This episode was recorded live at a ceremony on Veterans Day 2020 at the Pueblo El Mirage Veterans Day celebration in El Mirage, Arizona. Thank you to the staff and everyone involved to put on such a great event and make me truly feel welcomed in your community.
Links & Resources
Episodes referenced in this speech:
- [Equine Therapy] Hope And Healing For The Veteran Community with Jennifer O'Neill
- [Art Therapy] Healing Through Artwork with Edward Santos
- [Outdoors] Using The Outdoors as a Healthier Coping Mechanism with Brad Noone
- [Positive Outlook] Choosing To Find The Good with Julian Torres
- [Dealing with Cancer from Burn Pits] Burn Pits, the VA, and Keeping a Positive Attitude with Wes Black
- [Yoga and Music] Finding Purpose Through Yoga And Music with Steve Alvarez
This episode was recorded live at a ceremony on Veterans Day 2020 where I had the opportunity to share my story and the stories of several of my past guests. It was an honor to share these stories with this audience and I’m pleased to be able to share the stories with you on this podcast. I hope you enjoy it.
First off, thank you for being here and for having me. My name is Scott DeLuzio and I’m an Army veteran having served for about 6 years as an infantryman in the Connecticut Army National Guard. During that time I deployed to Afghanistan, so no I wasn’t just a weekend warrior. I’m also the host of a podcast, called the Drive On Podcast. I’m assuming everyone is familiar with podcasts. If not, you’re listening to one right now because I’m recording this speech for an episode.
Anyway, I started the podcast about a year and a half ago after hearing about how many problems veterans are having after getting out of the military. Homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, not understanding the benefits they have access to, and worst of all, veteran suicide.
I’ve personally known veterans who were affected by all of those issues and then some. Our company was lucky enough to not lose any soldiers while we were in Afghanistan. But after we started losing them to suicide at home, I felt like something more needed to be done. That was the kick in the pants I needed to get the podcast started. We’ve all heard the statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That number is a tragedy and it shows that, depending on which report you read, veterans take their lives at a rate that’s about twice as high as their civilian counterparts.
So this is why I started my podcast. I wanted to shine a light on these issues and talk to some veterans who struggled with addiction, homelessness, suicide attempts, and any other issues they had. The thought I had was that chances are if one veteran struggled with an issue, others could be struggling too. And if one of these veterans managed to find their way out of that dark hole - kicked the addiction, repaired their marriage, got off the streets, or chose to live instead of die - I figured their story might inspire other veterans to do the same. It might give them reason to believe that there’s still hope for them.
I’m not alone either. Countless post 9/11 veterans and civilians have stepped up to help out veterans in one way or another. There are others who do podcasts that are similar to mine. Some volunteer with nonprofits geared towards veterans. Others have become therapists and work to help vets get over the mental hurdles they’re struggling with.
One thing I have noticed since joining the military is that we like to take care of our own. Even complete strangers will help each other out because of the bond that we all share as veterans. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other group of people. It truly is amazing. Fortunately, we also live in a time where even civilians are proud to help out veteran causes too. I feel bad for those of you who came back from Vietnam just to get slapped in the face for the sacrifice you made.
Do we have any Vietnam vets here? Well, welcome home and thank you for your service.
The reason why I’m singling you out is because that 22 veterans per day number that I talked about, is largely made up of veterans from your age group. Something like 60% of them are around your age. There is a common misconception that it’s the younger vets in my age group and younger that make up the bulk of that number, but it’s the other way around.
I don’t know all the reasons why your age group is disproportionately represented in that statistic. But I can’t imagine getting spit on when you got home while being called a baby killer helped the mental health of people who just experienced the horrors of war first hand. There probably wasn’t the same level of care for veterans when you got home as there is today. Veterans from your era probably just sucked it up and learned to live with the burdens of war that they carried with them. I mean, that was the mindset wasn’t it? Suck it up, be a man. Then after decades of just living with it and not dealing with the issues properly, well what can we expect? The mind can only take so much abuse before it just wants to quit.
Look, I’m not trying to say one era of veterans is any better than another. Hell, it was a lot like that when I got home in 2010 too. Sure, we had mental health screenings when we got home, but we weren't exactly encouraged to be 100% truthful. While it wasn’t explicitly stated, the direction we got was to just check the box that you met with the therapist and get back to work. And there was a bit of fear there too. We didn’t know if we got flagged by mental health whether or not we’d be able to come back and do our jobs, so it was better to just deal with it on our own. Or so we thought anyway.
In 2010 when I was in Afghanistan I was deployed as an infantryman with the Connecticut Army National Guard like I said before. My younger brother SGT Steven DeLuzio was also deployed as an infantryman with the Vermont Army National Guard. The units were part of the same brigade so we deployed together, although we were stationed about 80 or 90 miles apart.
It was definitely stressful for us, but I can't imagine what it was like for our parents, my wife, or even my brother's fiance. This was going to be my brother's second deployment, so he knew what he could expect, but this was only my first. And not only was I leaving a wife at home, but our first child was born just a few weeks before I left. He’s here with us today along with my wife and two younger children that we had after I returned home.
I did my best to prepare for the worst before I left. I took care of all the tangible things, I made sure my will was complete, my life insurance was squared away, and all that stuff you don’t really like to think about but you do because you’re a responsible adult. I tried not to dwell on that stuff too much though. I knew we were headed for a dangerous area, but the last thing I wanted to do was worry about getting injured or killed, and I definitely didn't want to worry about my brother. Afterall, he'd be fine, it wasn't his first rodeo.
So that was late 2009 in early 2010 our units landed in Afghanistan. Fast forward to August of 2010. My unit was running a series of missions in different parts of the country assisting the Afghan army. We were training their soldiers, and then going out on raids to flush out Taliban fighters for several weeks. On August 22nd 2010, we were on a mission going door to door through a village. Mud huts, goats, dogs, and other animals wandering everywhere. Believe me, you haven't seen poverty until you've been dropped into the middle of a random Afghan village. Anyway, we had a relatively successful mission where we found some of what we were looking for and began to head back out of the village. Around that time I got a call on the radio saying that the commander was looking for me. Now, I was just a Sergeant, and if you know anything about the chain of command you know that it's rare that the commander would come directly looking for a Sergeant without going through the chain of command. Usually when this happens you either did something really well or totally screwed something up. I couldn't think of anything particularly good that I did, so my head started spinning trying to figure out what I did wrong.
Then it dawned on me that maybe a Red Cross message came through to tell me about something that happened back home. I had elderly relatives, maybe one of them passed away. I had a young child and a wife, maybe something happened to them.
Eventually I meet up with the commander, ready for either getting chewed out, or some other devastating news from back home. When he had me sit down to talk to him, I knew I wasn’t getting chewed out like I was actually hoping for. I remember him looking me in the eye to tell me that my brother's unit was ambushed and that my brother was hit in the ambush.
Immediately, I thought to myself that my brother probably needed some help - maybe he needed an organ or blood donation. My head started spinning thinking about the logistics of how fast a helicopter could get me out of there to where he was so I could help him.
But I didn't totally understand what the commander was saying. See, not only was my brother hit, he was killed in action. Naturally, when I heard this I broke down. That was my little brother that I felt a responsibility to protect for 25 years. I remember when we were kids my dad used to ride us around on his back like pony rides. One time my brother was just old enough to be able to sit up on his own and we both were on my dad's back for one of these pony rides. We had a bunch of Legos on the floor, which I’m sure did wonders for my Dad’s knees and hands. But at one point my brother started to fall off my dad's back. When I saw this, instead of letting him slip off and land on the Legos, I swung myself around him and landed on the Legos with him on top of me to shield him from hitting the bricks.
Another time, when he was a freshman in high school and I was a senior, there were a couple sophomores or juniors who were picking on him. I walked up to them, asked what the problem was, and they scattered. I tell you those stories because it wasn’t just me feeling the responsibility to protect him. It was my job. I protected him no matter what. Hell, my first thought when I found out he was hit was how I could help him. But here I was feeling like I failed him when he needed me the most.
My grieving was cut short though because maybe 20-30 minutes after learning of his death, our own unit came under fire from several directions. RPGs, or rocket propelled grenades, and AK-47 rifle fire were popping up all around us. I had soldiers that I was in charge of, and I needed to get my head back in the game to make sure they were doing what they needed to do, and were positioned where they needed to be. The fight was short lived because we had air support in the area which took care of a good portion of the problem for us and we either got the rest or caused them to retreat.
After the fighting stopped I looked around at the Afghan soldiers and our interpreters who were with us and I felt an enormous amount of anger and hatred build up inside of me. My wife’s here, you can ask her - I wasn’t a hateful person. Yet here I was hating people I barely knew. I hated them for not taking care of their own country. I hated that despite 9 years of American intervention at that time their country was still a disaster, which made it necessary for people like my brother to come there to die.
Luckily I was able to escort my brother’s body out of Afghanistan the next day, and be home for his funeral. I don’t think that hatred would have served me very well in that country any more. On the flight out of Afghanistan, I watched the transfer case my brother was in like a hawk. I played the scenario out in my head that if anyone so much as sneezed near it or even brushed up against it, I would jump out of my seat and pummel them for disrespecting him. Between the hatred and the aggression towards people who I didn’t know, and for things that they had no control over my head was not in a great place.
Needless to say, when I got back home my head was screwed up. I had next to no time to grieve the loss of my brother, and what’s worse, my mind was in survival mode having basically started my journey home right off the battlefield. When the firefight started my grieving essentially stopped and I wasn’t able to pick it back up again because my mind stayed in that heightened sense of alertness. My mind was made up during that firefight that my parents wouldn’t receive a second folded up flag, and I guess I maintained the vigilance without regard for the emotional side of what I was experiencing.
Instead, I struggled with drinking too much and sleeping too little. The only way I’d get a full night’s sleep was by taking sleeping pills. I was angry, anxious, and depressed all at the same time. I was constantly on edge - one day I was out shopping at a local Walmart and I suddenly realized I didn’t have my rifle with me and I freaked out.
When I first got back from Afghanistan we had a mandatory mental health screening, which I definitely lied through my teeth to get through because I didn't want to have to talk about feelings or any of that other sissy nonsense. I didn’t want to be in that screening any longer than I had to be.
Fortunately, I have a saint for a wife who eventually encouraged me to get help when it became obvious that I wasn’t breaking out of that funk on my own. So, I went to therapy at the Vet Center consistently for almost 2 years after getting home. I stopped going to therapy shortly before moving out here, but there’s not really a hard end date on this sort of thing. We’re all a work in progress, and just like you go to the doctor every year for a physical, it isn’t a bad thing to check back in with a therapist from time to time to make sure your head is on right..
When I first called the Vet Center in early 2011, I honestly had no idea what to expect. Was I going to be sent to some loony bin, a nut house, or whatever you want to call it? Was I going to be kicked out of the Army? I had no idea, but I knew I had to do whatever I could to work my way back to be somewhat closer to the man I was before. I'll tell you though, after I made the call and scheduled an appointment I felt just a little bit better. It was like I knew I didn't have to carry the weight of the world by myself on my own shoulders anymore.
Sometimes we think that we can carry the weight of the world by ourselves, but it doesn’t make sense to do that all the time. Think about if you were in combat and an overwhelming enemy force was about to overrun your position. You’d probably call in for air support or some other backup, right? You wouldn’t fight it out on your own if there were other options would you? It wouldn’t make sense. The same goes for these mental health sessions. If you can handle it on your own, great, more power to you, but when you start acting like someone you know you’re not then it’s time to call for backup.
And I’ll admit that I was a little nervous going into the first session, but it turned out that it wasn’t scary at all. It was just two guys talking. My therapist was a combat vet too, so he could relate to some of the things I was going though.
But, enough about me. I’m here to let you know that there are options like this for you. Maybe not you specifically, but maybe a friend, or a loved one needs some help, so hear me out. And yes, even for people who have been out of the military for many years, there is help. Despite how society made you feel when you got back, you don’t have to suck it up and carry the burden by yourself.
On my podcast, in addition to veterans, I also talk to service providers who work with veterans in a variety of ways. One of these people I spoke to was actress Jennifer O’Neill, who now runs an equine therapy ranch for veterans. Horses will react to their human handler’s emotions, so if you’re angry, or acting a bit out of control, the horses won’t respond the way you want them to. They’ll avoid you, and you won’t get them to do what you want them to. You have to get your emotions under control in order for the horses to follow your commands. This type of therapy makes you more aware of your emotions - you start to learn when you’re getting upset and you learn to calm yourself down before you get out of control.
Another guest I had on the show was a veteran friend of mine who talked about his struggle with depression after returning from Afghanistan. He tried the talk therapy, which was OK but it wasn’t quite doing it for him. He found out about a veteran art program, and since he grew up watching Bob Ross paint happy trees, he figured if Bob Ross was as happy as he was painting, he might as well give it a whirl. It turned out that one painting lesson made him fall in love with art. He went out and bought all the art supplies and got to painting and his depression seemed to start fading away. Eventually when he painted all the landscapes he could think up in his basement, he wanted to get outdoors, so he started taking some of the most beautiful photos of sunsets, beaches, forests, and anything else you can think of. To him, he’s happy when he’s creating beautiful art whether it’s painting or photographing.
Another veteran friend I had as a guest on the podcast has described the outdoors as his church, his therapist, his doctor, and his gym. It’s a place where he can be alone with his thoughts and address the things that are bothering him. He mountain climbs, whitewater rafts, hikes, goes snowshoeing, and anything else you can think of that’s outdoors. Again, he does this to cope with the issues he had after serving overseas.
One veteran I spoke to on the podcast lost both of his legs in Afghanistan. That’s enough to break even the toughest of individuals. But he chose to find the good in life. He looked at it like he got a second chance at life, and chose to make the most out of this second act. Since losing his legs he’s even scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.
A soldier who served with my brother, actually the guy who held my brother as he died in his arms, was on the podcast talking about his battle with stage 4 cancer after being exposed to the burn pits in Afghanistan. Again, you’d think that he would be down in the dumps over what essentially amounts to a death sentence. But you’d be wrong. I swear I never met a more positive person in my life. He’s a husband and a father, and even when he’s completely exhausted from the chemo treatments, he still gets on the floor and plays with his son or chases him around the yard. He’s a firefighter too, and he gets right back to work after his chemo treatments. Stories like his can bring hope to people who are struggling.
Another veteran friend was dealing with depression and anger as well as experiencing a number of health issues after years of treating his body like crap during multiple deployments with the Army. He started doing small things. Little incremental changes to change his attitude. Like many of us, he developed a cynical attitude in the Army, and realized he needed to work on a more positive outlook on life. He got into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and yoga. Both of which he said put him in a very cathartic state because he forces himself to have to live in the moment. He became very aware of the here and now. No matter what’s going on in his finances, his love life, his job, or social life, he’s on a mission when he’s practicing those. At that moment, nothing else matters because he’s focused on the moment he’s in and not worried about that deadline that’s coming up next week, or the argument he had with his wife. It lets him live in the moment.
All of these stories have one thing in common and it’s that the veterans in these stories have all made a choice to not let their hard times get them down. They made a choice to be happy. It isn’t easy, and there are sure to be ups and downs from time to time, but that choice is what’s keeping that statistic from ticking up to 23 or 24 veterans a day. I know it’s easier said than done. Heck I struggle with it myself too, but when I hear stories like theirs, I know there is hope.
There is hope for you too.