In 2003, John Henry Parker got a phone call from the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region that stopped him cold.
His son, Danny Facto, a married father of two and sergeant with the Army 10th Mountain Division was nearing the end of his second tour in Afghanistan. Now, he was filled with dread about returning to the U.S.
"He said to me, 'Dad, I'm too screwed up to come home,'" Parker explained in a phone interview, Tuesday.
The minute they hung up, the business consultant and former peacetime Marine went online and began researching ways to help his son reintegrate into civilian life. He wanted to be able to assist with what would eventually be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"We were looking for a safety net around homecoming that didn't seem to exist," Parker said. "Most parents and grandparents and spouses, like me [back then], have no idea what to do or where to turn."
That initial confusion was the impetus behind Veterans and Families (which soon morphed into Purple Star Veterans and Families) -- a nonprofit and website that provides outreach and referral services to vets and their families, specifically those dealing with mental health issues.
After much research, Facto was able get help for his PTSD. He sought counseling, including couples therapy through his local Vet Center that Parker said helped save his son's marriage. But he added that it took a lot of searching to figure out where to turn, and added that most at-risk families don't know where to begin.
"When you're on a base, which are like these amazing mini-cities, the services are really clear and easy to find," explained Laura Payack, director of community outreach and public education with the New York Office of Mental Health. "But when you're not, the services are a little more diffuse. So when you need help as a family or for your children you might wonder, 'Where do I go?' And then you have to head 80, 90 miles out of your way."
Which is where organizations like Purple Star hope to step in, providing an online manual about returning home do's and dont's, as well as links to various veterans organizations. It has opened three local chapters in Peoria, Illinois, Aspen, Colorado, and San Deigo, California, where families can connect with one another through fundraisers and other social events. And it is partnering with 211, a free San Diego phone service that will direct questions and calls to the correct agency -- a service it hopes to expand nationally.
(In a similar vein, the Department of Defense has also come up with its Yellow Ribbon Program, which aims at helping National Guard and Reserve Service Members, and families, find information on benefits including mental health care.)
Tragically, though Facto was able to seek out help for his PTSD, he died in 2009 in a high-speed motorcycle accident -- one of the ways Parker says his son dealt with his combat stress.
His advice to families of veterans suffering from mental health issues is, above all, to ask for help.
"What's most tragic is when a veteran feels like they're family is giving up," he said, "They'll go on a drinking bender, they'll get on that bike -- they'll go further and further into their head and start self medicating. What you can say is, 'Even though I don't know exactly what to do, I'm here for you. We're in this together.'"
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