3 grass-roots North Texas groups

3 grass-roots North Texas groups are saving lives, one veteran at a time

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Memorial Day honors Americans who have died during military service.

That’s 1.1 million deaths in all our wars, from the Revolutionary War to the ongoing global war on terror. Millions more families and friends have had to cope with the ultimate sacrifice made by their loved ones in uniform.

As Tony Cordero and Bonnie Carroll wrote earlier this month on Military.com, "Being a member of a surviving family is not a distinction anyone chooses. We would all prefer never to have heard the 24 notes of ‘Taps’ at a military funeral."

Cordero lost his father in Vietnam and has founded Sons and Daughters in Touch, which unites Gold Star children from the Vietnam War. Carroll is founder and president of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which offers compassionate coping skills to those grieving for a lost loved one. Her husband Tom, a brigadier general, was killed in the 1992 crash of an Army plane.

In post-9/11 times, despite waging seemingly endless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, only about 1 percent of Americans today have served in the military. That means a disconnect between men and women who have worn the uniform and those who put yellow ribbons on their bumpers and fly flags from their porches.

On this holiday of backyard barbecues, furniture sales and lawn deals, a lot of folks are trying to help the estimated 20 million veterans in-country. Here are three inspiring North Texas groups doing their part.

22KILL

When he was a Marine in Iraq in 2004, Jake Schick’s vehicle hit a hidden bomb made of three 155 mm artillery shells. He spent 18 months in hospitals, had 43 operations and 23 blood transfusions.

Then the bad stuff happened.

The third-generation Marine became addicted to painkillers. "If one works well, I bet five work better," he recalls. "I don’t know which was worse, coming off drugs or being blown up."

Schick, 36, suffered traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome. But for awhile he thought, "Hey, we’re gladiators. That type of stuff doesn’t affect us."

But it did. And Schick found his calling when he found himself. Today he’s chief executive of 22KILL, a Texas-based nonprofit that tries to tell members of the warrior culture "that it’s OK not to be OK and that I own this spinning ball of chaos." The name comes from a 2012 Veterans Administration report that estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

Today, Schick’s mission "is to lean in as a tribe and love and be loved." To achieve this, 22KILL offers several therapies under the name Stay the Course, one-on-one counseling, music and art classes, meditation classes and a retreat at its Camp Valhalla, which features fishing, hiking, hunting, supervised firing ranges, off-road vehicles and other services.

Schick, a former Coppell High School football player, recognizes that servicewomen may struggle even more than male veterans to readjust to civilian life. There may have been only two or three women in a unit, he explains, and they often don’t forge the same bond as men. "We accept them as a tribe within a tribe, where men don’t have to be involved," he says. "One tribe, one fight. Lean on one another to live well."

North Texas Women’s Veterans

She calls it "people gardening." Eva Fulton, who founded North Texas Women’s Veterans two years ago, specializes in cross-pollination. She’s has a Korean War Women Air Corps veteran in her group, Vietnam-era veterans, women from the Persian Gulf War (where she served) and 20-somethings who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I don’t want there to be any gaps," she says.

Fulton believes that the more female veterans find out about one another and the services available to them, the better off they’ll be. One woman, for instance, moved to North Texas from Minnesota after finding Fulton’s website and discovering much more to offer than back home.

Her networking concept "is to have a group of veterans who can have a symbiotic relationship and find the organizations they want to be part of and to let the organizations find the veteran."

She speaks from experience. Only a few years ago, abandoned by her husband and left living in a mobile home with four children, Fulton was struggling to survive. She and the kids had no car. She applied for food stamps but couldn’t get an appointment without a car.

At wit’s end, she contacted a Vocational Rehabilitation Employment counselor at the Fort Worth Veterans Administration. The counselor lined her up to take online courses from Dallas Baptist University. After four years, the VA helped her get an MBA there, too. Fulton now works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The VA reports that 41 percent of female veterans used at least one VA benefit in 2015, up from 31 percent in 2005. Under Fulton’s plan, "Everybody finds a buddy. We’re not like regular civilians, who don’t quite speak our language. We’re more like-minded, which means less aloneness."

Even with such improved statistics, Fulton remains far from satisfied. She reckons there are 16,000 female veterans in north Texas. There’s no quit in Fulton. "I plant the seeds," she says, "and let people grow."

UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth

When Mike Rials was a Marine platoon sergeant in Fallujah and Haditha, Iraq, and then in Helmland Province in Afghanistan, he wasn’t the tip of the spear. Nor the tip of the tip the spear. He was the spear. Those places saw some of the most intense fighting from 2004-08.

On his third deployment to Afghanistan, Rials was severely burned after his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. He also lost a friend in the explosion.

So he was a natural, once he left the Corps and finished his master’s at UT Dallas, to lead more than 100 veterans in research into TBI and PTSD at the university’s Center for BrainHealth.

Three years ago he wrote an op-ed for the UT Dallas Mercury newspaper. "I want veterans across the nation — and specifically on UTD’s campus — to know that even with a diagnosis of PTSD or TBI, that label does not define you," he wrote.

Today he’s head of Strategic Initiatives at UT Dallas’s Brain Performance Institute. The institute’s initiative aimed at the military is called SMART, Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training. Some 3,000 people in 20 states have taken the nine-hour course, Rials says.

The training focuses on how the brain is wired to operate. For veterans, that includes three areas. First, how to set up your environment to maintain strategic attention. Multitasking, for instance, is thought to show a versatile thinker. Wrong, says Rials. Your brain can effectively focus on only one thing at a time.

The second area is to continuously elevate your thinking to the Big Picture. The institute teaches how to exercise muscles mainly in the frontal lobe of the brain. At a recent meeting of the Metroplex Marines, a group of retired male and female veterans, a teacher from the Center for BrainHealth conducted a series of drills mainly focused on memory.

Third, counselors try to teach people mental flexibility centering on the brain’s frontal lobe. "Road rage, shootings and other emotionally based behavior can be helped" by the exercises, says Rials. "You’re less likely to be agitated or jump to conclusions."

Besides veterans, the institute "serves everyone with a brain. The brain was designed to operate in a certain way. We promote psychological well-being," says Rials. "If you’re a vet, you’re welcome to come."

In his 2016 book "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging," Sebastian Junger sought to address the numerous problems and issues facing military people when they return home from war.

"We’re a social species," he said in an interview when the book was published. "The unit cohesion (overseas) reduces stress rates. We get our physical security from the group."

But soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsman come home to a chaotic and unpredictable society in America today.

Said Junger: "We have to find out how to promote a community of healing and connectedness."

Mike Tharp served in the Army in Vietnam 1969-70 and was awarded a Bronze Star. Now a journalism instructor at North Lake College, he was also a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He covered six wars as a civilian. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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