AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sixty veterans from the Gulf War and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan head to Washington, D.C. Friday for the first-ever Honor Flight for younger veterans.
The special flight is sponsored by Dallas-based 22-Kill, an organization named for a troubling statistic: 22 veterans a day take their own lives, and the group is committed to lowering that number.
“We can have a broken head or a broken heart, but when you have a broken soul, it takes a community to fix that,” Allen Bergeron, the city of Austin’s Veterans Program administrator, said.
That’s why the city and 22-Kill organized the Honor Flight. The program to fly veterans to the nation’s capital started as a way to ensure aging vets got a chance to see the memorials to their service. This trip has a different mission.
“This flight is going to be a healing flight,” Bergeron said.
Larisa Dickerson understands the need. Originally from Florida, she joined the Army and deployed to Iraq from Fort Hood in 2004.
“You just focus on trying to make it back alive,” she said. “That’s pretty much how you get through the day.”
Seven months into her tour, she was on her way back to base when a roadside bomb went off. She didn’t realize she was hurt at first, not until she moved her arm and saw the blood. She was airlifted to several hospitals and eventually had surgery to repair her collarbone and arm in Germany on Veterans Day morning in 2004 — her 21st birthday.
She earned a Purple Heart that day and was flown back to the U.S., where she encountered a system unprepared to support her in her recovery.
“It was difficult,” she said. “I didn’t think about it at the time, but after the fact, I mean, it’s not how I should have came home.”
Dickerson isn’t sure if the migraines she now suffers that mimic strokes are the result of the explosion, but she’s had trouble getting the care she needs. She understands the mental health battles her battle buddies face every day.
“You feel like there’s no other choice,” she said. “You just want to get rid of all the pain, the thoughts of everything that you’ve been through.”
- Anyone struggling or in crisis can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or chat with someone here.
Michael Segner understands the struggles, too. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he traded combat zones for conference rooms as the flood mitigation planning manager and National Flood Insurance Program state coordinator for the Texas Water Development Board.
He enlisted in 1986 and served as two combat tours as an officer, one in Somalia and one in Iraq, before joining the reserves 11 years ago. He retired completely last year.
“We saw a lot of pretty heartbreaking things that you can never get rid of,” he said.
Segner has the “huge, humbling honor” to be going on this weekend’s trip, and he believes it will serve as a helpful outlet for the soldiers who are still coming back unsure of where they fit into the civilian world.
“It takes a lot sometimes for somebody to really open up,” he said, “and you really got to open up to somebody that’s been there.”
Dickerson is going on the flight, too. Re-entry programs have improved since she left the Army and started her new life with the husband she met in the military, but she still sees her brothers and sisters struggling.
“It’s also up to the veteran to go out and seek that help,” she said, “which is hard to do.”
It’s been a dream of hers to go to Washington to see the memorials to the nation’s veterans, and she’s viewing it not just as a rewarding trip, but as the homecoming she never got.
“There was no parade or no one there to meet me at the airport when I came in,” she said. “When I finally got back to Texas, there was an ambulance to bring me to the hospital.”
“We have to create an environment where the veterans today feel appreciated, they feel a sense of belonging,” Bergeron said.
A former Marine who served during the Gulf War, Bergeron wants to make sure Austin’s younger vets are taking care not just of themselves, but of one another.
“We have this mentality, most of us, that we can fix it ourselves. And it’s a problem,” he said. “For some of us, we lose that desire or need or thought to reach out for help.”
The flight leaves Austin-Bergstrom International Airport at 11:45 a.m. Friday and returns Saturday evening. Honor Flight Austin will continue to prioritize aging vets for the program unless specific flights are sponsored like the one this weekend.