'Eating at me from the inside out': After suffering silently for 15 years, Alaska vet encourages others to seek help for mental health challenges
The great state of Alaska boasts the highest percentage of veterans in the entire United States. About one of every three people in the Last Frontier is either military or a dependent, according to the Alaska Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We have a high amount of veterans in our state," said Sen. Dan Sullivan, (R) Alaska, "which is great, but we also have one of the
. We need to recognize these are wounds of war, just like being shot is.
"It's a broader issue," the U.S. Marine Corps Reservist added. "It's not necessarily resources, but it's the stigma."
As such, with that grand force of servicemen and women spread across the state comes an often hidden ailment faced by tens of thousands of people each and every day: post-combat mental health challenges.
"They just don't want to even bring it up," said Verdie Bowen, a veteran who is now Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs. "And so a lot of times, they'll suffer silently.
"But you can isolate yourself, or you can throw yourself into the middle of the mix," Bowen said, "and try and make things a lot better."
Reported suicide rates among veterans are alarmingly high. In its annual
released this past September, the VA said more veterans died by suicide in 2017 - the most recent year for which verified data is available - than the previous year. The 6,139 veteran suicide deaths reported in 2017 is an increase of more than 120 in 2016.
An average of 17 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the agency.
At the same time, the national 2019 Annual Warrior Survey conducted by the Wounded Warrior Project shows a whopping 82.8 percent of participating veterans experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a health problem, and almost 91 percent experienced a 'severe mental injury' during their time in the service.
Ret. Lt. Col. John Andersen, a 21-year veteran of the military who served in various capacities, including as an Air Force pilot based at Eielson Air Force Base and with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, is one of them.
"My mom kind of knew I had the flying bug early on," he said. "And the airplane itself, the A-10, that was pretty much what I wanted out of the military.
"I got lucky enough to be able to fly it, basically make a full career out of it," he continued. "It was a good career."
Though he has fond memories of his time in the service, a return stateside and retirement from the military was full of personal struggles. Many centered around an incident that took place in March of 2003, when his adventure overseas turned traumatic, leading to a weight Andersen would carry for more than a decade.
"We were calling in for clearance, and we were given permission to shoot each time," he said. "A call on the radio we listened to on the guard frequency came across. Basically, a frantic call of, 'Cease fire! Cease fire!'"
His immediate family members were the lone holders of his secret, until he shared it with fellow veteran and Alaskan Kirk Alkire.
"It was obvious that John had struggled in the last 15 years," said Alkire, a Retired U.S. Army 1st Sgt. As Alkire would soon find out, Andersen was involved in a friendly fire incident that killed 10 fellow Americans.
"It's kind of sickening," Andersen said. "It makes the stomach churn. Even though we were cleared of all things, it's tough to live with the fact that you killed innocent soldiers who were trying to help. And you were trying to help."
Eventually, he decided to pursue healing, even through the hurt. He sought outside help for the struggles he was facing on a daily basis, a decision that very well may have saved his life.
"Most veterans, if they're here today, it's because they chose to stay," Alkire said. "It's been kind of a dark journey for him. He was trying to navigate the hidden scars of war that many of us veterans suffer with."
Andersen said that ultimately, it came to a point where he needed to do something, anything, to get some help.
"It was kind of eating at me from the inside out," he said. "I had a lot of anger, had a lot of guilt associated with it, and it was affecting me personally. And it was affecting my family.
"I needed to find some way to unload the burden of what I've been carrying around," he said.
For him, much healing has been found in the outdoors, specifically Gold Star Peak, named for the Gold Star families who lost someone in combat. Atop that mountain, he installed a small monument dedicated to the ten lost.
"To look at this monument and hope and pray that it honored those men and their families," he said.
Like so many other veterans, Andersen said that while he is doing much better after seeking treatment, he remains on his path toward healing.
"It's taken a long time," he said. "It's not been easy. But the hardest part is making that first step on your own."
Many local non-profits in Alaska are dedicated to bringing veterans together, and various service providers can help veterans, their families and friends deal with mental health issues such as PTSD.
, the Alaska Department of the
, or the
in Anchorage and the
offer a myriad of
If you're looking for opportunities to help veterans in your community, there are a few different ways to do so.
Donation-wise, you can contribute money to various programs such as groups that help wounded warriors, assist those who are having financial difficulties, or give counseling to veterans departing the military. You can also try donating frequent flier miles to a group like the
, whose partners include Alaska Air and Delta Airlines, among others.
Volunteering your personal time to help veteran service organizations is also a good option to consider.
Additionally, hiring veterans, their spouses or caregivers, and even using veteran-owned businesses help support the nation's vets. Reach out to local organizations to see what they need, and you might find that you're the perfect fit!