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By Mona Dougani

Cornelia Vincent still struggles with the trauma she experienced years ago when a grenade pierced the tower where she was on guard while serving 10 months in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army.

The explosion left the former unit supply specialist in the military police force with a shrapnel wound on her wrist and a gash on her head.

Vincent, who’s now in her 30s, suffers from internal scars, too, trying to deal with a stew of stress and unresolved emotions that roil inside her long after she completed her stint in the Army from 2011 to 2014.

“I was 20 when I went there,” Vincent said recently while describing the incident that occurred in October 2011. “I turned 21 in Afghanistan, and I was upset because they only gave me a bowl of ice cream.” 

Though Vincent describes her time in the military as an amazing experience, she and others face severe mental health challenges associated with serving in combat long after they come home. Current events, such as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in August, can be triggering for many veterans.

“Mental health is a serious thing. It was hard for me to even come out and say that to people because a lot of people didn’t know that I was going through that,” Vincent said. “I just hid it well. I think being exposed to those things and trying to get the help now, it’s important.”

According to a 2015 study from the National Institutes of Health that surveyed war veterans who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, 43 percent of those participants screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression and alcohol misuse

Selfie Cornelia Vincent took while serving in the Army. Photo credit: Cornelia Vincent

Connecting vets to services

Kenneth Marfilius, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and an assistant professor in social work at Syracuse University who specializes in military mental health, said he has heard a range of emotions from Afghan veterans recently. 

“It’s not one-size-fits-all,” Marfilius said. “I’ve heard anger, I’ve heard an increase in fatigue and irritability, some level of sadness, so the profound sense of loss, grief, and suffering are certainly overwhelming. It’s normal for them to be experiencing all types of difficult unexpected emotions.”

To help veterans cope with these emotions in North Carolina, organizations such as NC Serves and Veterans Bridge Home offer a range of services. 

Brooke Dickhart is executive director of the Joel Fund, named for her late father, a Vietnam-era veteran who struggled with PTSD, substance use and depression. She’s also the Triangle network director for NC Serves, helping ensure veterans get back on their feet. 

The Joel Fund specifically supports those who are readjusting to life at home and connects servicemen and women with their community through art classes and other events.

NC Serves, on the other hand, is a network of nonprofits connecting veterans with requested services across the entire state. The organization also focuses on six social determinants of health for veterans including education, health care, employment, social enrichment, benefits and financial needs. 

There are many ways that the military community, family members, and caregivers can get connected to services, according to Dickhart. 

“They can self-refer through the NC Serves website, they can also call in, and that phone number is also on the website. Another way that they can be connected to services is through another provider,” Dickhart said. “We can go into the NC Serves network, create a referral, and send it to the appropriate organization who can provide some financial assistance for them.”

In North Carolina, NC Serves has four network locations: 

“One of the great things about it is they only have to tell their story one time if that’s all they want. They don’t have to constantly be repeating themselves because of the way the system works. We take notes, we have all that information. When we send a referral to the appropriate provider, they can see that information.”

Both organizations do what they can to connect servicemen and women with mental health services in different health care settings.

“We have great partnerships with organizations that offer mental health services,” Dickhart said. “One provider that comes to mind that we work very closely with is the  Steven Cohen clinic down in Fayetteville. They will do telehealth and I believe they’ve started doing some in person appointments. 

“The VA is not part of the network, but we do work closely with suicide prevention at the VA.” 

Refugees served, too

The recent U.S. pullout from Afghanistan also was challenging for those who were not in the military, but connected to the conflict in other ways.

That’s the case for Hamid, whose surname is not being used for safety reasons. He’s an Afghan refugee and former interpreter for the U.S. Army who told NC Health News in an interview in both English and Farsi that his mental health has suffered immensely.

“You know, it’s really hard,” Hamid said. “It’s like, I lost my mind. I can’t focus on anything you know, right now and I’m talking with you. So I couldn’t focus, you know? It’s like, I have lost my mind. We are depressed.”

Hamid has been able to receive assistance from the Interpreting Freedom Fund, which aims to help former Afghan interpreters and other allies fleeing to Charlotte. One specific program Hamid was able to receive help through is Operation Connect Vet, a nonprofit that takes former interpreters who have arrived in the United States, and connects them back to military personnel that they worked with overseas.  

“I really appreciate them,” Hamid said. “They came yesterday to the airport and they had a really good welcome and then they brought us to our new home today and spent the whole day with me, and took me everywhere so I’m really happy for that.”  

‘We got to do better’

For many such as Vincent, taking that first step toward getting help can be difficult, especially when there are cultural barriers.

“I never really necessarily went in talking to somebody the way I should have, but it was hard because back when I was 21, I did not know where I could actually get the resource,” Vincent said. “I didn’t even really know that I had these things going on.”

Cornelia Vincent (right) at an event with other members of the Queens University Troops club on campus. Photo credit: Cornelia Vincent

“This is just what was going on in my mind. I’m an African American woman, I just speak from my culture, when I say that a lot of our community don’t really believe in having mental health and going, seeing the therapist and stuff like that, though our generation now is breaking that barrier, which is great.”

It was not until Vincent moved to Charlotte and began attending Queens University of Charlotte that she got connected to the resources and services that had an impact. A faculty member at Queens told her about Veterans Bridge Home.  

“They do more than just provide services for therapy,” Vincent said. “They help you with finances or grant assistance, or places to live, jobs. I’ve used their services a few times.”

She strongly encourages other veterans struggling with such issues to check out the services. 

Along with seeking help from Veterans Bridge Home, Vincent also does free on-campus therapy at Queens University of Charlotte.

Though North Carolina is bolstering up services for the military community, Vincent questions whether the military is providing enough mental health services for veterans of war.  

“I hate to say this, I don’t think it’s enough,” Vincent said. “I know, they put up the suicide hotline number and I know they say that, but I think with this state of mind and things that are really transpiring not just overseas but in the country, I feel like there needs to be more put out there and maybe more advocates to go speak to the soldiers and really do a welfare check on each other because this is getting a little bit more crucial, right?”

“I’ve actually lost one, two, three — I lost four other people that I served alongside to suicide. It’s heartbreaking because none of these people got healed. I feel like it’s not funny, it’s not a joke. I feel like ‘people, we got to do better.’”

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Mona Dougani

Mona Dougani is a rising senior at Queens University of Charlotte majoring in communications and minoring in journalism. She is an Emma Bowen Fellow with NC Health News this summer.