Veterans Find Solace In Rural Ohio — Until They Need Health Care
On a fall morning, Gary Jones takes a walk in his wooded property in Licking County, Ohio. Like many people, long walks helps him to clear his head.
“So it’s all kind of a similar thing, it’s just a little exaggerated with, uh, post-traumatic stress,” Jones says.
Jones, 75, served on two Navy deployments during the Vietnam War. Born and raised in a small town in Licking County, Jones, like many veterans from his generation, returned to rural America after his service.
Jones received a college scholarship from the Navy and earned a degree in geology. He says he could have gone in a lot of directions after the war, but chose to come back to the family farm and work with his dad.
"We spent 18 years there, and basically I was just hiding from the world,” says Jones.
A quarter of all veterans in the United States, 5.2 million, live in rural areas. Some return to their homes after service, while some move seeking quiet after experiencing combat. While life away from the cities has its benefits, these veterans often face challenges in accessing health services.
A Sense Of Community
Jones lives in a wooded hollow in Saint Louisville, Ohio, about 20 minutes outside Newark. Out here, there’s little cell phone reception or Internet. Jones doesn't mind the isolation.
He says that, like many combat vets, he prefers having more control over his surroundings.
“I wanna know what’s going on around me, don’t wanna be in a large number of people," Jones says.
It took Jones 18 years before he was able to reach out to fellow veterans in his area. These days, he's managed to find a sense of community. Licking County is home to more than 13,000 vets, many of whom are over 65.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, older veterans require more care and are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart conditions. Jones serves on the local Veterans Service Commission, which helps them find the resources they need—often in the form of group meetings like the Licking County Battle Buddy Huddle.
On a Tuesday night, a group of eight veterans gather in a private meeting room at the Newark Library. Jones explains these meetings are typically closed to outsiders; veterans can really only open up to fellow veterans.
"Most of them are pretty well convinced that nobody else is really ever going to understand what they're talking about anyway, which is pretty much true," Jones says.
Led by Daryle Walker, the Battle Huddle is intended for Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan veterans.
Walker, 42, spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and completed two combat tours in Afghanistan. Unlike Jones, he’s originally from the city—born in San Diego—and tried living in Columbus after he retired from the Army.
“It didn’t work out as well,” Walker says. “I’m a city boy by heart, but after going through the things I’ve gone through and seeing the things that I’ve seen, I have to be in a place that’s peaceful, quiet, subtle.”
In the city, Walker says the sound of helicopters, cars backfiring and the occasional gunsshot triggered his PTSD and put him on edge. He also finds the culture in rural American is more receptive to veterans.
“Everybody out here in this rural area will stop and say, ‘Thank you for your service, I appreciate it,'" Walker says.
He also says you see more things like "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers.
“You don’t see that as much when you go into an urban area,” Walker says. "I don't know who's to blame."
No Safety Net
Out in Licking County, veterans experience typical rural health care challenges. Those are compounded, however, by their combat-related injuries and illnesses.
As an officer for the Veterans Service Commission, Walker says the only long-term mental health care available to veterans are in Ross County—a two-hour drive away. Another clinic in Columbus, about 40 minutes away, offers some mental health services on a walk-in basis.
But Walker says he feels helpless when a fellow vet is in immediate crisis.
“So somebody that is having a mental breakdown, somebody who’s having a major anxiety attack, or panic attack needs help immediately, you know, there’s no physiologist, there’s no mental health professional that can help calm them,” Walker says.
He says they often have to send veterans to facilities in and around Columbus for anything beyond a simple doctor’s visit. It might take six to eight months to get an appointment at the local VA clinic.
For Walker, the limitations of Licking County can be frustrating. The trade-off, however, is still worth it.
“I remember I moved out here and I sat out on the back porch and I smoked a cigar,” Walker says, “and the first thing I said is, ‘Man, it's quiet.'”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story left out a mention of mental health services available to veterans in Columbus.
This story originally appeared on WOSU News.