair in his office, with a gun in his hand.
After backing down from the metaphorical ledge and making the decision to live, he quit his job and dedicated his life to getting help with his PTSD. For the last three years, he has spent all of his time visiting doctors for his personal health, and researching PTSD. With so much time invested on top of his personal experiences living with it, he considers himself to be an expert on PTSD. In his research, he gained a fuller understanding of the psychological and physiological aspects of the “disorder,” from why the brain operates in the way it does to how physical symptoms are manifested. This self-education is the driving force behind One Warrior Won, where Brewer applies his research in promoting treatments he feels will provide real help to those seeking a better alternative than the VA treatment options.
One of the missions of One Warrior Won is to promote a family support structure, to give families a better understanding of the issues plaguing their loved ones, and veterans the understanding environment they need to learn to cope with their PTSD. According to Brewer, the two ways to prevent suicide are to convince the veterans that they are not crazy, and to create a support structure for them. Education and community outreach can make a significant difference in the lives of veterans suffering with PTSD, as well as their families. Future goals for the organization include educating Americans who may not otherwise be aware of the implications of this injury of war to the significance of its impacts.
“The mind-set of America needs to change,” said Brewer. PTSD can no longer be looked at as the result of the “choice” made by military personnel to serve. The more educated people become on the issue, the more funds organizations like his, which is funded entirely by private donations, will receive, and the more likely “fringe” treatments such as yoga and EFT are to be recognized by the government as viable options. Veterans are looking for a “hand up, not a handout,” and we as Americans owe them that much, he said.
“There are several incidents that cause me great pain to recall; having a young man who had been shot in the head bleed out in my lap; standing next to my driver and having him hit by a .50 caliber round and watching him fall in mid-sentence, standing no more than 6 inches from me. But I would have to say the Beirut Embassy bombing and the death and destruction that I witnessed is what haunts me the most on a daily basis.” These are just some of the memories that turn to nightmares for Brewer, as he continues the struggle with PTSD 28 years later, but his willingness to keep fighting the “war within” can give veterans hope to succeed in their own battles. The significance of this cannot be over-emphasized, and as Brewer says of his work with One Warrior Won “Keeping hope alive, keeps people alive.”