Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Robert Poston was a commanding officer at Fort McPherson. At that time, he was on funeral detail for north Georgia and parts of Tennessee — essentially, it was his job to inform parents that their sons had died in combat.
He recalled checking into a hotel one night. He sat on the edge of the bed, placed a .357 in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
“It didn’t go off,” Poston recounted at a luncheon at the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday afternoon. “As soon as I did that, I realized that everybody has stages that they go through … apparently, I was in one, because I was depressed and had a mental illness.”
He recalled putting the gun down and picking up a bible. He found himself looking at John 15:16 — “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”
Poston has been a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) facilitator for close to a decade. Now in his early 80s, the retired major works full time — without pay — to help veterans in Bartow County file assistance claims.
While state agencies may help veterans process claims, he said it’s his goal to help local veterans develop them.
“If a guy comes in and says ‘I lost three of my buddies in a foxhole and my lieutenant was killed and it’s bothering me right now,’ well, if you put that down and took it over to Georgia and they sent the claim in," he said, "they’d bounce it back and say ‘Well, give me the name of the lieutenant and who shot you and how did you get shot?’”
Poston said that in the past, he’s sometimes spent seven or eight hours trudging through records, newspaper articles and other documents to help veterans file claims.
He recounted helping one priest with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the Vietnam War, who was asked by a State agency to list the names of people who were killed during an especially bloody firefight.
“We went in and took hours and hours, but we found his friends’ names and the specific location where they died,” he said. “We provide all that specific information and then they’ll approve the claim.”
To date, Poston said he and his local staff have helped about 50 people receive 100% service-connected disability claims. At that rate, he said veterans are usually in line for monthly government checks between $3,000 to $5,200.
“We’re doing a pretty good job,” he said, “considering nobody gets paid in our organization.”
He was joined at the event by Roger Marshall, a Forsyth County resident representing the Birdwell Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit that seeks to assist not just combat veterans but any military veterans — or first responders — experiencing PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries.
Marshall said the organization is looking to open a new intern program either in or near Bartow shortly.
“We’ve made a bid on a couple of places for this area,” he said.
Like Poston, he too felt suicidal urges while in the grips of PTSD-borne depression.
“I started losing time,” he said. “Like going out on the balcony, I would come in and my ex-wife would say ‘Where you’ve been?’”
He stood there for four hours, but said he had no recollections of doing so whatsoever.
“I was so heavily medicated that it was difficult for me to even function,” he said. “I wound up being homeless, living out on the streets, going to jails, going to institutions … I just didn’t die.”
Like Poston, at one point he got so low he decided to attempt suicide.
“I wanted to blow my brains out, so I was going to do that,” he said.
Before he could pull the trigger, however, he recounted hearing a talk radio segment about a hotline for military veterans struggling with PTSD symptoms.
He said hearing comforting, reassuring words from another veteran wasn’t just enough to save his own life — it made him want to do the same for fellow veterans in the throes of despair and depression.
“We’ve heard first responders in this county and others that we had to go get and send to an intern program because they didn’t have something available in the state of Georgia,” he said.
For veterans and first responders experiencing PTSD symptoms, Poston said silence can often be lethal.
And sometimes, he said the first step of the healing process is simply opening up to somebody else about the problems and pains one is facing.
“Stressors can stay back in the back of your mind and not bother you for a long time, and then all of a sudden you’re angry for no reason and you don’t know what it is,” he said. “The more you talk about the stressor, the less it bothers you.”