Defense Department Launches ‘Real Warriors’ Campaign
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 21, 2009 Josh Hopper looks like he would win battles against an NFL lineman.
The Marine sergeant obviously is a body builder. His shoulders are broad, and his arms stretch the fabric of his uniform.
The sergeant looks like a winner, but there was a battle he couldn’t win without help – that against post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, Hopper is fighting another battle: to get servicemembers with PTSD to reach out and get help, as he did.
Hopper is part of the Defense Department’s new “Real Warriors” campaign.
“Real Warriors is a program aimed at wiping out the stigma associated with getting mental health care in the military,” said Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree Sutton. “We want people to seek help the same way they would if they had a physical wound.” Sutton is a psychiatrist who heads the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
The Real Warriors campaign centers on the stories of warriors who admitted they needed help and now are pursuing successful military careers.
Hopper is one of those warriors. The sergeant served three tours in Iraq in 2003, 2005 and 2006. He is married and has two children, and he’s assigned to Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station, N.C. The intelligence specialist received the Purple Heart Medal after a roadside-bomb strike in Anbar province and participated in numerous fire fights. The accumulated stresses of Hopper’s time in Iraq led to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I first got back, I was on that ‘welcome home’ high,” Hopper said in a recent interview. But after that, he found that he was having problems sleeping, and he was concentrating on the negative aspects of his deployments.
“My big thing was outbursts and mood swings,” he said. “I had a bad, bad temper that didn’t take much to get me there. I used alcohol as a way to comfort everything, and that was big-time out of the norm for me.”
He tried to hide the symptoms, but those closest to him knew. “My wife, parents, in-laws, they all knew I was having problems,” Hopper said. He was having trouble relating to his family, and it also affected his work.
He was receiving an award for his service in Iraq from his battalion commander when the symptoms burst into the open.
“When I received the award, I replayed what happened that day,” he said. “I sort of got into another world. I started shaking, got the cold sweats – everything. That’s when my commander sat me down and offered help.”
Asking for help went against Hopper’s preconceived notions of what a warrior would do. “You are supposed to be the tough guy or the tough gal,” Hopper said. “You say to yourself, ‘I signed up to do this. I can’t need help.’”
The toughest part was swallowing his pride. “I went [to Iraq], I did it, and when I came back, it was bothering me,” he said. “Saying I need help was the toughest thing.”
He first went for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. But specialists there realized quickly that he needed more intensive care.
“The place that really changed my life was at the Martinsburg, W.Va., [Veterans Affairs] Hospital,” Hopper said. “I was lucky enough to get the help I needed there.”
The center at Martinsburg tailored his treatment. He lived with Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan vets. “We bonded pretty quickly,” he said. “Here were people – especially the Vietnam vets – who knew what we were going through.”
There were group sessions and one-on-one sessions with specialists. “I did a complete 180 there,” Hopper said. “When I got back [to Lejeune], everybody noticed the difference.”
When he returned to North Carolina, Hopper’s unit was deployed to Iraq, so he went temporarily to a new unit. “They all knew where I had been, but everyone was great to me,” he said. “They didn’t tiptoe around me as if I were some crazy guy. They treated me like any other new Marine to the unit.”
Hopper was on the tarmac to welcome his friends back from Iraq. “I thanked the commander for all he had done for me,” he said. “I told him, ‘I know I’m just a sergeant and you’re a lieutenant colonel, but if there is anything I can do to repay you for what you did for me and my family, I’ll do it.’
“And he told me, ‘There are a lot of people who are coming back from these wars that are going to be in the same shoes you were, and you’ll recognize what they are going through. All I ask is that you pay it forward. If you can help one person, you’ve paid me back,’” the sergeant recalled.
Hopper said his participation in the Real Warrior campaign is one way to fulfill that duty. “If someone sees a big guy like me swallow his pride and get help,” he said, “then why can’t they do it?”