September is National Suicide Prevention Month
Without hesitation, American Legion Auxiliary member Elizabeth Hallene illuminated a ray of hope when her son, Brennan, was mired in a dark place.
Her actions are perhaps the most shining example of The American Legion’s “Be the One” initiative to reduce the rate of veteran suicide. Through Be the One, The American Legion aims to encourage anyone — veteran or civilian — to take the appropriate action when a veteran’s life may be at risk and to raise awareness about reducing the stigma of seeking mental health treatment.
Mother and son are members of a proud military family, which was among the reasons Brennan opted to join the Massachusetts National Guard.
No green dot
Brennan joined the Guard in 2012 and was deployed to Afghanistan as an engineer with the 379th Engineering Company in May 2014. Not knowing whether he was safe gnawed at Hallene.
“My daily routine during his deployment was that I would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, have a cup of coffee, turn on the computer, and sit in front of the computer screen waiting for the green dot to appear,” she explains. “That green dot meant I was going to see my boy.”
One day, the minutes ticked by. No green dot. More time elapsed. Still no green dot. Instead, there was a news item about six U.S. soldiers being killed in Afghanistan.
“My heart left my chest. I didn't hear from my son. Communication was blocked out. I thought my son had been killed.”
After two grueling days, the green dot appeared.
“I felt a sigh of relief. I was happy. I was ecstatic. He told me he was OK, but he really wasn't.”
After Brennan’s unit repelled an enemy attack, he climbed into the back of a trailer truck. The rotted floorboards gave out, sending Brennan down. He suffered a couple of blown discs in his back, and a torn ACL and MCL.
After what seemed like an eternity, Brennan and Hallene were reunited.
“I’ll never forget the day he came home,” she says, beaming.
That night, Hallene was able to sleep well for the first time in quite a while. Still, Brennan had a long road of physical and emotional recovery ahead.
‘Longest 20 minutes of my life’
A fulfilling job is an important part of a successful transition back to the civilian world for servicemembers. Brennan worked as an emergency medical technician. But the trauma he experienced as an EMT only compounded his situation.
“He has PTSD, both from his time in the service in Afghanistan for things that he had to see and do over there to survive, and from being a first responder, paramedic, EMT,” she explains. “At the time, I didn’t know. He didn’t want his wife to say anything to me because he didn’t want me to worry. He always looks out for Mom. It was a tough go. I guess he had been spiraling downhill for a minimum of a year.”
On Aug. 7, 2021, Brennan called his mother.
“Something seemed off. He was having a really hard time, a really difficult time in both his professional life and his home life,” she recalls. “He needed some advice from Mom. He was sobbing uncontrollably on the telephone. It wasn’t my boy anymore. It didn’t sound like him.”
After their hour-long conversation, Hallene knew in her heart her boy was not OK. “Everything in me, as his mother, told me he needed me and not just on the phone.”
She texted her daughter-in-law. Then waited. “The longest 20 minutes of my life.”
Finally, Hallene received a text back: “We need you to come.”
Time was not on their side. They were separated by an hour’s drive. Thanks to a police escort, Hallene arrived only 30 minutes later.
“Most of the officers are veterans and know PTSD is no joke,” she says. “That is why this Be the One campaign is so important, so other families can get the help for their loved ones before it’s too late. When I got to my son, he was shaking uncontrollably, crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t get him to calm down. I later found out he had a gun in his mouth earlier. He was ready to die.”
A Be the One success story
Hallene greeted her son with a hug and tried to calm him down. Eventually, she convinced him to let her take him to a hospital. But as an EMT, Brennan didn’t want to go to a local hospital where others would know him. He agreed to go to one closer to where his mother lives.
About 10 minutes into the drive, Brennan started confiding in his mom.
“He began opening up about some of the stuff that he saw over in Afghanistan and as a paramedic EMT, some of the things he had to do to make sure he and the members of his unit could survive over there,” she says. “It wasn’t pretty. It was heart-wrenching. My heart breaks for all soldiers, but mostly for my son.”
Hallene’s approach was perfect: “All I could do was sit there and listen. And that’s what the Be the One program advocates: Just listen, don’t interrupt, and be there for the veteran.”
After spending a couple of weeks in the hospital, Brennan lived with his mom, stepdad, and their 14-year-old daughter. That’s when Hallene’s Be the One mission transitioned to her family and their American Legion Family.
Family and fellowship
Auxiliary member Elizabeth Hallene and her husband, Post Commander Bill Hallene at Post 414 in Sutton, Mass. (photo: Aram Boghosian/The American Legion).
“We thought the camaraderie with the other veterans and the fellowship would help him, knowing these veterans could understand more of what he was going through,” she explains. “And it proved to be right.”
Brennan’s two primary veteran supporters are Bill Hallene and Pete Gauthier, or Chaplain Pete, the role he has held at Post 414 for about 20 years.
“I did everything I could to help him, to ground him, to be a dad,” recalls Bill, who served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne during Panama. “And I’m convinced the person who helped him the most was Pete. Family can only do so much. I’m his dad — it’s my job. You [Pete] actually did more than you will ever know.”
Gauthier, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam era, helps other veterans dealing with mental illness and substance abuse through his counseling role at the Providence (R.I.) VA Medical Center. He brought his experience in leading groups for post 9/11 veterans dealing with PTSD, anxiety, and depression to the post.
The post was a safety zone where veterans and first responders would meet, share their stories to their own comfort level, and form bonds. Over weekly sessions for six months, Brennan and other participants found healing.
A changed Brennan
Thanks to their mentorship, Brennan is doing much better. He became junior vice commander at the post and also joined the Sons of The American Legion. Hallene is thankful for the Legion Family’s role in her son’s recovery.
“Before Chaplain Pete started the therapy, Brennan would sit around the house,” she says. “And when Chaplain Pete started the counseling groups, he went from not wanting to get dressed and just sit in front of the TV or play video games to wanting to go to the post.”
Be the One resources
It’s worth noting that Hallene’s action took place before Be the One launched in May 2022. She took great pride in sharing her family’s story with American Legion National Commander Vincent J. “Jim” Troiola when he visited the post.
“I thanked him because without the Be the One campaign and him getting the message out there and letting people know there are tools that families can access through veterans service officers, through the Legion website to help them be able to help their veterans or their loved ones get the help that they need. I had to find the help on my own. I didn’t know where to turn.”
Read more about Hallene’s Be the One story and watch a video at www.Legion.org
By Henry Howard