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Veterans encouraged to seek free mental health services

VFW Post 7775 Commander Bridget Lightner encourages veterans to seek free local services if they suffer from mental health or other issues
Bridget Lightner
Sgt. Major Bridget Lightner, commander of Charlotte's VFW Post 7775, encourages veterans to seek free local services if they suffer from mental health or other issues.

According to the Veterans Administration, about 621,000 veterans reside in North Carolina. Many suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and drug addiction, often stemming from their time in service. The VA’s latest figures show that more than 200 veterans in North Carolina committed suicide in 2021.

For many veterans, Memorial Day — a federal holiday to honor veterans who lost their lives in combat zones — can be challenging as they remember friends and family members killed in battle.

Sgt. Major Bridget Lightner, commander of VFW Post 7775 in Charlotte, says there are many places veterans can get free mental health assistance throughout the region.

Lightner, a 30-year veteran who was deployed to various combat zones as a financial officer, talks about local resources for veterans and some of her close-call experiences overseas.

Bridget Lightner:  I was flying over in Bagram, Afghanistan, in a helicopter, going to get some money and to do an inspection, and I had two gunners to the left, and you got the enemy trying to shoot you down.

I tell you what, I'm a praying person, and I believe in God, but I thank those veterans who was there as gunners to protect us while we were there.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Even though you were not on the front lines, you were in precarious situations a lot, and as you just described. So knowing that kind of tension and that stress, what would you say are some of the main issues that veterans are facing here in Charlotte?

Lightner: The main thing is getting used to being acclimated back to civilian life. We are trained to fight and defend this country, how to go to war. And, so, now you gotta switch your mindset back into civilian life. And a lot of times people don't understand you. They don't understand what you've been through and what you have to do is a process.

So, (veterans) are dealing with trying to find a job, flip back into their family mood, you know, everything's changed. We are so used to structure, we know when to get up, when to go to bed, what to do. And when you go somewhere that's not structured, that's not organized, that can mess a soldier's mind up because we are used to order.

Glenn: What do they need to better acclimate to civilian life, and are those services there?

Lightner: One thing about the VFW, and the mission for the VFW, is to foster camaraderie among United States veterans of overseas conflict. So we assist with coordinating veterans to their local county offices.

Every state has a local county veterans service office, which is free. They have all the information you would need to assist you, whatever you need — if you're trying to go back to school, if you're trying to get your health benefits, if you're trying to file your VA disability claim — the veteran service officer will assist the veterans at the local county office.

Glenn: One thing that some of them complain about is long waits for medical service for things that happened to them when they were in the service in Afghanistan or Kuwait. I know of one retired veteran who made a career out of it — and it's been over a year, and he still doesn't have hearing aids. What are you hearing from veterans and your members?

Lightner: When members tell me they are having issues about their appointments, we also inform them that they have a patient advocate at the clinics and they could go there and complain about it. And they also have community care.

So, if a veteran has an appointment, that’s more than 10 days out, you could call community care with the VA and say ‘I want to be seen on the outside,’ and they will give you a referral. Like for instance, they told me my eye exam is gonna be three months. I said three months, that's a long time. I asked the lady and said can I go through community care? She said yes. I got a call back from the doctor. He asked me some questions. I just got my letter in the mail saying I've been approved to an outside source to do my eye exam. That's why it's important to join, like, a VFW, because we inform you about all your benefits and all the services for you.

And then sometimes things do fall through the cracks, but we could fix that. That's why it's important to reach out to the VFW, to reach out to the county, to reach out to the state, your senator, your congressman and tell them what you need.

Glenn: Is suicide an issue? Or depression — is that a big issue? And are they getting help for the ones that you have been in touch with?

Lightner: Yes, mental illness is high. There are services, but we need more services. I met a soldier when I was working. He killed himself.

Glenn: Can you tell me a little more about him?

Lightner: He was on active duty. He relocated to Charlotte. He was depressed, and he had lost everything. His wife left him. He was going through some things. A lot of soldiers when they come back, sometimes the family lifestyle is still not the same. He was to himself a lot and then he had an outburst one time when he was just banging on the doors. They took him to the hospital. And he was seen (by doctors) and everything, and he was sent to a mental place for a couple of months.

He came back, and I asked him if he was OK. And he said yes. I said if you need anything, just let me know. But then the person that was his, his battle buddy — you know, we have a battle buddy in the military — the guy lived next door to him. He would check with him, bring him to work, but he went home for the weekend. Other people was calling to check on him, and so when (his battle buddy) left the next morning, the guy hung himself. Of course everybody really felt bad about it, and I was crying.

I was upset. Because we asked the question, 'Are you OK? Do you need help? Are you thinking about killing yourself?' Some people don't think you should ask, but I say ask it because you never know whose life you're going to save. So Memorial Day is really special for me, and I thank those who died so we can have freedom.

Glenn: And I'm sure he'll be on your mind on Memorial Day.

Lightner: He will be. He will be.

You can call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to reach free, live support if you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, a mental health or substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.