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In scaling Makanda bluffs, vets climb back into civilian life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2012 -On an overcast and breezy April afternoon, Bradley Thacker (not his real name), a 30-year-old freshman and psychology major at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a student veteran from Salem, Ill., is scaling the cliffs at Makanda bluffs. He's trying to forget what he saw during his tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Below him, on the ground, John Welch (not his real name), a 35-year-old senior mechanical engineering major and vet from Olney, Ill., is also recovering from the stress of military service. Welch never was in combat. For him, it’s the loss of the structure and the safety net of serving in the military that triggered his anxiety.

Rock-climbing, trout fishing and other outdoor activities are ways that vets in school at Southern Illinois University are trying to get past the mental problems caused by their military service.

Thacker says he was "on a path to destruction when I came back home. It got to a point where I just didn't care anymore.”

Thacker was in the Army for 12 years working on Humvees, small trucks and field artillery. He also has been in the Army infantry and, while he was in Afghanistan, he worked as a security forces police mentor. By the time he was honorably discharged, he had seen combat multiple times in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thacker says that when he came home from his deployments, he felt stressed, anxious and depressed. “I first started coping with these feelings by constantly being on the go. I used all my new freedoms to the maximum to try and have fun.”

But his stress-related illness soon took over as he fought a losing battle with his subconscious.

“I couldn't sleep,” Thacker says. “I had insomnia because I'd started having nightmares. I had a lot of guilt for all the innocent people that died over there while I was still alive.

“For a long time, everything was just ‘go, go, go’ as fast as I could,” Thacker says. “I did all sorts of activities. It was like I was trying to run away from my past through it.”

Thacker says that he was reluctant to get any sort of mental help. Rather than reporting his problems, he turned to alcohol.

“I started using alcohol uncontrollably and I'd always be drinking,” Thacker says. “Eventually I got two DUIs and that's about the time I knew that I needed to get some help. It wasn't until I finally went and got some help that I realized what it was. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, anger issues and PTSD.”

Thacker says he attended counseling for his various issues, including anger management groups and individual therapy. “I'm pretty much over that hump,” Thacker says. “But you're never really completely over it.”

Not all veterans who have service-related depression, stress and anxiety come directly from combat, however. John Welch, a former avionics technician who served in the Navy for five years, had none of the emotionally distressing experiences that Thacker had. Despite never going overseas and never seeing combat, Welch recalls having problems with depression and anxiety shortly after leaving active duty status.

“I think a lot of people have stress when they get out,” Welch said. “It's hard getting out and then having your safety net just fall. It's depressing leaving the life you knew for so long behind.”

The active duty military have many benefits: an assured paycheck, a stable job and free medical benefits, to name a few. Once a military member gets out, many may feel as though they must fend for themselves.

To cope with his stress, Welch's methods were very similar to Thacker’s despite having entirely different histories that led to their problems.

“I initially coped with the stress by getting out and doing things,” Welch says. “Eventually I sought medical treatment. I had a family friend who was a psychologist so I started seeing him for my anxiety and depression.”

Welch also says that he became a volunteer firefighter to help him cope with the loss of structure in his life.

“I joined the fire service because it has a similar structure and chain of command,” Welch says. “It was the closest thing I could find to the military.”

Back on the bluffs, each veteran tries to tackle a tricky part of terrain. They yell words of encouragement to each other, but all of them seem stymied and slip back down the path.

Thacker steps up, unsure at first. Slowly and deliberately, he finds a secure footing and makes it up the path to the bluffs to the cheers of his peers. After witnessing his triumph, the others decide to give it one more shot and, one by one, each scrambles to the top.

Wes Capps is a veteran and a journalism student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  The names in this story are pseudonyms because those interviewed did not think the military would want them talking about their problems.