A hero is a person who is admired for overcoming great adversity through extraordinary courage and ability. With Comic Con recently taking over downtown San Diego they were easy to spot: heroes wearing capes and brightly colored costumes. But it was prior to Comic Con that I learned how to spot San Diego's real heroes. To most of us they are invisible. If you live in any large city in America you probably passed one on the way to work. As you sat in your car waiting for the light to change one walked right by you. They wear disguises. He might have covered his face with a bushy beard. She might have hidden behind a cardboard sign. But the reason that most people don't see San Diego's invisible heroes is because they choose not to. It is uncomfortable. Maybe they are asking for spare change. Maybe shabby, mismatched clothes and an unfamiliar odor make you nervous. They sleep in doorways. They push shopping carts. They have given everything in defense of our way of life. They are San Diego's homeless veterans.
We often think that when a combat veteran's service ends and they return home their sacrafice for their country has been made, but for many the struggle to adjust to life after combat can continue for years. The effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can overwhelm a veteran's attempts to find work, maintain relationships, and find joy in everyday activities that once may have been effortless. While the severity of any situation may very greatly, veterans may struggle particularly because asking for the help that they need and deserve may seem counter to the invincible image they created to survive in combat. They may feel that asking for help would be weak.
National news reports tell us that many of these veterans find themselves seeing no way to end their pain and are taking their own lives. No one has to endure this kind of hopelessness alone. Asking for help is not weak. The courage to reveal one's vulnerability takes great strength. If you are a struggling military veteran there is hope.
I recently had the opportunity to meet over a thousand sturggling and homeless veterans at the annual Stand Down San Diego event in Balboa Park. Stand Down is held every year for 3 days every July. Veterans Village of San Diego organizes the event to offer these soldiers, seamen, airmen and marines a helping hand. It has become so successful that it has become a model for events held all over the country. As one of hundreds of volunteers, I assisted veterans and their families with accessing showers, clean clothes, barbers, doctors, dentists, optometrists, counselors, chaplains, legal assistance and a safe place to sleep. In addition, Stand Down offers help with accessing benefits, finding employment and seeking shelter.
For those three days, these heroes are not invisible. Lives are changed and lives are saved as thousands of caring volunteers and professionals give their time to address the challenges facing so many of San Diego's veterans.
I spoke with military spouses and children that volunteered at Stand Down. They cried as they talked about the time they had missed with an absent or angry veteran. But this event was characterized by love and hope. Many of them were transformed by their experience. They told me about how meeting other veterans and hearing their stories helped them understand how their husbands and fathers had been changed by combat duty.
Many past Stand Down attendees returned to help and to spread their stories of healing, inspiration, transformation and redemption. Struggles to adapt to civilian life had left many searching for strength and motivation to go on each day and they gave testimony that not all scars are physical. Yet these conversations inevitably contained a message of hope: life can be meaningful and happy even for those who have survived traumatic, life-changing experiences. Stand Down is a second chance that these men and women deserve. A chance to overcome great adversity. A chance to be admired. A chance to be heroes.
If you would like more information about how to organize or volunteer at a stand Stand Down event in your area, click here.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.