When asked what they struggle with most upon returning home, many veterans will talk about a lost sense of companionship, or missing the only other people who could understand.
These feelings of loneliness and isolation, often coupled with conditions such as PTSD, can lead to a loss of purpose and hope. In fact, veterans are almost twice as likely to take their own lives than the rest of the population. Currently, the suicide count rests at 20 veterans per day. Chuck Bradbury, a Blue Springs resident who served in Vietnam at the age of 19, can understand this low point.
“They shot at me all the time. When I came home, I was damaged,” Bradbury recalled. “I had several different jobs. I was violent. I drank. But the worst thing I did was keep it bottled up.”
Now, Bradbury takes a different approach, one he says brings him “release.” On Wednesday, he participated in a day of fishing and talking with other veterans sponsored by Camp Valor Outdoors, a local organization founded in 2013 that strives to empower wounded veterans.
After fishing, the 14 veterans gathered for lunch at Bass Pro Shops in Independence. Store personnel gave them fishing poles and other outdoor merchandise.
Retired Marine John Schwent started Camp Valor Outdoors after he began competing in veteran shooting competitions. This reintroduction to nature, sports and camaraderie marked a key shift for his mental health, one he now hopes to recreate for fellow veterans.
“In war, you always have a battle buddy,” Schwent explained. “Back home, you don’t.”
For Schwent, Randy Butt – his former commander – has once again become a “battle buddy.” Before, Butt mentored Schwent, but now the relationship has reversed, as Butt says the nonprofit founder has taught him something valuable.
“John has set up an environment where young men and old men can come together, share their experiences and heal,” Butt reflected. “These people have suffered so much from Agent Orange, PTSD, what they’ve seen… this environment gives them a chance to come back to reality and to feel successful.”
“Here, you’re part of the brotherhood no matter what.”
Doc Ballard, also part of Camp Valor Outdoors, takes this message seriously. Ballard is the last living Medal of Honor recipient in Missouri. He received the prestigious award after saving troops’ lives in Vietnam.
For him, the life-saving efforts that won him the military’s highest honor feel second nature. He attributes this trait to his years spent as a paramedic and surgical assistant. Even now, he still tries to emulate this concern for others.
“I was always helping people who couldn’t say ‘thank you.’ Some veterans don’t want to have to say ‘thank you.’ They came home, they want to try to fit back in and be left alone,” Ballard said.
“We take care of each other because no one else will take care of us.”
For a list of upcoming Camp Valor Outdoors events, visit campvaloroutdoors.org.