FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- An NFL football legend tackled the tough topic of mental health last week in front of hundreds of 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers gathered at the Multipurpose Auditorium on post.
Herschel Walker, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 and later set a single-season pro football rushing record with 2,411 yards, told Soldiers he was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder) following an exceptional football career.
In a moving and often humorous account, the former star running back told Soldiers that getting help for a condition that could have landed him in prison or a graveyard meant he first had to humble himself and get honest.
"It is hard to accept a mental illness," the soft-spoken Walker explained. "I have to tell myself it exists."
Walker was an All-American running back at the University of Georgia, where he set 10 NCAA records, led the Bulldogs to a national title and won the Heisman in his junior year. He gave up his senior year to go play for the United States Football League, where he won Most Valuable Player honors.
From the USFL, Walker signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1986, the same year that he led the entire NFL in rushing. He later joined the Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants before returning to the Cowboys in 1996.
He ranks in the NFL's top 10 for most all-purpose yards of all time.
Walker began his day at Fort Drum over breakfast with Warrior Transition Unit Soldiers at the 10th Sustainment Brigade's dining facility. He then met with the command group, toured some training facilities and even fired a 9 mm at an indoor range.
Col. Thomas MacDonald, 10th Mountain Division (LI) chief of staff, escorted Walker around post throughout the day, including to the MPA, where Walker first spoke with local media about why he had come to Fort Drum.
"It's important for me to thank our men and women (in uniform) for their service," Walker said. "What they have done for us is given us our freedom.
"There's a price for freedom."
The price may not be visible to others, Walker said, so he wanted to let Soldiers struggling with the unseen wounds of war to reject the shame some associate with reaching out and getting help.
"I did, and look at me today," he said. "I'm not weak. I'm not less of a person."
Even though he retired from the NFL in 1997, Walker recently launched a successful career in mixed martial arts. At 50, his physique still resembles the build of his glory days in the NFL, when his daily workout consisted of 5,000 pushups and 5,000 sit-ups.
He told the crowd he has scaled back in recent years to 1,500 pushups and 3,500 sit-ups a day.
"I never lifted weights in my life," he said. "I got some guns, though."
In conjunction with athletic pursuits, Walker is the anti-stigma spokesman for The Freedom Care Program, a specialized mental health and addiction treatment program for service members who are dealing with everything from post traumatic stress disorder and addiction to sexual trauma and eating disorders.
In 2008, Walker wrote "Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder," a memoir that included accounts of the bullying he endured as child growing up in Deep South poverty. Being shy and a bit chunky made him a prime target for bullying, he told Soldiers. Out of fear, he refused to even leave the classroom during recesses.
On the last day of school in the eighth grade, Walker was assaulted. After the attack, he said he cried the whole bus trip home while classmates laughed at his stuttering.
"I still remember that guy's name. I Google him today. Sometimes (I) go on Facebook, looking for him. I haven't found him yet," Walker said to audience laughter.
That summer, he swore off ever being bullied again and began a radical daily regimen of thousands of push-ups and sit-ups.
"From the eighth grade to the ninth grade, (I went) from being the worse athlete in my family and the worse athlete in my school to being one of the fastest kids in the state of Georgia," he said. "All of a sudden, I was getting these football scholarships from all over the country."
Walker has delivered his message of faith and determination to servicemembers at more than 50 U.S. military installations.
The kinship he feels with troops is somewhat psychological. He described football as the coping mechanism he used for years to deal with mental illness. But he said the thrilling rush he felt on the field, not unlike the adrenaline Soldiers undergo in combat, is unsustainable in regular life.
"(After) football, I didn't have that coping mechanism anymore," he said. "Now, the illness is going to start showing itself to the public.
"When you bring that 'zone' off of that field of play into your home or into the streets, it scares people," he said. "They don't understand it."
Walker told Soldiers that after his football career, he ignored his loved ones, who pleaded with him to seek help for his restless and troubling behaviors. One day, Walker even grabbed his gun in a rage to go confront and murder a deliveryman whom he said had wronged him.
Driving his car to meet the man, he said he was tormented within himself for being weak.
"People need to quit disrespecting you like this, Herschel. People aren't going to do you like this anymore," Walker recalled of the incident. "These voices going off in my head -- I thought I was losing my mind. All of a sudden, I started to pray: 'God, I need your help. I need you to help me before I do something stupid.'"
When he arrived, he parked the car, placed his hand on the gun and walked to the man's truck. As he approached, he said a religious bumper sticker on the back of the man's vehicle diffused his fury.
"That calmed me down," Walker said. "I went back (home). I (admitted) 'I do have a problem.'"
He said a trusted friend and pastor led him back to the Christian faith by which his mother had raised him. Then, doctors told him he had the symptoms of a multiple personality disorder. Walker said he did not want to believe it. To this day, he said, he doesn't remember certain games, experiences and whole periods of his life, including winning the Heisman Trophy.
But Walker checked into a state hospital and eventually came to terms with the nature of his problems.
"I started seeing the light," he told the Soldiers. "I'm here to tell you to see the light. Don't think that because you go to a hospital or because you say you have a problem that you are less of a person.
"I never knew how lost I was until I went to the hospital … and found other people struggling like I was," he added. "If you are struggling, you are not alone. If you are struggling, if you are hurting, don't be ashamed. I'm not ashamed."
The speaking engagement concluded with MacDonald inviting Soldiers to the front to meet Walker. Soldiers rushed the stage and stood in line for more than an hour with footballs, hats and other items waiting for Walker to autograph them.
After the event, Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Easterling, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division (LI), said Walker's story about the challenges he faced in life was very inspirational.
"I can say from all the years I served in the military that (his) story was the best (briefing), class or session I have ever sat through," Easterling said. "It was a great honor to have a chance to hear Mr. Walker speak."
Spec. Donald Hosea III, also of HHBN, said Walker's speech helped him understand how adversity affects people from all walks of life.
"It showed me that everyone has problems, no matter how successful," Hosea said. "I think we as Soldiers should recognize when we have a problem and understand that we are never alone, and it is OK to get help."