Sharing Experiences Heals Lives - Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VAMC
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Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VAMC

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Sharing Experiences Heals Lives

June 3, 2015






Sharing Experiences Heals Lives

As Mental Health Month winds down, we do not want to lose sight of the importance of mental health care.  As the essays below demonstrate, from the perspective of both the Veteran and the provider, mental health care changes lives.  VA follows four guiding principles which form the foundation of mental health care:  focus on recovery, coordinated care for the whole person, mental health treatment in primary care, and a mental health treatment coordinator.  For additional information call (215) 823-4300.



In a Veteran's own words:  "Wednesday's Children"


Writing used to be special to me, as a way to deal with whatever troubling thing that came my way.

It became a kind of portal of escapism, and at the same time, a necessary hold on reality.

But like my desire to write, and my ability to draw and paint fine pictures, it too was buried with the remorse of circumstance.

Like for most of us, the young years can be troubling internally, with all the physical and mental changes, and externally with life's many demands and obligations.


The most frightening and devastating, for me, occurred in 1967 when I was informed that I had been drafted into the military.  Other than the death of my mother, many years before, it became the most, gut wrenching, brain crushing event that had ever invaded my still confused life.

At 17 years old I had never had the opportunity to venture more than 100 miles from home, and still, surprisingly, had yet to experience love's first kiss. Yes, still a virgin.

Now, here was this piece of paper telling me to leave everything that was mine behind, and report to train for war.


As a kid, my brothers and I were often found in the dusty fields and woods behind our house, shooting from the trees with wooden, self-made guns and throwing hardened clods of dirt as hand grenades, that would burst into a great dust cloud, on impact with the ground.

These were wonderful imaginary battles that, somehow we all lived through and were simply washed away in my grandmother's wash tub.


Fear, like most every other emotion, comes and goes with changes that occur around it.

But fear, left un-altered, has terrible manifestations that turn into other things.

From the moment that I first realized that real war was calling me out, fear became galvanized in my thoughts, and everything that I did, or tried to do, was measured by that one thing.

I looked into the faces of my family and friends with the stark belief that I was seeing them for the last time.  In essence, I was preparing them for my death!


I left home in January of 1968, to report for training, with a pocket full of good, old fear and child-like ignorance, and found that fear was the primary instrument to be used to turn me, and hundreds of other kids like me, into fighting machines.

Six months later, with my new orders in hand, and like all of the guys that had gone through this fear training, I was given a last opportunity to return home for another final goodbye.


The short moment I spent at home was gone now and I found myself looking through the eyes of this me standing on the ground in a place called "VIETNAM" with a full field pack on, holding an M16 rifle.

Here again was that word "FEAR," but only now it was accompanied by the smell of gun powder, the endless smell of things burning, rotting fish, and other dead things.

Endless orders and shouting, sometimes in a language I still didn't quite understand.


The pure clarity and horror of the war, crushed in on me when I saw my first stack of body bags waiting to be shipped home.

It was then that I realized that this was not me playing war in the back yard with my brothers.  This was me playing out one of the worst horrors that the human mind could, but should not, see.

I knew a year later that after having blood on my hands, seeing friends ripped open by bullets, seeing villages burn, and helplessly being forced to listen to the wail of dying children, that at the end of my time in Vietnam, I knew that only part of me would or could ever return home.

Too much of me will forever be bound in my sorrow for those Vietnamese children that I couldn't save.


More than forty years have passed since this tragic, and painful experience has, physically, come and gone from my life, but mentally, I have come to realize that the doors to such horrid visions, can never be closed.  My nightmares won't allow it.


In the early years of my return to civilian life, like so many other veterans, I began to feel that there were things wrong inside my mind, as well as my body.   Unfortunately, because the VA medical system was only beginning to comprehend the true measure of our problems, many of us simply avoided treatment, as well as any other outside contact for years.


It has only been a few short years now, that my physical health finally deteriorated to the point that I was forced to seek help at the Philadelphia VA. Medical Center.

Since then, I have come to realize that the true value of this facility, and others like it, fall far under the radar of true appreciation.   The mental health program at this facility has, literally saved the lives of me, and 20 to 40 other  veterans who are members of a unique 12-Step PTSD group who come together every WEDNESDAY as a band of survivors , to return to a war best left forgotten.

And because we cannot forget, or be told to forget, through this program we learn to live with it without being in it.  It is the only way that many of us, can truly come home!

We have literally become WEDNESDAY'S CHILDREN.


In the words of a Mental Health provider:


Mental health awareness is something we need to be mindful of on a daily basis.  There are opportunities to reach out to family, friends, patients, co-workers, or others - who may be struggling with some personal issues.  If you see someone, you may not even know, looking tearful or upset in a waiting room or other public area, it's important to take the initiative to ask them what's going on and to offer assistance to them.   Some people are afraid to extend themselves in these situations, because it's uncomfortable.  We often don't have all the answers or we're not a trained mental health staff member.  However, you don't have to be a trained professional to just help them get assistance.  You can reach out and assess the situation.  You can possibly take the person to the nearest mental health clinic or ER, if needed.  Often with those we are closest to, such as family or co-workers, we may have a sense of denial of how serious the situation is. Don't be in denial.  Offer a person who may be in distress, time to talk, and assist them in getting professional help, if needed. 


What is mental health?  It's a sense of healthy self-esteem and self-worth.  It's about having balance in your life-time for work, rest, and play (leisure time activities or hobbies that you enjoy).  Mental health is about being honest with yourself and others.  It's being comfortable looking at yourself in a mirror, knowing you are doing the best you can on a daily basis.  It's being comfortable in your own skin, accepting of yourself and others-including strengths and weaknesses. 


Know the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number: 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255), in case you or someone you meet needs to keep it on hand.  I keep cards with this number on it, in my handbag, so I can pass it along to others.  If you forget the number, or just want to learn more about suicide prevention, then google the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  It is a resource at your fingertips. 


Please be mindful of your mental health and that of others on a daily basis.  Work on promoting mental health for yourself and others.


If you know someone who could benefit from mental health care, reach out to help them get the care they need and deserve.