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Herschel Walker describes struggles with mental illness

Former UGA star give pep talk to soldiers

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POSTED: May 14, 2010 11:14 a.m.
Photo by Patty Leon/

Herschel Walker

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“There’s no shame in my game,” Herschel Walker said Thursday to a group of soldiers from Winn Army Hospital’s Warrior’s in Transition Program. The former University of Georgia Bulldog and prolific NFL running back visited the installation, but he was not touting his NFL stats or his Bulldog career.
“We all have our struggles in life,” he said. “We go through so many different things in our life, but no matter what we are going through, there is Jesus, who died and came back, and He’s telling us ‘get up. It ain’t over.’”
Walker talked about his personal struggles in overcoming dissociative identity disorder at Fort Stewart’s Main Chapel and appealed to those who battle behavioral issues to seek help as he did.
Walker, born in Wrightsville, was one of John Willis’ and Christine Walker’s seven children. Life wasn’t always easy.
“Kids used to beat me up,” he said. The football great described himself as a chubby kid with a speech impediment.
Walker, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy, said he wouldn’t acknowledge his problems early in life and his refusal eventually destroyed his marriage to his former college sweetheart Cindy DeAngelis.
“She kept telling me something was wrong,” he said. “I didn’t see it. It was different because you don’t believe it at first. For myself it was like, ‘I’m Herschel Walker, everything is going well for me. How can I be struggling when everything is going well?’”
Audience members laughed when Walker recalled his early aspirations “to be Jesus because He came back from the dead,” but stayed glued to their seats as he talked about the hard times his illness put him through. He confessed to playing Russian roulette.
“I didn’t do it because I was trying to commit suicide,” Walker told the crowd. “I was doing it because it was a competition and I never turned away from competition.”
The crowd seemed to appreciate Walker’s ability to infuse humor into tales that, at times, had attendees in tears.
“It’s inspiring for us to have Mr. Walker come,” Winn Army Community Hospital Commander Col. Paul R. Cordts said. “He is from the state of Georgia. He’s of course a Heisman Trophy winner, had a huge NFL football career but he here to speak to our soldiers about his experiences with a behavioral health diagnosis. We recognize that combat affects all soldiers. Some soldiers develop symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. We wanted Mr. Walker to come and talk about his experience of going through treatment for his disorder as well as dispelling some of the stigma associated with having a behavioral health disorder.”
Cordts said he thinks Walker’s visit will encourage soldiers who need help to come forward — something the commander said many people are afraid to do.
“For anyone, including soldiers, it could be embarrassing,” he said. “I could be viewed as a sign of weakness to seek help but we’ve always said that it’s a sign of strength and courage to come forward and ask for help.”
Walker said once he realized and accepted something was wrong, the decision to get help was an easy one.
“It wasn’t hard,” Walker said. “I didn’t like who I was. I don’t drink, never took a drug, but I didn’t like the things that I was doing. So to go and get it corrected was easy. Finding the right people to help me was harder. Not that I’m ashamed, because I really wasn’t ashamed. I just couldn’t understand it but I knew something was wrong. I took it upon myself to go out and seek help and find a place to go to and get treatment.
Walker said he received treatment at a hospital in California.
The athlete said he feel in control now and has toured the nation offering his assistance through the Freedom Care Program.
The Freedom Care Program’s treatment programs target mental-health issues and chemical dependency. They’re designed to meet the unique needs of our military members, veterans, retirees and their families.
Walker said he has a special place in his heart for the military community after having seriously considered joining the service instead of attending UGA.
“When I can get out and help the service men and women, I’m happy to do that,” he said. “They’ve done so much for us. There is a price for freedom. We should support them. If I can get out and thank them first of all I’ll do that. And if I can get out and tell them if you are suffering from anything you don’t have to be ashamed. Look at me, I’m still doing well. I’m better than I’ve ever been and that is one reason I get out and do this.”
 “We encourage soldiers to come forward and be seen either by their chaplain, their counselor or one of our behavior health specialists at out clinic,” Cordts said.
Walker wrote an auto biography in 2008 titled “Breaking Free.”
In the book, the athlete claims he cannot remember the season he won the Heisman Trophy, let alone the moment, due to his mental illness.
 

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