FORT BENNING, Ga. — Herschel Walker is coming to Fort Benning on Friday — but football won’t be the main focus of his visit.
The legendary University of Georgia running back who spent 12 seasons in the NFL will talk about suicide prevention, mental health and substance abuse issues during a program called “Breaking Free” at the National Infantry Museum parade field. The hourlong event is set to begin at 11 a.m.
Walker has toured military installations throughout the United States and overseas in an effort to break stigmas and encourage troops to seek help in times of distress or personal crisis.
“The biggest thing is not being afraid to admit you have a problem,” he said during a phone interview Monday. “I came out a few years ago, to talk about some of the problems I felt as an athlete and a person. Don’t be ashamed to admit you have a problem. The shame is not going out and getting help.
“And I owe a lot to the military … I want to try to get out and do something for the service men and women who have done so much to protect our freedom.”
Walker led Georgia to the national championship as a freshman in 1980. Two years later, he won the Heisman Trophy but left school after his junior season to enter the old United States Football League, where he rushed for 5,562 yards from 1983-85 with the New Jersey Generals. His combined rushing numbers for the USFL and NFL (13,787 yards) would place him fifth all-time on the NFL’s career rushing list.
He nearly made the Olympic team in the sprint relay and wound up competing in the 1992 Winter Olympics in two-man bobsled, finishing seventh. He also appeared on the third season of Celebrity Apprentice.
But Walker, now 48, speaks from personal experience when it comes to behavioral health matters. In his 2008 autobiography Breaking Free, Walker revealed he suffers from dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as “multiple personality disorder.”
“When you can admit you got a problem, you can get it taken care of,” he said. “The other recourse is going through life suffering, hurting your family members and friends. You’re not going to be the best you can be if you’re not 100 percent, if you’re suffering from a drug or alcohol problem, or mental illness.”
Walker travels to military installations as a spokesman for Freedom Care, an inpatient program specializing in the treatment of combat post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, general psychiatric diagnoses, and women’s issues such as military sexual trauma and care for spouses. The organization provides treatment designed to meet the needs of service members, veterans, retirees and their families.
A record 160 active-duty Soldiers killed themselves in 2009, up from 140 the previous year, according to an Army report released in January. There were 78 suicides among Reserve component Soldiers last year.
Times have changed and asking for help is a sign of strength, Walker said.
“People have always thought they gotta be strong and can’t show any weakness. Now, it’s not like that,” he said. “I’m showing them I’m just as strong as I’ve always been. It’s about not being afraid. You just have to step forward and not worry about what anyone else thinks about you. That’s the worst thing … You have to be honest with someone. I think that’s the key.”
At Friday’s event, Walker said he’d talk about all his life experiences, including football.
A fifth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, he will also tour the U.S. Army Combatives School during his Fort Benning stop. In January, Walker won his pro debut in the MMA promotion Strikeforce and is set to fight again later this year.
“I love the sport — always loved it,” he said. “I’ve been in martial arts for over 30 years. I want to show everyone I’m not a weak person. I want to show them I’m the same guy I’ve always been. I haven’t changed. Even admitting I had a problem shows people I’m that much stronger.”