“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”
Adam McCabe’s military service began at age 17, in a recruiter’s office in Peoria, Ill. on Sept. 12, 2001.
He enlisted out of a sense of duty after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and served as a Marine in Iraq, where he earned a Purple Heart among other decorations.
He’s been out of the military since 2006, but the Carbondale resident’s service continues today on a homefront battlefield that’s no less deadly for American troops than foreign wars.
Co-founder of Purple Star Veterans and Families, McCabe is fighting for national policy changes to address a suicide epidemic among vets and their widespread struggles with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
At noon on Monday, McCabe, 29, will give a speech at the annual Memorial Day ceremony in the veteran’s park next to the Pitkin County Courthouse. He’s planning to position 22 target silhouettes behind him, representing the number of vets who die of suicide daily. He’ll outline Purple Star’s mission and tell his own homecoming story.
“My role in all of this came out of my own downfall,” McCabe said last week over coffee at Victoria’s.
He’s using his story of struggle and redemption on the homefront to help veterans in need, while petitioning the White House to improve the safety net for veterans coming home. With an easy smile and an infectious sense of purpose, McCabe speaks frankly of his years-long PTSD struggle after he came home, and can effortlessly quote Herodotus along with the staggering statistics related to veterans’ rates of suicide, arrest, domestic violence, substance abuse and car crashes.
When he came home from Iraq in 2006, he enrolled at Illinois State University. He soon dropped out, as 88 percent of student vets do after their service. He wasn’t prepared to sit in a classroom with college kids, he said, after leading men in combat.
“Our life experiences were drastically different,” McCabe said of his fellow students. “Part of my internal dialogue was, ‘Hey, you’ve been going to keg parties for three years. I’ve been fighting a war.’ I couldn’t relate and out of that I started to isolate.”
He drank, he got depressed, and, as he put it, “burned a lot of bridges.”
Leaving the war, the military didn’t equip him with tools to transition into civilian life, McCabe said.
“I did what most of us do,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I will figure it out. I will find a way to fix this and get it done.’ That works for us when we have a hill to take or a house to clear, but it works against us when it comes to asking for help.”
He came to Carbondale for a fresh start in 2008. Things began to turn around when he met a Vietnam vet who told McCabe his story of coming home and going through the same struggle, and showed McCabe how he improved.
“That was the game changer for me,” McCabe said. “When I met this Vietnam vet that was content and loving and kind and all the things I wasn’t.”
In Carbondale, he connected with a network of veterans who served as mentors. Among them was John Henry Parker, who would go on to co-found Purple Star with McCabe.
When they met, McCabe was working with renowned Dr. David Burcelli, founder of the Trauma Releasing Exercises program.
“Adam was in a bad space,” said Parker, who now lives in California. “He had been through several PTSD programs and was having a hard time transitioning to civilian life.”
A generation older than McCabe, Parker is himself a peacetime veteran of the Marine Corps. His son, Danny Facto, served two tours in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. After his service, in 2009, he died in a motorcycle crash. Parker already had been involved with veterans, but his son’s death led him to focus on helping them adjust to life after service. Veterans today are five-and-a-half times more likely to die in high-speed traffic accidents than others.
At the outset, McCabe and Parker made homecoming preparedness guides for vets and served as a referral service for veterans in need of help transitioning. They soon concluded that wasn’t enough.
“Our realization was that we need to start helping these veterans before they become veterans,” Parker explained. “People like Adam and my son could have been much better equipped.”
Parker compared the current level of transition training given to veterans coming home to handing them loaded grenades and sending them into society. A combination of peer-to-peer support, training for veterans’ families, and decompression work could change that, Parker and McCabe believe.
Media and government reports about veteran suicide, PTSD and the struggles of veterans have proliferated in recent years, and many well-meaning programs and nonprofits have been formed to help. But what hasn’t happened is identifying solutions that work and making them a part of homecoming for all vets as they leave the service, Parker and McCabe said.
“Right now it’s an ocean of confusion,” Parker said.
A Department of Defense report three years ago stated it had funded 900 suicide prevention programs, with no discernible impact on the issue. Last year, veteran deaths by suicide outnumbered combat fatalities.
Rather than form their own homecoming program, Purple Star is pushing for the Department of Defense to take the best practices available and adopt them for all vets. While one program out of Carbondale might help 100 vets, McCabe estimated, getting the feds to train all vets for homecoming could save hundreds of thousands of lives in the years to come.
In September, Purple Star began circulating a petition to President Obama. It calls on the president to take meaningful measures to prevent veteran suicide and ease the homecoming transition. Specifically, it calls for adding comprehensive health, wellness and decompression training to the current “reverse bootcamp” regimen and Transition Assistance Program. Currently the program focuses on veterans benefits, job skills and personal finance skills, with little focus on social and psychological tools.
“It’s considered a joke among vets,” McCabe said.
A key part of the petition calls for every new veteran to complete a “peer mentoring program,” taught by fellow veterans. It aims to equip veterans to help one another on the homefront, like the men who helped McCabe, in the way he’s assisting new vets today.
“My expertise is not in psychology or psychiatry,” McCabe said. “My expertise is in coming home, doing things wrong, falling apart and relying on the experts to build myself back up. So through that I’ve gained some experience. Peer to peer training, there’s no equivalent to it.”
It also calls for the creation of programs to prepare veterans’ families to welcome them home.
“We must create nationally standardized and readily available preparedness resources for families before they welcome our veterans home,” the petition states.
Currently Purple Star has about 8,200 signatures on the petition, including Carbondale’s Board of Trustees. They signed it and endorsed Purple Star’s mission earlier this year.
Purple Star’s goal is 1 million signatures, and implementation of its tenets within the next three years.
“In my opinion, we don’t have a lot of time to waste,” McCabe said. “It’s time sensitive when you’re losing a vet every hour. This needs to happen now to set ourselves up for success.”
Of veterans who’ve died of suicide, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports 80 percent of them sought mental health assistance or counseling within a month of their death. McCabe said that points to vets seeking help only when it’s too late.
“When they hear there’s no pill, there’s no easy class, that the hard work is about to start, 80 percent check out,” he said. “So let’s not wait for people to get hopeless, let’s give it to them up front.”
McCabe’s pitch to the public is not for sympathy, it’s for action. Over the last decade-plus of war, about .5 percent of Americans have served in the military. Now, he said, is the time for the rest of America to get involved and create a mandate to give returning vets the tools for success.
“We want to encourage people to get some skin in the game. That doesn’t necessarily mean crusading the White House, but if you can give a little money to those of us that are crusading the White House, if you can sign the petition,” McCabe said. “The job’s not going to do itself. Until people start creating an uproar, things are not going to get straightened out.”
To sign the petition or make a donation, go to www.purplestarfamlies.org  or contact McCabe at 970 366-6890.