The Warrior & The Rock Star

In 1992, while on a mission to safely remove American civilians from Somalia, John Roberts found himself in a helicopter accident that killed 4 of his fellow Marines, and left him severely injured with burns over the majority of his body. After a long and difficult road back, Roberts rededicated himself to the service of others, and to his fellow wounded warriors in particular. Today, as the national service director of the Wounded Warrior Project, Roberts helps injured soldiers acknowledge and manage their symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – challenges that he is all too familiar with himself. It was his unsolicited recognition of a rock star’s trauma however, nearly a decade ago, that created a unique bond that continues to pay dividends for the sufferers they come in contact with today.

By John Roberts, as told to Robert Ferraro:

Like many young men and women I joined the military right out of high school, back in 1983. In ’92 I was on a ship for a normal 6-month deployment with the Marine Corps when we were diverted into Somalia, which at that time was becoming very dangerous. We were on a mission to go in there and take our civilians out, but the aircraft I was on blew up mid-flight. In the process I nearly lost an arm, was burned over 80% of my body, and spent the next year in a burn unit in more pain than I could ever describe to you.

When I got out, I was struggling with a lot of different things. What happens – and I think this is very prominent in the military world – is we tend to deny the fact that we have these types of injuries. Mental health stuff. The invisible injuries. In the military mindset, we’re not supposed to be like that…it’s a sign of weakness, and we think we can deal with everything.

My wife kept telling me, “You’ve got some issues from the accident that you’ve got to deal with, John.” And I would say, “No, I’m fine, everyone else has the problem.” It wasn’t until years later that I said, “Oh, shoot, she may be right.”

Finally accepting the fact that I went through something that most people won’t have to experience, was like having a weight taken off my shoulder. I can say now that I was pretty well messed up and acknowledge that I was dealing with trauma, and in a very unhealthy way.

The way that I got involved with the Wounded Warriors was that I received a call from one of the guys I got blown up with who was working with another veterans organization at the time. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him, “Well, it’s 9, so I’m drinking.”  He said, “Well, do you want to get off your ass and actually get back into life?” I told him that would be nice, so he got me a job representing veterans on their VA claims. That was when I finally started to move forward in my recovery…when I began helping others and started to contribute in a way that wasn’t all about me. Before I took that position, I was feeling sorry for myself.

So, I started to give back. I went to the VA and the same guy I served with was one of the founders of the Wounded Warriors Project. He kind of recruited me back in the day when the organization first started. I had experience because I was running around Walter Reed in the early days of the war, working with the newly injured guys coming back from down range in combat, right at their bedside. And being injured myself, I saw that maybe I could make a difference with the younger guys. I’d already been working with old WWII vets, Korean war vets, Vietnam vets, and of course, First Gulf war guys like myself, so I saw a chance to make a huge difference with the new generation.

I met Rick Allen in 2009. He was inviting warriors to come backstage at Def Leppard concerts, but at that time it was more along the lines of a, “Come to a rock show and meet a rock star.” situation. I grew up listening to Def Leppard’s music and he was doing a very nice thing for us, yet the first thing I chose to say to this guy – who I was meeting for the very first time – was, “Hey, I know you were severely injured. How much PTSD did you deal with in your recovery?”

He just looked at me like I was an alien.

I thought, “Oh man, I just offended this guy severely. He’ll never invite us back.” But he sat and talked to the Warriors and during the show someone from the tour walked out and handed me a phone number and said, “Rick wants you to call him.” I just thought he wanted to yell at me in person.

I let a couple of days go by and gave him a call, and he just said, “No one’s ever asked me that. No one’s ever approached me with that. How did you know?” I told him, “I didn’t know anything. I simply assumed that you went through a lot of trauma with your accident, and like with all the Warriors I deal with, probably had some PTSD related issues. I just took a wild guess.”

I was a veteran who had military trauma from a helicopter crash and was severely burned, and he was a civilian and a celebrity figure who lost an arm in an accident that anybody could experience. But the more we talked, the more we figured out we had a lot in common in how we dealt with – or didn’t deal with – our trauma.

What really became clear was that we both believed that the impression the American public had of combat veterans who were experiencing PTSD was very negative. You see a lot of movies depict combat veterans as crazy and dangerous individuals, which I can tell you is far from the case. There are so many cases of civilian type trauma, whether it’s from an abusive childhood, or abusive marriage, or car accidents, natural disasters, rape survivors, etc. Trauma is trauma, no matter how you experience it. The trauma that veterans experience due to combat may be different, but how we deal with things is pretty much the same way. We are on a mission to normalize what people think of PTSD.

Are there times when all of us veterans have looked at other veterans and thought, “Why are you whining about this and complaining about that when you don’t have any visible injuries?” Sure. At the same time, I don’t know what they’ve experienced that led to their PTSD. I haven’t experienced nightly mortar attacks or been waiting for a roadside bomb to go off every time I’ve stepped inside a vehicle. I’ve never been near a blast where I saw my buddies blown up in front of me. Trauma is trauma.

The Raven Drum Foundation that Rick and his wife Lauren Monroe founded has taken more of a holistic approach at helping these men and women. They both introduced me to more of a mindset of, “What are you doing to deal with your injuries?” At one time I was self-medicating with alcohol because of the flashbacks and the dreams and all the other triggers that existed for me out there. I also wasn’t eating healthy, and they showed me, “Hey, healthy body helps the healthy mind.” And it’s funny, because we all know how to work out in the military. It’s kind of beat into us. But when you get out of the service, you begin to get out of shape, you start to eat bad, and you need those physical types of activities again and nutritional help to get you back on the right path. You must be willing to do things a little differently.

Part of what these warriors are looking for when they come home is they want to get connected. So, the Wounded Warrior Project has a saying: ‘We connect, serve, and empower them’. The first thing you must do is get a Warrior to engage again.

We invite them to events nationwide – some for family, some for alumni only – where we’re just hoping to get them out of their house, so they’ll come and talk to us. Once they’re there, we can find out what their needs are, whether it’s mental health or help with their VA benefits or employment, etc. I’m not going to say we have all the programs, but if you look at our website you’ll see that we have a lot to offer.

In 2007 I got involved in Project Odyssey, which is something Rick and Lauren have worked with me on in the past. It’s a PTSD retreat-based model. It’s not clinical in nature, it’s more of a peer support type program. We go out during the day and do a lot of fun activities and get everybody engaged so that they can feel more comfortable, and then at night it’s more everyone just sitting around and sharing what they’re dealing with. Sure, from time to time I will see someone or hear them talk, and think, “Yeah, they might need some extra attention.” I also see a lot of what I was struggling with in some of the things that they’re saying. I relate to it.

We also make policy efforts to change legislation, so that we can help the greater population of Warriors. Our most recent cause was in vitro fertilization. A lot of these injured service members are coming home unable to have children due to their injuries. You go to war, you get injured, you come home, and discover that on top of your injuries, you also can’t have kids. It’s a serious family matter, and at the time, the VA was not paying for in vitro fertilization. So, our push was to provide help for these men and women that couldn’t have children, and we wanted the Federal Government to pay for it. We got it done, and that is one of the many legislative changes the Wounded Warrior Project have had a hand in getting passed.

Ultimately what I’d like to see for all the people I’m helping now is for them to get on the path to a better place. I’d like for them to start to enjoy life again and be good spouses and parents and friends. Some of them, like the Vietnam guys, have been struggling for such a long time. I also think there needs to be a lot more education for the public regarding what PTSD is, so that we can change some perceptions.

The VA does a lot of evidence-based treatment for PTSD, which means either group therapy or they’re handing the Warriors a bunch of medication. I’m not a fan of either approach. Even the one on one counseling I’ve done with the VA, I didn’t feel real comfortable with. I wish they would be more open to holistic types of treatment opportunities.

Lauren is a very spiritual person who is very attuned to people’s emotions, and some of the things that her and Rick were talking about, in my mind, seemed a little too California-hippyish for me. I’m a guy from Texas, born and raised here, and I’m a Marine. That’s not a good combination for having an open mind towards energy therapy or mindfulness or drastically changing my diet. But they were able to open my mind up to explore different things. They even got me to do a couple of Neurofeedback sessions. I had no experience with it and quite frankly, it seemed like a bunch of hooey to me, like fake science. But I went through three sessions of it and slept like a baby, which never happens.

So, there are holistic approaches that I think the VA and the mental health professional world must be open to, so that we can educate the Warriors and the public as to what’s out there, as far as healing opportunities.

Roberts and Monroe (middle row left) and Allen (center) among friends at a Wounded Warrior gathering in Seattle last Summer (Ryan Sebastyan)

In a perfect world, I wish people didn’t have to go through trauma, whether it’s combat related or civilian related. But it’s going to happen. That’s why I’d like to see Rick write a book about what he’s experienced, and what helped him manage his own trauma. He has a lot to offer, and with his celebrity status he could potentially reach a larger part of the population who are suffering in silence. People relate to him and are inspired by him and I think they would benefit from what he learned in his healing journey. They do it now when they meet him through Def Leppard or through his artwork, but I think he has a bigger message to tell a bigger audience. He and Lauren have so much between them to share.

Like I said, those meetings with Rick started more as a “come meet a rock star” type of thing, but they developed into these mental health group sessions where, within an hour, people will be crying and opening up and just letting loose of their emotions. You’re listening to people’s thoughts about suicide, or their marriage falling apart, or not being able to communicate with their kids, or other struggles that they’re dealing with. We’ve had many moments at these gatherings where you just go, “Wow, that was intense.”

Rick and I both come out of these things drained, but he is at his job and still has to go perform. I feel bad for him, because emotionally he just took on a lot of people’s issues in a very short time frame. Then, he has to go out and put on a good show. I can just go chill out, but he has to pull it back together and get on with it.

I think Rick and I make a good combination for the Warriors. They will listen to me because I’m honest with them about my mistakes and my trauma. When you can tell someone, “I have PTSD, I screwed up my marriage, I screwed up my relationship with my kids, I screwed up a lot of other things, but I was able to come out the other side.”, I think they’re more willing to listen. And I did all those things.

On the other hand, Rick is honest about a lot of his issues, which you don’t see from a lot of celebrity types if they’re not getting publicity or paid for it in some way. He is definitely not getting paid for it and I think they listen to him because he is a genuine person. He admits everything that he went through. They listen to him, but he listens to them even more. The Warriors open up to Rick in a way that I have not often seen with non-military individuals.

So, we both have our ways, but it’s all to get the same message across. We call it the “Rock Star & The Warrior.” We hit them from both ends.

Robert Ferraro is senior writer at Of Personal Interest and the founder of The Giving Arts. His recent interviews include Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley of KISS, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, and Bernard Fowler of The Rolling Stones.






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