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Depression awareness: Reach out for yourself, and for others

In memory of his younger brother, retired Army Master Sgt. Guillermo “Bill” Leal Jr. has devoted the past several years of his nursing career to helping wounded warriors. (Courtesy photo) In memory of his younger brother, retired Army Master Sgt. Guillermo “Bill” Leal Jr. has devoted the past several years of his nursing career to helping wounded warriors. (Courtesy photo)

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Behavioral health experts say frequent deployments and other aspects of military life can contribute to clinical depression, a condition that negatively impacts mood and behavior. Depression may be more common in the armed forces community than among the civilian population, but it seems to me we still have a culture that may prevent service members from seeking help.

If depression is something you don’t want to talk about, then let me tell you about my brother. Army Sgt. 1st Class Ruben Leal joined the Army in 1975 and became a tanker, a year after I enlisted and became a Special Forces medic. Ruben always had a smile on his face. He was outgoing and athletic, and also technically and tactically proficient on the job. He was a highly respected and decorated soldier, selected to participate in elite fraternal organizations such as the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club.

Ruben considered me, his older brother, to be his hero. But truthfully, Ruben was mine. Both of us had come a long way from our troubled childhood.

By December 1991, I was a senior ROTC instructor in San Antonio, and Ruben was a platoon sergeant at Fort Hood. He’d returned from a deployment in the Gulf War several months earlier. We were less than 200 miles apart, but it might as well have been 2,000. We were both so busy that we didn’t see each other as often as we should have.

During our telephone conversations, my brother never talked about struggling with depression. Ruben was a proud man, and back then, it wasn’t really the Army’s way to focus on behavioral health issues after deployment – or really, ever.

Still, I was a trained medic, and Ruben was my brother. When he died by suicide Dec. 4, 1991, I felt tremendously guilty. I realized the signs of depression were there, and I had missed them. I’d missed all of them.

I don’t blame the military for Ruben’s death. I recognize his combat deployment experiences may have been a contributing factor in triggering a clinical depression that had roots in our dysfunctional upbringing. Since his death, I’ve struggled with depression, too. But I’ve gotten help, and I want to encourage others to do so as well.

Three years after my brother’s death, I retired from the Army and used my GI benefits to earn accreditation as a licensed vocational nurse. Then I completed a two-year registered nurse program. I’ve dedicated the past eight years of my career to helping patients in the Warrior Transition Unit. A lot of injuries we’re seeing today aren’t only physical injuries, they’re also behavioral health injuries.

This is my mission now: to encourage everyone to recognize the signs of clinical depression so they can get help -- for themselves or for others. Those signs include feeling negative, worthless, or guilty; loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities; sleeping too little or too much; or feeling restless or anxious.

Today, my eyes and ears are open to people who are struggling. I ask them, “Do you want to talk to me about it? If you do, I’m ready to listen. But if you don’t, let’s find someone for you to talk to, now. I’ll walk with you. I’m here to help.”

I tell people with depression that there’s hope. There are a lot of things we can do as health care providers, as senior leaders, as clergy. We can help you, we can get you to the right people. Please let us help you. Opening up is the first step.

We’re all in this together. I ask you to reach out to help someone else. I ask you to reach out to help yourself.

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