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Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and president of Give an Hour™
In late January I had the privilege of participating in a very powerful event at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center associated with the Academy Award–nominated film Silver Linings Playbook. The star of the film, Bradley Cooper, joined former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and me for a panel discussion that followed the screening of his movie. The film begins when Mr. Cooper’s character’s, Pat Solitano, is discharged from a psychiatric hospital following his brutal beating of a man who is having an affair with his wife. It tells the story of Pat’s struggle to rebuild his life while coming to terms with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.
It is an honest, poignant and, at times, funny portrayal of the challenges many Americans face as they struggle daily to function in a world that is often unsupportive and uninterested.
The Warrior Café at Walter Reed was filled for the screening with wounded and recovering service members and their families, as well as staff members who provide support, treatment, and therapy to those injured in war. Many of the wounded were in wheelchairs, many of the families had very young children in tow. And many were eager to share their stories—of challenge and frustration and of hope for the future. They spoke about coping with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress and about navigating life with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries.
Mr. Cooper was clearly moved by those who spoke—those who had sacrificed so much in service to our country. He spoke about his experience making the film and the impact it has had on his understanding of the mental health challenges so many face. He spoke about his own realization that we all face challenges in life and all need the love and support of others to get us through those difficult times. And he spoke of his hope that this film will raise awareness and lead to an easier path for those who are often misunderstood and abandoned.
I was impressed with the honesty of those who told their stories that night. They shared painful experiences and uncomfortable realizations about the road ahead. And I was impressed with the actor who announced at the end of the panel discussion that he would stay as long as needed that night, which he did. He stayed until every service member or family member had a photo, an autograph, or the opportunity to speak with him. As we were packing up at the end of the long evening, I told Mr. Cooper that his interest and compassion meant so much to those who attended. He looked at me with genuine surprise and said that he was the lucky one.
A couple of weeks after the screening at Walter Reed, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Gary Sinise on a flight home from Charlotte, N.C.. I was coming back after spending the day at Fort Bragg, where I presented to senior leadership and met with the commanding general. Mr.Sinise was flying back from Tampa, where he announced the work that his foundation will be doing in the coming year.
I had long known of the impressive work that the man still known to many of us as Lieutenant Dan does for those who serve and their families. He has been a regular performer for the USO for many years, but 18 months ago he started the Gary Sinise Foundation to focus on raising funds and building homes for those most severely injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year the foundation will assist in the building of 12 homes for wounded warriors, most of whom are double or triple amputees.
For two hours Mr. Sinise and I shared experiences about the work we each do and marveled about the strength and resilience of the service members, veterans, and military families we have met along the way. We compared notes, identified common friends, and contemplated the future for those who have come home—and for those who will soon come home—from war. We both expressed the concern that once the war in Afghanistan officially ends, our country may turn its attention to other matters and those who have served will be forgotten. We spoke about the challenge to coordinate services among the various departments and organizations tasked with caring for the military community, and we discussed the stigma that prevents so many who suffer the invisible wounds from seeking care and support. It was an enlightening and inspiring conversation.
Gary Sinise is clearly beyond stretched. He has a demanding “day job” as an actor with a popular TV series, and he has a packed schedule of nearly constant appearances and performances he keeps up to support his foundation and to assist so many other organizations that seek his help. But it is apparent that he has no intention of stopping. He is on an important mission to help the most physically challenged veterans by providing them with homes that allow them to function with as much autonomy and independence as possible.
Neither Bradley Cooper nor Gary Sinise needs to spend time visiting wounded warriors. Nor do they need to spend energy raising awareness about the issues that affect the mentally ill or the challenges that face those who serve and their families. They have no need to engage in fundraising or to help nonprofit organizations whose mission it is to address the issues that trouble our nation. They both have plenty to do, plenty of wealth, and plenty of adoring fans.
But like Americans all over the country—both in and out of uniform—Bradley Cooper and Gary Sinise are drawn to service. They see needs and they are stepping up to do what they can to address them. While their celebrity may give them access and opportunity, they still have to put in the time and the effort to have an impact.
Their actions remind us of the power that we each have. Regardless of whether we are famous or not, we can each make a difference. We can each step up and contribute. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Everybody can be great... because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Give an Hour™, providing free mental health services to military personnel and their loved ones, at www.giveanhour.org.
Editors Note: Give an Hour™ is a strategic partner of Veterans Advantage. Learn more about our partnership with Give an Hour™.
Veterans Advantage is also hosting a special online PTS Transition Center for its members, with customized news and resources to help in this vital area.
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