Working Out PTSD

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Working Out PTSD

Tyler Wilson and Aaron Merrell never met but they had a lot in common. Both were Marines from Danville who went to California for boot camp, were stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Story: Christine Walsh

Photos: Christine Walsh

Tyler Wilson and Aaron Merrell never met but they had a lot in common. Both were Marines from Danville who went to California for boot camp, were stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. And both took their own lives after struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

All three of Merrell’s uncles, his great-grandfather, his grandfather and his father served in the military.

“I’ve just always been pro-military,” Aaron’s mother, Jenny Lou, said. “It just came natural to him (Aaron).”

Wilson’s uncle was a Marine who served in the Gulf War.

“He wanted to be just like his Uncle Sam,” Wilson’s mother, Julia, said of Tyler. “He just knew that was his destiny.”

Now Julia Wilson and Jenny Lou Merrell are on a mission to stop other veterans from making the last decision that their sons did.

“We’re just so passionate about this,” Wilson said. “We don’t want any other families to suffer this devastating loss. We have this friendship forged out of a bond that no one wants to have. We had all these hopes and dreams for them. When your spouse dies, you’re a widow or widower; when your parents die, you’re an orphan. But when your child dies, there isn’t even a word for it. It can just dominate your life. We just wanted to do something positive. My husband and I say Tyler would not want us to die in our grief; he would want us to still have joy and to move forward.”

Merrell said that before he lost his battle with PTSD, Aaron wrote to her, “Please don’t mourn my death but know I’m not suffering anymore.”

“Our boys were both Marines; they were taught to be killers,” Wilson said. “They’ve been taught not to be weak, to be strong, to not ask for help. It’s difficult for them to reach out and ask for help. You can’t make a grown man do something he doesn’t want to do. For Tyler, it was easier for him to self-medicate. It was just a downward spiral.”

The two mothers met when Merrell went to Tyler’s funeral as part of the American Legion Riders ceremony.

After the duo did a television interview together for Veterans Day 2016, Merrell came up with the idea of them joining forces to create Working Out PTSD.

“One of the signs we missed was our sons had both quit working out,” Wilson said. “As Marines, that’s a very big part of what they do.”

“We realized that connection,” Merrell said. “They come back and struggle.”

It was four years before Tyler Wilson was able to get into a lineman apprenticeship program.

Jenny Lou Merrell is herself a veteran and said when she got out of the service, she was offered plenty of help with education and employment.

“Now the veterans are coming home and working at jobs you don’t even have to be a high school graduate to do,” she said. “They’re having difficulty at finding jobs. Talk about blowing your self-esteem away.

“Sometimes the last thing they can pay for is a gym membership. So they miss out on all the benefits that come with working out, the natural endorphins produced and the camaraderie when they’re in the gym, feeling good about yourself, your self-esteem. A lot of them may start drinking and using drugs, self-medicating. If you’re paying attention to how you’re treating your body, you might think twice about those self-destructive behaviors.”

Wilson noted that while the exact causes of the growing rate of veteran suicide is unknown, the blasts and motor vehicle accidents that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience appear to lead to traumatic brain injury.

“The brain is complex,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever understand it.”

Working Out PTSD doesn’t limit its services to veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD.

“It’s really for any local vet,” Wilson said.

And Working Out PTSD isn’t just for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans.

“A lot of them (Vietnam veterans) suffered in silence,” she said.

Merrell explained that veterans’ PTSD can sometimes be retriggered in older vets by traumatic events like losing a spouse.

“A lot of those thoughts tend to come back,” she said.

Merrell noted that they signed up a 72-year-old last year and paid for him to have a personal trainer.

“He wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise,” she said.

Working Out PTSD has gotten 30 veterans gym memberships since last May.

“All of the gyms in the local area have been very generous, so we can stretch our funds,” Wilson said.

In addition to gym memberships, Working Out PTSD is open to helping to provide service dogs, yoga classes or a nutritionist’s services to veterans.

“If we can reach just one person, we’ve served our purpose,” Merrell said.

Merrell is a member of two of the gyms that partner with Working Out PTSD and enjoys establishing relationships with the veterans as they utilize their memberships.

“I want them to be in there taking advantage of it,” she said. “When they know someone else is paying for it, they don’t want to let them down.”

One day when Merrell was working out she was approached by a veteran who recognized her and thanked her for helping to provide him with a gym membership. Another man who had been working out with that man then came up and thanked her because he also was a beneficiary of the organization, although neither man knew it when they struck up a friendship.

“I was tearing up,” Merrell said.

“That’s part of our goal,” Wilson said of the camaraderie between veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 2001 and 2014, an average of 20 veterans committed suicide each day. Of those, 14 had not been recent users of VA services, and half of those had not been receiving mental health services. Wilson believes veterans are often unaware of the services available to them. For that reason, Working Out PTSD has a Facebook page where Wilson and Merrell promote veterans’ issues, resources, crisis numbers and events.

“We support other veterans’ causes,” Wilson said. “I absolutely am committed to getting them connected to the VA as well.”

Veterans usually contact Wilson and Merrell through the Facebook page, through word of mouth or through sign-ups made available at the American Legion. Merrell owns a pest control business and has signed up a couple of veterans through conversations at their homes.

“When we promote this, it’s a thank you to our veterans,” Merrell said. “It’s a thank you for serving our country.”

For the second year, Wilson and Merrell are holding a Working Out PTSD fundraiser featuring food, live music, a 50/50 raffle and a silent auction at American Legion Post 210 in Danville.

“We had a huge crowd last year,” Wilson said. “We were blown away. I was just flabbergasted.”

Last year’s fundraiser raised over $10,000. Some younger veterans spoke about how they had benefited from Working Out PTSD.

“People sometimes say, ‘What can I do to help veterans?,’” Wilson said, adding that supporting the fundraiser through attendance or donations to the silent auction is an easy way for people to do that.

The fundraiser starts at 6 p.m. July 7. New this year will be a Ride for PTSD benefit ride at noon that is open to all types of vehicles and will have stops at American Legions in Georgetown, Paris and the Indiana towns of Cayuga and Rockville. Everything earned during the event goes back to the program.

Wilson noted that Danville, Ill., has been voted the most veteran-friendly town in America.

“We have a great support base here in Danville,” she said. “We want to help veterans in our local community, but we’ll go across the state line.”

For more information about the organization or the fundraisers, visit the “Working Out PTSD” Facebook page.