There was some football talk but Herschel Walker, a former NFL running back, made it clear sports was not the reason he was in Columbus Friday morning. He had an important message to deliver. If a person has a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, it is a sign of strength — not of weakness — to admit it and seek help.
“I have no shame in my game,” said the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner from Wrightsville, Ga.
Walker, 48, has written a book, “Breaking Free: My Life With Dissociative Identity Disorder.” In it, he relates his battle with mental illness. “You have to step up and not worry what anyone else thinks about you.”
Hearing Walker’s message loud and clear was Sgt. Maj. Lonnie Allen. He was among the Fort Benning soldiers and members of the general public who gathered at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center Parade Field to hear Walker speak. He brought a copy of Walker’s book with him.
“He kept it very simple,” Allen said. “He talked about his own troubles and showed that no matter how big you are, you can still have a problem.”
Allen said Walker’s message is one many soldiers need to hear and take to heart.
“We have a lot of men and women come back from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve seen some terrible things. They have a problem but are hesitant to seek help because they’re afraid they’ll get put out of the Army.”
A Friday USA Today story reported that mental health disorders caused more hospitalizations among U.S. troops in 2009 than any other reason, according to medical data released by the Pentagon. The story also reported that last year was the first in which hospitalizations for mental disorders outpaced those for injuries or pregnancies in the 15 years of tracking. Almost 40 percent of all days spent in hospitals by service members last year was for mental health treatment.
“It’s definitely a problem,” Allen said.
Walker told the large crowd there was a time he got so angry that he put a gun in his car and had the intention to kill a man for missing an appointment. He also found himself playing Russian roulette. He said he trained himself to be the “ultimate man” and was playing the “ultimate game, life and death.”
“To challenge death like I was doing, you start saying, there’s a problem here,” he said.
Walker said he originally wanted to go into the Army after high school but his mother convinced him to go to college. He attended and played football for the University of Georgia. After college, he signed with USFL’s New Jersey Generals before playing for the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants. In 1999, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Walker also talked about a problem with stuttering when he was a child and about being physically unfit. He overcame both problems to become a successful athlete and businessman.
“I liked his message of never giving up,” said LaDarrius Taylor, 14, a student at Faith Middle School at Fort Benning.
Cameron Hite, 14, agreed with his classmate, saying, “I liked that he said that it was important to have faith even when things are going bad for you.”
Walker, the international spokesperson for the Freedom Care Program, which provides specialized mental health and chemical dependency care for active duty and retired military personnel and their families, had a message not only for those who have a problem but also for those close to them.
“If you see a spouse struggling you’ve got to help them,” he said.
Walker added that there was only one good way to succeed. “It takes hard work to make something happen.”