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Veteran walking across country for PTSD, suicide awareness

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Jimmy Novak recently retired after 21 years of service in the Army that included multiple deployments. Now he’s walking across the country to raise awareness for PTSD and veteran suicide.

He started his trek across the country on March 22 and plans to end it August 22 when he gets to Disney World. His goal is to walk 22 miles a day. The number 22 wasn’t intentional, but that number coincides with one report that puts the number of military and veteran suicides at 22 every day. Other reports put the number closer to 20 per day. Either way, Novak says even one is too many and he hopes spreading his message during his months-long walk can make a difference.

“I think this journey is going to be very good for me on a personal level, and I think that it will be very good for the community that I’m reaching out to support,” Novak said, during a stop in Kennewick on Monday.

The community he refers to is essentially anyone who has served or is serving in the military who may be struggling, and hopefully, as he shares his own story in a very public way, help them reach out to get the help they may need.

Novak knows just how tough that can be. It took him years.

He first started having issues during his first deployment to Iraq after a bombing just outside the chow hall claimed several lives. It was random and just sheer luck that Novak wasn’t in the blast radius among the dead or injured.

He developed severe survivor’s guilt, was plagued by nightmares, and just couldn’t get a way from the thought that it should have been him. It was a thought that finally led to a plan to take his own life.

“I would do dry runs when I got back to my room – if my roommate wasn’t there – before I’d go to bed,” Novak recalled. “I’d clear my weapon to make sure that there wasn’t a round in it because it was a dry run. Sometimes I’d place the muzzle under my chin and sometimes I’d place it in my mouth. I wondered which point of entry would be the most likely to make sure the deal was done.”

He did that at least once a day for more than two months on deployment. He can’t explain why or why one day he just stopped, but he’s grateful he never acted on it.

Years later, after returning from his second tour, Novak continued to struggle, but had a new way to deal with it — booze.

“I found myself drinking quite a bit more than was really healthy, just trying to subdue all these negative feeling that I had about my deployment,” Novak said. “My wife was very concerned about the level of alcohol consumption that I had going on, but it never actually caused a real problem for me.”

He was functioning, going to work, doing what needed to be done at home, but drinking out of control for years. He admits he often thought about how much he would need to drink to just never wake up.

Eventually, Novak was stationed in Washington state to finish out his career. He enjoyed his new assignment, looked forward to going to work every day, and things were great with his wife and three kids. Except it wasn’t all great.

“There were several days where I just caught myself basically feeling like I was going to vomit, where something was pushing its way out of my gut. It was tears and sadness is was it actually was and I was just like, it’s too much,” Novak recalled. “I have to go seek help, I’ve got to go talk to somebody about what’s going on.”

That’s when he finally sought help. It was a decision he says absolutely saved his life.

“It was like a huge weight had just been lifted off of my spirit,” Novak said. “I almost felt like I was walking on air each time that I came out of counseling.”

As Novak walks across the country, he stops and talks to whoever he can in every community, including local media. He shares his story, while explaining that veterans are not all broken but that some have struggles and need the support of the community.

“I’m hoping to make people aware of the situation so that we, as a community, can get involved and bring the veterans into a sense of community before they get to a point of crisis because sadly, once it gets to the point of crisis, it’s significantly more difficult to turn around,” Novak said.

As for what the community can do, Novak says talking, and more importantly, listening to veterans beyond just thanking them for their service, asking them what they did in the service, for example. Also, avoid questions like ‘did you see any action?’

Novak says there are also steps you can take if you’re a worried family member.

“It’s OK to ask the questions point blank and not beat around the bush,” he said.

“It’s OK to say ‘are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ because people that are in that mindset will tend to be very honest. Even if, for whatever reason, they’re not, if you’re still worried about them, it’s OK to take them in and get help. It’s OK to call the crisis line,” Novak said while making clear he is not a medical professional.

Novak says every soldier comes home from deployment changed, but for some it is worse for some than others. He says it is not that those issues are always at the forefront, in fact, for him they weren’t.

“I was hoping that it would just go away on its own and there were long periods of time where it did recede a lot, but it was always there in the background. It’s sort of like tinnitus where your ears are ringing sometimes really loud and unbearable and other times it’s in the background and you barely even notice it,” Novak explained. “But it’s always there.”

Novak hopes his message can resonate to anyone who may be in need or in crisis, and really stresses that despite what some may think, especially service members, there is nothing weak about asking for help.

He avoided seeking help for years over that very concern and concerns that if he did ask for help, it could hurt his career. He says none of that turned out to be the case and that the military encourages both active and retired service members to reach out for the help they need.

Novak says the best place to start for anyone in crisis is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; for veterans it is extension 1.

As for Novak, he is excited about continuing his journey, which if all goes according to plan, will wrap up in August when hopefully, his family can join him for the final leg of his walk and arrive at Disney World on August 22.

You can follow Jimmy’s progress here.

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