From Combat to Counseling: A Veteran's Advocacy Journey with Mark Stillion
When America was attacked by terrorists twenty years ago, and planes were flown into the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, and into that Pennsylvania field, men and women from every corner of our great nation raised their hand to serve and fight in our United States military. Hi, my name is Mark Stillion, and I am one of those people.
I am one of the many who signed the dotted line before I even turned 18 years old to go and serve and protect something that I felt was worth fighting for: my freedom. Throughout the many years of the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), The Gulf War and The Vietnam War conflicts, our military saw things and did things that no human being should ever have to experience. The effects that this combat exposure had on us was great. When we returned home, many of us came back feeling alienated and alone. The effects of our combat trauma set in, and with many Veterans across the country, the pain and suffering of our invisible wounds of war was just too much to handle.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of Veterans who served in OIF/OEF, The Gulf War and the Vietnam War who returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) varies anywhere from 11% - 20%. These invisible wounds of war are often crippling to the Veteran and can lead to things such as severe depression, anxiety, isolation, substance use disorders, homelessness, loss of vocational or educational opportunities, discrimination, and even suicide. I am one of those Veterans who fell into the grips of addiction after my fourth and final deployment to the Middle East. Within six months of returning home from Afghanistan, for the first time in my life, I began using heavy illicit street narcotics in an attempt to self-medicate myself from my night terrors, flashbacks, and feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.
This behavior may have numbed me emotionally and physically for the time being, but in the long term, it exacerbated my symptoms to the highest degree. After several years of struggle, I began to seek serious help. I was diagnosed by the Department of Veterans Affairs with PTSD and was admitted into the West Los Angeles VA Healthcare system for addiction and PTSD treatment. After I left that program, I went into a more intensive addiction recovery treatment program in New York, and then immediately following that, I entered a year-long program at the PTSD Foundation of America in Houston, Texas. While I was there, I was able to work through my trauma and my substance use disorders simultaneously with professional counselors, psychologists, and fellow combat Veteran mentors who had been through similar things that I had been through, and who had learned of ways to heal from their trauma. I graduated from the PTSD Foundation’s Program in 2019. Since then, I have not only been clean and sober from all mind-altering substances, but I have learned how to properly deal with, talk about, and cope with my trauma.
Today I am student at Kent State University. I am completing my bachelor’s degree this fall in Professional Studies, I am working toward completing my Addictions Counseling Certification, and I will be starting graduate school in January for my master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Now that you have learned a little bit about who I am, I want to talk about what has become my most passionate endeavor in life: helping other combat Veterans find hope and healing from their battle-borne traumas, and the consequential effects that those traumas have left them with.
First and foremost, I would like to say that the reason I have decided to share my story with you is because I want any Veteran out there who might be reading this and who might be dealing with similar struggles in their life to know that it IS possible for you to heal from your trauma. It IS possible for you to regain control over your life and to be able to live once again a happy and fulfilling life with true purpose and meaning. You are NOT alone and there are resources out there for you that can help you with this battle. I will provide some of those resources at the end of this blog.
As an adult learner, when I first came to Kent State, I was extremely nervous as to what it would be like for me at 33 years old to be going back to school. I knew that I wanted to be an advocate for Veteran’s mental health and that I wanted to use my benefits to go to school, but the anticipation and anxiety of what that was going to be like was enough to deter a person away from following through with a decision like this. Thankfully, Kent State is rated one of the most Veteran and military friendly universities in Ohio and since day one here, I have felt more welcome and accepted than I could have ever of imagined.
Like most other colleges, Kent State has an office solely dedicated to the welfare and success of our military-connected students. Kent State’s Center for Adult and Veteran’s Services (CAVS) office has been my saving grace since I began studying here. The CAVS office has helped me through every step of this journey with everything from benefits and payment to classes and programs that are tailored to suit my needs both in the classroom and out. The addictions counseling certification program that I am in has been some of the most beneficial and rewarding work that I have done so far here at Kent State. With my background in addiction, and with my desire to help others who have been where I have been, coupled with this certification program, I can honestly say that I am beginning to feel fully equipped and capable of addressing the issues of addiction amongst our Veteran community.
It is this program that has sparked my interest in furthering my educational goals into graduate school for clinical mental health counseling. As a Veteran student, I have benefits available to me that I can utilize that have really enabled me to not only achieve my goals, but to excel in a field that I can be proud of. If you are a Veteran who is considering returning to school, or if you are in school now and do not know what benefits are available to you, I highly encourage you to reach out to our CAVS office for more information.
Recently, I was asked to be a part of FOX 8 News segments titled “Veterans Voices” with reporter Roosevelt Leftwich. This experience has not only sparked a greater interest in me for Veteran’s advocacy, but it has also opened many doors for me to get the word out about some of the resources and benefits that our Veterans of today have at their disposal. Aside from the CAVS office, Kent State has a CARES Center which stands for Crisis, Advocacy, Resources, Education, and Support. This is an excellent resource for our Veteran students to take advantage of whether it be for homelessness, food insecurity, financial insecurity, or mental health. If you are a Veteran who is struggling with life in general, or if you think you have symptoms from PTSD that could be interfering with your everyday life, here are some organizations that I would like to bring to your attention that have had a huge impact on either my life or on the lives of other Veterans that I know.
- The PTSD Foundation Of America 100% free to any combat Veteran, the PTSD Foundation Of America can help you get your life back and set you on a path toward success. www.ptsdusa.org 1-877-717-PTSD(7873)
- Wild Ops 100% free to any combat Veteran, Wild Ops exists to help fellow combat Veterans find support hope and healing in the battle of transitioning back into civilian life through Wild Ops excursions all over the United States. www.wildops.org 1-877-851-8650
- Mighty Oaks Foundation 100% free to any Veteran, Mighty Oaks Provides peer-to-peer resiliency and recovery programs to our nation's Veterans dealing with challenges related to the struggles of daily military life, combat deployments and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. www.mightyoaksprograms.org 1-832-521-7323
Blog post written by Professional Studies student and Veteran, Mark Stillion.