It takes a special person to serve in the military.
Ask Dorothy McDonald, and she'll tell you her son fit the bill.
Marine Corporal Trey Jablonowski, a 2008 graduate of Henderson High School, served two tours in Afghanistan and one in South Korea before returning back to the U.S.
“I worried about him while he was in Afghanistan, because he was in a warzone,” McDonald said. “When he was in Hawaii, I thought he was safe.”
Although Trey was safe from physical harm abroad, he continued to battle an internal war that followed him home from Afghanistan – one that he lost on May 11, 2014 at just 23 years old.
"He died from hidden wounds," said McDonald.
Trey struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but he kept it hidden from friends, family and the military.
“He did show signs of PTSD but no one picked up on it,” Dorothy said.
Dorothy believes Trey's decision to stay quiet stemmed from a desire to continue serving in the Marine Corps.
Dr. Daniel Williams is a psychiatrist at East Texas Medical Center Behavioral Health, specializing in PTSD. Williams said warriors often deny their problems altogether.
"When you're in the military and you're trying to continue to stay in the military in your career you don't want to say you're having any problems," Williams explained. “That’s part of being a warrior to a certain degree and it’s really hard to know when you’re in the middle of that.”
Master Sgt. Robert Bell, retired, knows that feeling all too well.
“I truly believed that nothing was wrong with me. I didn’t notice. I didn’t see anything,” Bell said.
Bell entered the Marines in 1996, completed a tour of Iraq in 2007, followed by one in Afghanistan the next year. Extensive training prepared Bell and his fellow warriors for the situations that come with deployment.
"The bodies the way that they were. It's really unfortunate,” he said. “It's something you can't un-see, but it's a reality of war."
Unlike the training received before battle, Bell believes there is a lack of reintegration back into civilian life and learning how to live day-to-day with the memories that remain.
His PTSD symptoms would build for several years -- eventually becoming unbearable during a deployment to Japan. Isolated and away from his family -- Bell's anger, outbursts and headaches got worse.
“It came on pretty fast,” he said.
The buildup led to suicidal thoughts, that turned to suicide attempts. After two attempts within one week, Bell knew he had to get help.
"Something had to be done because I probably wouldn't live through another one," he said.
Bell reached out for help -- receiving it from the Marines until his retirement.
Then, he turned to the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) in Dallas, where he still undergoes treatment.
"The VA here locally…. I feel like they're going out of their way to help out actually," Bell said.
As his PTSD treatment continues, Bell also finds strength through faith in God, family support and his service dog, Bailey.
For those without such support and/or access to benefits -- the results can be catastrophic.
"The results of not having enough resources available to you is the scariest result you can think of. It's a hopelessness," Dr. Williams said. "Unfortunately hopelessness translates too often times to suicidal thoughts."
Hidden wounds that never heal. Hidden wounds Dorothy McDonald knows -- that if left untreated -- can end in tragedy.
"Just as other people tell me I can't imagine what you're going through because you lost your child, we can't imagine what [service members are] going through because they served and fought a war," she said.
Dorothy still wears Trey's dog tags -- clinging to his memory.
"[Trey] died from hidden wounds," she said. "It's no less honorable than him dying in the war itself. I'm proud of my child."
McDonald is among many who think more should be done to help combat soldiers once they return home -- an undertaking that falls on everyone.
"We've got to show them that they are appreciated and loved," McDonald said. "I think we've got a long way to go."
Mission Charlie Foxtrot
For the many combat veterans fighting mental health issues without benefits, there is new hope.
The bipartisan Fairness for Veterans Act can help solve this problem, but this Congress only has several weeks left to act.
If you feel compelled to show your support, click here to learn more and join thousands who have already signed the petition.
Resources that can help
Veterans Crisis Line or Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (press option 1) Connects veterans and service members in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text.
CombatPTSD.org: Non-profit organization on a mission to increase the resiliency factor of combat veterans and first responders to the point of resolution. The organization uses military tactics and strategy to help combat PTSD. Learn more.
ETMC PTSD Round Table: East Texas Medical Center hosts a free information session each Wednesday from 3-5 p.m. for people dealing with PTSD and their families. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lone Star Church PTSD Warrior Peer Group: Meets every Thursday at 11 a.m. Open to veterans, first responders and emergency medical personnel. 604 W 4th Street, Tyler
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