Vietnam veteran's mission: Saving my brothers from their demons
When Bill "Fallout" Atkinson and members of Rolling Thunder Illinois Chapter 1 get together, they hop off their motorcycles and greet each other with a hug and a "welcome home."
The closeness was a bit much for Manuel Lopez, who joined a few years back to help veterans like his son Matthew, who served in the Marines for 26 years.
"What kind of group did I join? They're all hugging!" says Lopez, 76, of Naperville. "They said it's a habit. When they were in Vietnam, they would hug because they didn't know if they were going to see each other again. How do you live like that?"
Veterans such as Atkinson, who served in the Navy in Vietnam from 1968 to '69, say it's a matter of necessity.
"You didn't know what tomorrow was going to bring," he says. "You had to trust each other."
The consequences of that uncertainty came home with them.
Fear of loud noises. Depression. Thoughts of suicide. Hypervigilance. A constant state of alert.
"You don't realize it while you're there because it's just how you have to be. It's like you just drank a pot of Starbucks. You're just aware," says Atkinson, 69, of Glendale Heights. "That alone can have an immense effect on somebody. Some guys never really adjust or get back."
It took Atkinson decades to "get back" to a healthier mental state for noncombat life.
When he left the service at 21 and became a mechanic, then a plumber, he didn't realize he had wartime demons to address.
"I really just kind of buried it for a long time," he says.
He busied himself with work and carried on that way for more than 30 years.
Then he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
His first trip to the wall in Washington, D.C., came in 2003, and it opened the floodgates of suppressed emotion.
"That started a whole long period of me dealing with it," he says, about the "period of darkness" and depression he battled and continues to address through counseling.
"It was difficult," he says. "I don't talk about how I feel well. They (counselors) want to know how you feel."
Now Atkinson feels driven -- driven to prevent veterans from ending their lives by providing connections to the Veterans Crisis Line.
The line, established in 2007, receives 250,000 calls each year nationwide and helps veterans with anything causing a crisis in the immediate moment, be it thoughts of suicide, a family problem, an urgent home repair or a financial emergency.
Trained responders from the Department of Veterans Affairs handle the calls and dispatch the appropriate help or provide links to local organizations for assistance. Veterans can reach the line by calling (800) 273-8255, texting 838255 or starting a chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Morgan Woolley and Jordon Wolf, veterans suicide prevention coordinators at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, say police are sent to only 1 percent of calls to conduct a well-being check. Roughly 10 percent of calls are forwarded to a suicide prevention coordinator. The rest are addressed through other resources.
"We just want people to get whatever help they need in that moment," Woolley says.
Whenever Rolling Thunder hosts an event, Atkinson is there with materials promoting the Crisis Line -- business cards, pamphlets, wristbands, coasters, water bottles -- anything to increase knowledge of the mental health needs of veterans.
"People don't know what to say," Atkinson says. "If somebody is depressed, there's still that shadow over mental illness."
Atkinson took medication for a time to stabilize his depression, and he wants people to know that's OK. He continues to meet with a counselor he found through the VA. But his most effective way of maintaining his mental health has been through the second brotherhood he's found.
The first came when he was in the "Brown Water Navy," serving aboard river boats in Vietnam. The second is the members of Rolling Thunder, a group he hopes can appeal to younger veterans as well as those from his era.
"We sit around and talk and have coffee," he says. "We have a common bond."
• If you or a loved one is in crisis, go to the nearest emergency room, visit the Veterans Crisis Line at www.veteranscrisisline.net, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. or call (800) 273-8255, the number for both services.