Joe Palesano, a veteran of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield who now serves as a volunteer and board member with Glendale-based Wellness Works, a nonprofit organization that offers support services to vets and their families, was stunned to learn that approximately 22 veterans across the country commit suicide every day.
“It hit so close to home for us that we decided we needed to raise awareness,” said Palesano, who added that the startling statistics were released by the Veteran’s Administration. “We wanted to find a way to bring the community and vets together.”
Three years ago, Palesano, a resident of Pasadena, and other board members initiated Not on Our Watch. For three days, 24 hours a day, hundreds of veterans and their supporters patrol Pasadena’s infamous Colorado Street Bridge. The Pasadena City Council has waived hefty permit fees so that Not on My Watch could become an annual event.
“During the walk, we hold a vigil and honor those who have died and offer hope to those who are contemplating suicide,” said the Navy vet. This year’s walk will be Sept. 20-23.
“The bridge has a very dark history,” Palesano observed.
Since its construction in 1913, the bridge has been the site of numerous suicides, with seven committed this year alone, and six people jumping to their deaths in 2016. Despite the posting of a crisis hotline and mesh fences recently erected on the site to discourage suicide, the last person jumped to their death on July 17, the same day fences were being installed on parts of the structure.
“During our vigil last year, we actually stopped three veterans who were attempting to jump off the bridge. Thankfully, we were able to talk them down,” Palesano said.
After experiencing the constant threat of death during war, many vets return home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can trigger anxiety, nightmares, insomnia, paranoia and outbursts of anger.
Palesano said his life changed when a huge pallet on his ship suddenly rolled toward him and severed his right foot.
After surgery to reconnect his foot, he returned to the US. “I kept having flashbacks about the war,” Palesano recalled. “I ended up living on the streets for six months. I was having these feelings like I didn’t belong in society. People said, ‘Put the war behind you.’ But if you can’t walk properly, how can you even be a security guard? I was willing to flip burgers, but no one would hire me.”
He searched for and reconnected with Kathy Lynch, his old high school science teacher who had inspired his love for science. “I had no idea that she was working with Wellness Works. I came here and the next day I participated in the support group. Now I’m volunteering and helping others,” Palesano said proudly.
Dontae Maycey, a marriage and family therapy intern who completed three tours of duty in Iraq and conducts individual and group counseling with the vets, said that vets often disclose that they miss the camaraderie they experienced in the military.
“The military is like a family. Each soldier has the other’s back. But in civilian life, the camaraderie is not there. Vets don’t have a sense of direction. Many ask themselves, ‘Why am I here?’
You’re no longer getting that adrenaline fix, that sense of accomplishment you get from protecting and serving your country,” Maycey observed. “You’re not a superhero anymore. Just imagine if Batman was no longer Batman in his prime?”
‘WAR CHANGED ME’
Recently, dozens of veterans attended Wellness Work’s monthly barbecue where they chowed down on beef and salmon burgers while rock music played in the background. Some eagerly swapped stories of their war experiences while others quietly sat back and basked in the camaraderie of their fellow vets.
Adam Cloys, 43, Army vet, arrived at the barbecue with his Vietnam vet dad, 72-year-old Wes Cloys. “For 13 years, I was an intelligence analyst in the Army,” said Cloys. “I did three tours of duty in Iraq and one tour each in Bosnia, South Korea and Kuwait. I saw death, destruction, poverty, oppression and people suffering. I had friends who died.”
The loss of one of those friends was particularly painful. “His name was Sgt. Gautraux,” Cloys recalls. “We would spend lunch time together talking about politics.”
Pausing, he added, “One day, an IUD exploded near his vehicle and the nuts and bolts from the IUD struck him in his neck.”
Cloys said Gautraux died instantly. “I just felt numb,” he recalled. “But I knew death was one of the grim realities of war. Sometimes you meet someone — and then you may never see them again.”
Cloys was diagnosed with PTSD. “The war took a toll on my personality and my character. I think the level of stress made my brain physically change. I know I’ll never be the same person I was before I enlisted.”
But Cloys found hope at Wellness Works. “I receive therapy, massage, and energy healings and I attend the writer’s group. It has really helped me to cope with my anxiety.”
Albert Lynn Boyles, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and an Arapahoe and Apache Indian known as “Lone Wolf,” served in the Army’s Special Operations Team. “Our job was to seek out and rescue prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action and to investigate KIA’s—soldiers killed in action,” said Boyles.
“War changed me,” Boyles said. “I saw close friends and acquaintances killed. The experience of combat made me realize that life is so precious.
“I was shot twice by the North Vietnamese on the right and left sides of my chest. They bandaged me up and we continued on our mission,” Boyles recalled. “Later, a landmine exploded near my right hip. I developed osteoarthritis and today I am 100 percent disabled.”
Boyles was diagnosed with PTSD and manic depression. “At Wellness Works, I take acupuncture and the writing workshop and I’m a volunteer,” said Boyles, who is developing a Native American self-healing program for vets.
Alan Zanger, 72, a Vietnam veteran who completed two tours of duty in the mid-60s, was devastated when his camp was attacked by the North Vietnamese on Oct. 28, 1965.
“We were building a 400-bed hospital when our camp was attacked. They threw mortars at us left and right. Dozens of Seabees were wounded and the worst of the injured were evacuated out. We bandaged ourselves up and went back to work.”
Diagnosed with PTSD, Zanger said his anger lasted for decades until a friend referred him to Wellness Works. “I love Wellness Works because people here understand what you’re going through.”
“We let the vets know that PTSD is not a mental illness, it’s a biological and psychological condition,” said Lynch, clinical director at Wellness Works. “It’s the body’s response to trauma. When you’re in the military, your brain is trained to react quickly to danger. The body pumps adrenaline and the soldiers become hypervigilant. When the vets return to society, their bodies are still on alert. That adrenaline needs to be re-regulated in the body.”
Wellness Works co-founder Mary Lu Coughlin said some vets have privately revealed that Wellness Works was their “last hope” before ending their own lives.
“By helping to guide their experiences of surviving trauma and working to stabilize the body, mind, soul and spirit, veterans find their hope restored,” said Coughlin. “Working together, we help to restore the role of warrior to these men and women veterans.
“As a society, we need their presence as spiritual warrior elders,” Coughlin stressed. “We need to hear their truth and join together in service to the greater good.”
“PTSD is an invisible wound,” Lynch added. “No one explains what has happened to these vets. They start thinking that they are crazy.”
Veterans affected by PTSD, which can trigger unpredictable mood swings, often find their relationships with family members crumbling.
“Their parents or their wives who say, ‘What’s wrong with you? You’re different. Why can’t you get better?’ For many vets, they have no way to explain their condition,” said Lynch.
Wellness Works, which was founded by Coughlin and nurse Nancy Rez, who died in 2008, offers a variety of holistic classes and services designed to help veterans cope with PTSD, trauma and other disorders.
“We hold classes in acupuncture and cranial-sacral, which relieves symptoms of traumatic brain injuries,” said Lynch, who added that Wellness Works is run by a group of dedicated volunteers. “We also offer counseling and therapy, a support group, a writing group, chi gong and tai chi, Chinese forms of exercise, and Japanese Reiki.” The center also offers career and financial education services.
Therapy dogs also help veterans cope with anxiety and trauma. “Members of the Pasadena Humane Society bring the dogs in every Wednesday to interact with the vets,” said Lynch.
“Recently, one vet arrived filled with road rage. His voice kept rising and he started going on a rant. One of the dogs approached him and gently placed his head in the vets’ lap. He turned around in amazement and said, “Did you see that?” By the time he went in for his acupuncture session, he was completely calm.”
Palesano noted that “PTSD chips away at your confidence. You lose hope. But Wellness Works reinstates that hope. It teaches veterans to trust again.” n
Wellness Works Glendale is located at 540 W. Broadway and can be reached by calling (818) 247-2062. Veterans can participate in the Not On My Watch event by signing up at WellnessWorksGlendale.org. Donations are welcome