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Fairhaven man raises awareness of PTSD and veteran suicide through GI Joe comic

The Standard Times - 9/15/2020

Sep. 15--Michael Kelly of Fairhaven has spent his life in publishing.

But he'd never been involved in anything quite like the latest issue of the comic book GI Joe.

Issue No. 7, titled "A Soldier's Heart" takes a gritty approach to addressing the psychological impact of military service, including unflinching depictions of characters traversing the stigmas around seeking mental health help, finding peer support, experiencing setbacks, veteran suicide, and, eventually, recovery. The series is published by IDW Publishing.

"We certainly had the feeling when we read the original manuscript that it was something special and it could help people," said Kelly, the Vice President of Global Publishing for Hasbro. "We thought, hopefully, it would help military veterans. But we're also all going through challenging times and between being locked down and isolated, people are going through tough psychological circumstances. This could affect a lot of people in a positive way so they know they're not alone and there are resources."

But even Kelly -- a 1990 Fairhaven High graduate who still lives in town with his wife Michelle and their daughters Meredith and Genevieve -- had no idea how widespread that impact would be.

"A Soldier's Heart" -- which takes its title from the Civil War-era term used to describe the conditions of PTSD -- was first pitched by writer Paul Allor.

"We reviewed it and it was unanimous that if we were going to do it, we had to make sure it was accurate and sensitive and done the right way," Kelly said.

Working with consultants Patricia Watson, Ph.D. and Peggy Willoughby, APR, both of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, along with Duane K.L. France, LPC, a veteran who consulted on the manuscript, illustrator Chris Evenhuis and colorist Brittany Peers, they produced Issue No. 7, which was originally slated to be released earlier this year, but was pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was eventually released in late August, just before the start of September, which is Suicide Prevention Month.

The issue caught the eye of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, which reached out to see if the comic book could be made available free in a digital version during the month of September.

For Kelly, IDW and Hasbro, it was a no-brainer.

"For us it was 'Of course,'" Kelly said. "It made perfect sense."

"Highlighting the psychological trauma endured by the brave soldiers of America in such a widely consumed media is a tremendous contribution to the international efforts of suicide prevention," the group wrote when the issue was made available for anyone to read. "I assure you that many people appreciate what y'all (forgive the colloquialism) have done to help raise awareness. It is no exaggeration to believe Hasbro and IDW have helped save lives with his endeavor."

From South Carolina it was made available to the states participating in the Governor's Challenge, as well as to national suicide prevention groups.

Locally, the Veterans Transition House in New Bedford was provided a hard copy, as well as the link to the free digital version to distribute.

"Using a familiar character such as GI Joe helps the veteran to look at the issue as an outside observer and be drawn to correlations and see themes that resonate with him or her," said Leah Berg, Clinical Program Director at the VTH, noting that they plan to use the issue, along with other resources, in a new clinical treatment program that will start Oct. 1.

The issue focuses on a veteran, Shana, and her unvarnished struggles to reintegrate into civilian life. She suffers flashbacks when throwing out her garbage and grocery shopping, and when she is recruited by Connie of the GI Joe's to join a special fighting force -- based on the British Special Operation civilians during World War II -- she is at first unable to fight against insurgents who are taking over the United States.

"I'm sorry you had to come all this way just to ... you know ... help me get my head on straight. Why can't I get past this, Connie? It's not like I took a bullet or lost my leg. Why can't I just ... move on? And why can you? We went through the same crap over there. How can you just find a place for it and then keep going?" Shana wonders.

"I had to work through it too, Shana, in my own way. Everyone's brain deals with these things differently. But it's just that: A difference, not a weakness," Connie tells her.

She joins a support group, where they discuss confusing things like coming home to find out there's new flavors of soda on the shelves at the grocery store.

"Just coming home after being away for months can be difficult, things have changed and the comic addresses this and normalizes it for vets," Berg said.

The issue goes on to include a veteran suicide, as well as setbacks during Shana's treatment.

"It feels like a weakness, and I'm not used to feeling weak," Shana says in the comic. "I was a soldier, you know? That's all I've ever been. And if I can't be that ... then a part of me wishes I'd never made it back."

Kelly -- who recently participated in a panel discussion with the writer, artist and the consultants -- is proud of the impact the issue has already had and hopes that it continues to be shared widely.

"We hope we can reach as many people as possible with this issue," he said. "It has certainly been both humbling and rewarding. I certainly expect we will continue to tackle some difficult and interesting subjects in that vein. We will continue to try to make these stories relevant and meaningful."

Follow Brendan Kurie on Twitter @BrendanKurieSCT


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