Music tour to help US soldiers with PTSD hits Norman 

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Mike Henneberger started Zero Platoon, a music-centered charity to help U.S. soldiers deal with depression and other mental health issues, after leaving the Army. He joined the U.S. Army in 2009 at 25 years old to use his photography and videography skills to document the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The Army calls the job combat documentarian specialist,” Henneberger said. “I joined up to get deployed, but it never happened.”

That same year, Henneberger was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. His tenure in the Army would be less than two years. He moved back home to Corpus Christi, Texas, and tried to cope with his depression. Mainly, he worried about his friends who were still in the military.

The Department of Defense releases an annual report detailing suicides and suicide attempts in the military. Henneberger, who had witnessed a suicide attempt while in specialty training at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, was shocked by the numbers he saw when he started studying the phenomenon.

“That there is a DOD report every year is a sign of how bad it is,” Henneberger said, “but the numbers are worse than I expected, and they reveal a very unexpected pattern.”

In the 2013 report released in 2014, 30 percent of suicides and 50 percent of suicide attempts were by soldiers who had no history of combat deployment. Of the 1,080 attempts that year, 42 percent of suicides were carried out by soldiers between the ages of 17 and 24.

“It is now common knowledge that soldiers who have been deployed suffer from PTSD, depression and other post-combat mental health issues,” Henneberger said. “What is less known is that the depression and anxiety are common among troops who have never been deployed.”

Like the young man who attempted suicide in Henneberger’s presence, young people join the military and then find themselves far from home, many for the first time. The orientation to the military, both during and after basic training, is intentionally disorienting; the process of making teenagers into soldiers requires deconstruction of individual identity and habits before military values and discipline are instilled. For people who suffer from depression or anxiety, this process can be deeply unsettling.

A study published by the National Institutes of Health reported that during the study period from 2000-2012, 49,999 recruit trainees were diagnosed with at least one mental disorder, and 7,917 had multiple mental disorder diagnoses. All of those diagnoses were on soldiers who were still in training, not during or after combat deployment.

The issue has become so critical that the U.S. Army began implementing resilience training for recruits in 2009. The U.S Navy tried a pilot program as early as 2004. As reported by NPR, the military is finally acknowledging the scale of the problem, so junior officers and enlisted trainers are being equipped with the skills to identify — and the vocabulary to discuss — mental disorders.

For Henneberger, though, leaving the military meant he had to cope with his depression and anxiety without the benefit of immediate help. “The first year was really tough,” he said. “It hit me heavily.”

To help cope, Henneberger went back to something that had helped him navigate tough times before the military: music. After graduating Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Henneberger moved to New York for a job. It was in New York, in October 2013, that he posted his first music interview video to the Internet. That was the beginning of Zero Platoon.

“I wanted to help people who were in the same position I had been in,” Henneberger said. “One of the things that had always helped me get through rough spots — and I’m not saying I’m cured of depression — was going to shows. The music helped me get through, and it helped me find a community of like-minded people.”

At first, the idea with Zero Platoon was to get artists to talk about their own struggles and how music had helped them get through them, to show soldiers that they could find creative ways of working through their depression or anxiety.

“My first interview was with Brett Detar of [The] Juliana Theory,” Henneberger said. “It made it easier to build Zero Platoon, because that band had influenced so many current bands. That made it easier to sell the idea to other musicians.”

Henneberger said that “selling it” has not been that difficult because sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason.

“The bands I reach out to really do support the troops,” he said. “They have different ideas about war, military and politics, but they support the troops as individuals, as human beings with real problems and difficulties.”

Working as a music journalist for more than a decade — his degree was in communications — Henneberger built an extensive network of publicists, managers and artists. He used the network to build Zero Platoon and eventually started sponsoring shows. The shows were what made a difference in his life, so it made sense that he would extend that principle.

“The USO does a great job of taking celebrities to the troops,” Henneberger said, “but they don’t work with the same kind of bands that I like or the bands that are current for young soldiers now.”

Many of those young soldiers grew up on second-wave emo or post-punk bands that the USO has likely never heard of. Others grew up on alt-country and singer-songwriters. Henneberger likes to reach out to those bands, and the artists are typically happy to help the soldiers.

“Rock Votolato got involved with Zero Platoon because he heard that Matt Pryor of The Get Up Kids had done an interview,” Henneberger said. “They toured together early in Rocky’s career and have remained friends.”

Votolato, a singer-songwriter and alt-country artist, is part of Zero Platoon’s first full U.S. tour, and that tour comes to Opolis, 113 N. Crawford Ave., in Norman on Tuesday. Votolato will be joined by Dave Hause, a post-punk artist now working solo, and Chris Farren of Florida indie-rock band Fake Problems.

Print headline: Zero down, With alarming suicide rates among U.S. service members, a new tour designed to help those who struggle with PTSD and other disorders comes to Oklahoma.

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