Local veterans share personal stories, resilience with mental health

Veterans Voices

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) — One in four people in the world will experience some kind of mental health illness. Thirty percent of active duty and reserve military personnel have a mental health condition requiring treatment, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health.

A few veterans from northeast Kansas shared the things they’ve been through, and how they’ve overcome their mental health conditions.

We want to warn you, they are sharing their personal experiences with the war. Some of it may be hard for some readers.

Anthony Nichols, or Tony as he prefers, is an Army veteran. He fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Desert Storm. His time in Iraq left him with memories he couldn’t forget.

“Iraq was…was something else,” Nichols said. “I don’t think even today the American public understands how brutal and violent and vicious…it’s just insane how Iraq was.”

When he retired from the military in 2013, he started noticing things were different. He no longer was the man he used to recognize. His personality changed and anger took over. He also started drinking, as those memories from his time overseas would flood his thoughts.

“War is the absolute worst of human experiences,” Nichols said.

Jerald Kracht joined the Navy when he was 17 years old in 1977. His first duty was the USS Boulder. He left for a few years, then came back in 1985. He lived on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay at the time. It was also on Treasure Island when his life changed forever.

“One of the bigger problems back in the ’80s was mental health wasn’t a thing that people easily dealt with,” Kracht said. “A lot of the military personnel that I worked with…I’ll say, swept it under the rug, primarily because they didn’t want to ruin my career.”

On July 3, 1987, after a night of drinking and things he was battling in his personal life, he made a decision.

“I sat in the car for quite a while actually,” Kracht said. “I placed the gun to my abdomen. I didn’t want to take the chance of my daughters seeing me with a mess. Having done it, having died. So I chose to shoot myself in my stomach.”

Chris Dunham joined the Army in 1984, staying until 1992.

“Went through circumstances over in Iraq that most people would…would probably not be able to cope with,” Dunham said.

He was stationed in Fort Riley, deployed to Europe and sent to Desert Storm.

“Young kids, that are begging for food,” Dunham said. “You can’t help them. You’re told not to help them. Seeing the vehicle’s recognition, the burning wreckage, the bodies, the makeshift graves that they are doing. There’s a lot of that…if I were to go into detail it would turn people’s stomachs.”

All three of these men sacrificed their lives for the country they love. But it was inside themselves, a battle they were fighting.

Tony Nichols was diagnosed with PTSD. Jerald Kracht attempted suicide and Chris Dunham was also diagnosed with PTSD.

“When I came back…planes, helicopters flying over by, overhead,” Dunham said. “The darkness, just being out in the dark affected me, affected my daily life. I hid. I hid a lot of my frustrations, my anger inside.”

It’s not uncommon for people in the military to be diagnosed with a mental illness of some sort. About 30% of active duty and reserve military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition requiring treatment. The Veteran’s Administration reports approximately 22 veterans die by suicide every day. But not getting help is the problem many of them may have a hard time with, especially if their well-being isn’t taken seriously.

Aaron Estabrooks works with NAMI Kansas. It’s an advocacy group that helps people diagnosed with mental illness.

“To be able to ask, and admit that you need that help is hard,” Estabrook said. “It’s only made harder when people stigmatize it by saying, ‘oh that’s another guy with PTSD.’ Or, ‘do you really even have that’, ‘toughen up’ kind of attitude.'”

These men didn’t let their mental illnesses take over. Nichols found a way to cope with his glass art business, Kickin’ Glass Kansas.

“I always say, the discipline that got you into that situation, is the discipline that will get you out,” Nichols said. “You just have to remember who you are.”

Kracht learned more about himself and began educating others on ways to overcome their struggles.

“Just because you have a mental health issue, doesn’t make you a bad person,” Kracht said. “It doesn’t make you a bad soldier.”

As for Dunham, he found coping by making a veterans memorial in his backyard.

“It’s part of my healing process,” Dunham said. “And it makes me feel good giving back to the community. “

Showing no matter what you’ve seen, been through or are fighting, there’s always help on the other side.

So how can we all help? Listening can do more than you think. Educating yourself and the person with mental illness can also be a step in the right direction. Having mental health services in the community can show them someone cares.

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