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Retired Gen. Ham: I got emotional support. You can, too.

Then-Brig. Gen. Carter Ham (left) talks with the Army vice chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, after senior military leaders arrive in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2004.  (Courtesy photo) Then-Brig. Gen. Carter Ham (left) talks with the Army vice chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, after senior military leaders arrive in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2004. (Courtesy photo)

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Retired Army Gen. Carter Ham commanded a multinational brigade in Mosul during the early days of the Iraq War. “I was a brigadier general, so it wasn’t like I was out on combat patrol,” Ham said of those 13 months.

Still, he witnessed the horrific aftermath of a suicide bomber’s attack on the forward operating base dining hall, which killed and wounded almost 90 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and civilian contractors. He experienced isolation when most of the unit with which he had deployed went back to Fort Lewis, Washington, a few weeks ahead of him. And his transition was interrupted because only a few days after returning to Fort Lewis, he moved to the D.C. area for a Pentagon position on the Joint Staff.

Retired Gen. Carter Ham addresses the crowd before his induction into the ROTC Hall of Fame at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in June 2016. (Photo by Michael Maddox)Retired Gen. Carter Ham addresses the crowd before his induction into the ROTC Hall of Fame at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in June 2016. (Photo by Michael Maddox)

For about three months, Ham worked long hours at an unfamiliar job. He barely spoke to his wife, Christi. He couldn’t sleep as he thought what he was doing didn’t matter and he should be back in Iraq – except he’d failed there because some of his soldiers had died.

Then one weekend, the Hams went to Georgia to visit their daughter, who’d been taking care of their dog. When the dog ran out of the house and jumped into Ham’s arms, “I started bawling like a baby,” Ham said, “and I couldn’t stop. “It was such an overreaction for me that I finally realized, something’s not right with me. Something’s out of whack.”

Shortly afterward, Ham contacted a chaplain for emotional support.

“Senior leaders often have expectations they can just power through,” Ham said. “No matter what your rank is, sometimes you need help readjusting after a deployment and talking about challenging experiences.”

Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, mental health experts say. “It’s essential to promote a culture where accessing care is supported and encouraged, and individuals are willing to get help for issues,” said Keita Franklin, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class David Parish is promoting the “get help” message through his involvement with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury’s Real Warriors Campaign. In 2001, about six years into his military career, Parish attempted suicide.

“I was struggling with so many different things,” Parish said, including a toxic personal relationship and striving for unattainable perfection on the job.

“I was exhausted from masking everything, putting on this face every single day to go out into the world and pretend everything was fine,” he said.

One day, Parish swallowed a handful of pills. He was barely conscious when his roommate came home and called 911. Parish spent about a week in the military hospital and then another week in a civilian facility before continuing with regular psychological health therapy sessions.

He chose to separate from the military, then re-entered a year later at the same rank. He retired in 2016 with 21 years of service.

“I didn’t die, but I was definitely reborn,” said Parish, who spent the last seven years of his military career as a lead instructor for resilience training. “I strongly encourage anyone to ask for help before it’s too late.”

The first step is the hardest, Ham said. “It’s knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, chaplain, you got a minute?’ But once you take the first step, it’s easy. If you experience hardship and then get help to work your way through it, you come out stronger.”

For more information on the DoD suicide prevention campaign “Be There,” visit the webpage. To get confidential help, contact the DCoE Outreach Center at 866-966-1020, the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, or the Be There Peer Support Call Center at 844-357-7337. 

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