“Today the military cannot ignore 22 suicides a day. We come home, but never leave the war zone.” ~Eli Thomas
When Eli Thomas was in training for the National Guard in 2010, he quickly recognized the stigma around post-traumatic stress.
“PTSD was considered a weakness. I convinced myself that it was a joke and I would never struggle with it,” says Eli. “I later had to come to grips with my own reality and post-traumatic stress symptoms.”
Eli’s cousin, who also served in the National Guard, as did his father, committed suicide in 2019.
“It hit me hard. I’m the chapter coordinator for a Heroes on the Water chapter and began to question my ability to help other people when I couldn’t help my own cousin,” says Eli. “My wife, who talks a lot of sense into me, helped me realize just how well some people can suppress and hide those feelings.”
Depression has many faces and not all of them are bad. Post-traumatic stress also includes anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and avoidance behavior. It is difficult to quickly recognize someone with post-traumatic stress symptoms, even if you are close to that person.
“My wife told me that he knew all he had to do was say I’m hurting and need help, and I’d be right there,” says Eli. “He never reached out, and I didn’t know he was struggling.”
Eli says that tragedy pushed him to keep in contact with his chapter’s participants, especially through the pandemic. He wants to make sure that no one feels they are alone.
The Power of Camaraderie
Eli has experienced additional struggles in recent days due to the pandemic. He was recently furloughed and has yet to receive any unemployment claim money. While his wife was able to keep her job, the funds needed to ensure they are staying afloat are not there. There’s more to it than that for Eli.
“I’ve worked for the last 11 years and have always been able to provide. Now I’m at the point where I have no money and cannot provide. I was feeling low and reached out to my HOW chapter assistant coordinator,” says Eli. “He’s like ‘Dude, you are doing what you can and trying to find work. Keep pressing forward and things will get better.’
“That was last week and this week I got called back to work,” says Eli. “I still have a long road to come up from behind, but I believe things will work out.”
Eli kept himself busy during his furlough, particularly with their 11-month-old daughter. He planted a garden, helped the neighbors with their garden, and kept the home running.
“I needed to keep my mind busy, which is one of the benefits I get from being a HOW chapter coordinator – there is always something to do that helps others,” says Eli.
Call to Service
Eli grew up in a small southwest Louisiana town in a family with military veterans on both sides. He revered his oldest brother, who joined the Army after 9/11.
“I always looked up to him, so in 2010 I joined the National Guard to follow in his footsteps,” says Eli. “I wanted to serve my country and felt that was the best way for me to do it.”
Eli served from March 2010 to August of 2015, where he went through Airborne school and then volunteered for deployment. He spent six months in Afghanistan, where he was injured and sent state side.
“My knee was severely injured and never healed properly, even with physical therapy,” says Eli. “That was what ultimately ended my military service.”
Eli tried to find his place in civilian life, but it was difficult. He struggled with his construction job because of the loud noises and was unnerved by people coming up behind him. He left and got a job with the Slidell Sheriff’s Department.
“During a ride along with a deputy sheriff, stuff went down and shots were fired,” says Eli. “I realized then I was tired of being shot at.”
He then went to work at a prison, until it was closed. All this time, Eli was trying to get back to his former physical capacity but could not. He ended up in Inactive Ready Reserve and started looking toward other options.
It was after meeting his wife, a military “brat,” that he found someone to talk to – his father-in-law who was a Master Gunner during the first wave into Iraq.
“He told me there’s memories you cannot rest and have to figure out how to work through them,” says Eli. “I thought I had it pretty well figured out, but in truth was living a double life of being married and working while also self-medicating with drugs.”
In 2017, Eli came out about his drug problem and went to rehab. It was there he started getting some help for his post-traumatic stress.
Why Nature is the Best Medicine
Eli was introduced to Heroes on the Water before he went to rehab.
“I was invited and wasn’t sure about it,” says Eli. “I was going to be around a bunch of guys that were happy, and I was hiding all my stuff from everyone.”
Eli ended up having a great time and realized it could help him. He went to other events, and then decided he wanted to work while he was there helping others. He began setting up for lunches, getting equipment ready, and soon moved from a participant to a volunteer. When the Southwest Louisiana chapter coordinator decided to move, he tapped Eli to step up.
“I felt like I was not the guy, but he said I was,” says Eli. “He pointed out I am willing to work, I enjoy working with the vets and their families, and I’m great with the kids. I wanted to keep the chapter going, so I agreed.”
Eli enjoys seeing the participants and their families so happy. He believes in the power of green therapy and kayak fishing.
“HOW has definitely given me a better outlook on things and helped me push through my issues,” says Eli. “I have more people to talk to when I’m having issues. It is easier to talk to somebody who knows what you are going through because they have been there.”
Eli’s wife supports the organization as well, first as the photographer and now as the treasurer. He says she makes it easier for him to do his job as chapter coordinator. For Eli, volunteering as a HOW chapter coordinator means he is able to support other veterans and help himself at the same time.
“At HOW, it doesn’t matter if you are dealing with a lot of things and don’t want to be around a large group, or ready to break through,” says Eli. “It doesn’t matter which state you are in; we are here to help.”
Nature is the best medicine according to Eli and many others.
“During the pandemic people that have been getting outside and doing stuff are happier than people stuck at home avoiding everyone,” says Eli. “Sunshine and nature makes you calm – it calms your mind.”
Heroes on the Water encourages everyone who can to enjoy the healing power of nature. If you want to support our nation’s heroes who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress symptoms, please consider donating or volunteering. Every little bit helps, and everyone deserves to experience the best medicine – nature.