Inside the Gates: Tackling mental illness
Pro football legend Herschel Walker made multiple stops in Anchorage this week, including a visit to JBER and the VA.
"I love doing this," Walker said. "To rub shoulders with greatness."
Walker shared his life story, which included the time as a young boy he was teased because of his weight and speech impediment.
"Everybody knows the glory of Herschel Walker, but they don't know the story," Walker said. "My mom always made me feel good. She told me I was big boned. All the kids said, 'Nah, Herschel. You're fat.' Because of my speech problem, I would hit myself so teachers put me in the corner and told me I was special. All the kids told me I was retarded."
For four years of Herschel's life, he never spoke in a classroom. He didn't go out for recess, he stayed in the corner and didn't say a word.
"My mom said sometimes, 'Man will do things for bad when God will turn it for good,'" Walker said. "I decided on my last day of eighth grade I was going to go out for recess. When I went outside I got beat up. Everyone thought it was funny that this fat kid got beat up."
It was at that moment, around the age of 12- or 13-years old, that Herschel says he heard a voice.
"The voice said, 'Herschel, you stop crying,'" Walker said. "It said, 'No one else will ever beat you up again. No teacher will ever put you in the corner again.' That was the day I started working out. I never lifted a weight in my life. I've done pushups and sit-ups, and at that time, I started doing 5,000 pushups every day. Five thousand sit-ups every day. My parents had a tree in the backyard with a limb about 10 feet off the ground. I climbed up that tree and started doing pullups on that tree limb."
Herschel would make time to go to the library to read books in front of a mirror over and over. Gradually, his voice and speech improved-- along with his walk. He used to walk with his head down, now he walked with his head up. Herschel would go on to earn athletic and academic scholarships from across the country. However, he had other plans for his life.
"I spent time at West Point," Walker said. "I thought I was cut out to be in the military. I wanted to be a Marine."
A flip of the coin would change his future. Walker would go on to a stellar college football career, winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Georgia his junior year. His first boss was Donald Trump, who owned the USFL New Jersey Generals, the team that drafted Walker right out of college. After the USFL folded, Walker found himself in Dallas, where he starred for the Cowboys under legendary coach Tom Landry. Near the end of his career, his now ex-wife along with other people close to him, noticed a change.
"He was diagnosed with a dissociative identity disorder," director of Alaska Healthcare Systems Timothy Ballard said. "In 2009, he wrote a book about it. What he described was during very minor interactions with individuals he would often get angry to the point of wanting to physically harm them."
"There is this guy I used to buy cars from," Walker said. "I felt he was jerking me around. He'd say he had a car and wouldn't show up. Finally, I got a call that said he was in Arlington, I live in Irving, that's 25 miles away. I remember getting so angry that I grabbed my gun. I was going to kill him. All of the sudden these voices started going off in my head on the way to meet him and I thought I was losing my mind. One voice said, 'Herschel, people are going to stop disrespecting you, your life has already been dogged out. People are going to stop treating you like that.' Another voice said, 'Herschel, your parents didn't raise you like that. Yes, they did. No, they didn't.'"
Herschel knew he needed to get help.
"When I found out that there was a chance I could hurt my loved ones, I knew I had to get help," Walker said. "I think that's one of the biggest problems is that people become ashamed."
The veterans appreciated the time Herschel Walker set aside for them. It also let them know that they are not alone.
"I can relate to a lot of things he goes through," U.S. Army veteran Michelle Elliott said. "I have my own personal demons and things on my back as well. It was awesome, this was awesome."
"I suffer from PTSD," U.S. Army veteran Charles Forrest said. "I doing well now but it just goes to show you that illness don't discriminate. It can happen to anybody."
Walker hopes his story inspires our veterans and servicemen and women to get the help they need and to keep up with it. The state of Alaska has the highest per capita population of veterans in the country. For the past decade, Herschel Walker has made it a point to visit military bases around the world. He says the number of visits is in the thousands, but this is his first visit to Alaska.
"I’ve heard so many athletes, so many entertainers talk about how we have the freedom to speak, the freedom and privileges we have," Walker said. "It’s given to us by the greatest military in the world. The United States military and all the things we have is because of them. Yet, I don’t hear anyone talking about helping them out, helping the veterans out and giving them more pay. These are things we really should be doing because they are the reason we have those freedoms. They are the reasons we have all that we have. I think they deserve a little bit more respect then what we are giving to them."
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