Moulton opens up about mental health struggles to help others

Ethan Forman/Staff photoSalem Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Seth Moulton talks about his struggles as an Iraq War Marine Corps veteran with post-traumatic stress during a veterans mental health town hall held at Lynn Museum in Lynn Tuesday night.

LYNN — The image of a wounded boy, writhing in pain, on the road to Baghdad used to haunt Seth Moulton daily.

He caught sight of the boy, on the second day of the Iraq War in 2003, as the Marblehead native's platoon sped north in an armored convoy.

At the time, the future Salem congressman and presidential candidate was a fresh-faced Marine Corps platoon commander, not long out of Harvard, when he came across the gruesome sight.

Instead of stopping to help, Moulton said he made the "right decision" to drive around the boy and press the attack, so as not to endanger the lives of the entire platoon.

But later, he couldn't shake this vision and others from the war, until he decided to seek mental health treatment while he was in graduate school. He returned home from Iraq in 2008.

For the first time Tuesday night, one day after Memorial Day, at a town hall on veterans mental health that he had organized at the Lynn Museum — in front of more than 75 people, including about a dozen veterans, his parents and his wife — Moulton opened up about his struggles with post-traumatic stress.

Though he deployed four times to Iraq, Moulton, who champions veterans causes, rarely talks about his own service.

But, he said, he wanted to open up about his own struggles to lessen the stigma for those like him, thinking about seeking help for mental illness. Others in his platoon have sought help, but it's estimated that half of all veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress don't get help.

"But I finally did it and I can't tell you what a difference it has made," Moulton said. "I'll be haunted by the image of that boy until the day that I die, but now I control when I think about him. I don't think about him every single day. I can choose moments like this to bring it up." 

As a presidential candidate, Moulton is advocating for mental health services, not only for veterans but for all Americans. He'll be holding similar veterans mental health town halls this week in South Carolina and Nevada.

Moulton wants to make mental health checkups as frequent as physicals for active-duty military and veterans, and require mandatory counseling for those returning from combat within two weeks of arriving home. He also wants Veterans Affairs to take a more holistic approach and embrace alternative therapies such as mindfulness, exercise and cannabis.

Further, he is calling for yearly mental health screenings for every high school student in the country, and the introduction of mindfulness and yoga into physical education curricula. Moulton wants to establish 511 as a mental health crisis hotline nationwide.

'Writhing in pain'

Moulton said Tuesday he had been reticent to talk about his mental health struggles due to concern about political fallout, but now that he is running for president, it's important that he "lead by example" — something he learned when he first entered the Marines Corps in 2001.

Moulton, recalling again that vivid image, described that second day of the war when he was part of an armored convoy speeding north.

The Marines ahead of him had shot up some cars and buses heading south, thinking they were full of insurgents. But, it turned out there was a family inside one of the cars that had been destroyed. Moulton could see the mother and father had been killed inside the vehicle.

"But there is a little boy who had been thrown from the car to the middle of the road,” he said. “The car had careened off to the side in a ditch. And the boy was still alive. He was lying in the middle of the road, writhing in pain."

While the decision to drive around the boy was the right one, Moulton said, "it was one of the most painful decisions I have ever made in my life, because there is nothing that I wanted more to do than to stop that vehicle and get out and to help this 5-year-old boy.

“And that image of that boy writhing in pain in the middle of the road is something that haunted me every single day when I came home, frankly every single day that I was there," he said.

It was not the only image from the war that Moulton could not shake and which kept him up at night, "but it's a damn good example."

Several years later, while going to business school on the G.I. Bill, Moulton was struck with what he felt was a meaningless task of pursuing further education — it was a far cry from the Marines.

But while in graduate school at Harvard, Moulton opened up to a psychology professor who urged him to talk to a professional. 

Moulton realized he had been downplaying his feelings. He did not feel his symptoms were as bad as those of the other guys with whom he served, and he felt guilty about seeking treatment in case someone else needed it more. Eventually, he started talking with a therapist and went through two or three of them before he found one with whom he could relate.

Moulton, who exercises about six days a week, learned that keeping in good mental shape is just as important as staying in good physical shape. He works on this daily through the practice of yoga and meditation, something elite military units have started practicing.

Moulton's story was not the only struggle with post-traumatic stress the audience heard Tuesday night.

Kevin Flike, of Weymouth, who served in the Army Special Forces, spoke about the "hell" he went through after he was shot in the abdomen and severely wounded on his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.

During his recovery, the decorated staff sergeant underwent six surgeries, including an experimental surgery to regain the full use of his left leg. The surgeries left him with 40 inches of scars on his abdomen.

"When I left the hospital, I thought that I was leaving the war behind me. Little did I know my battles were just beginning," Flike said.

He described lying awake at night with a drink in his hand and in tears, struggling with questions of why he survived while others didn't. He began to abuse his pain medication.

Several things helped him, including his wife, who intervened on his drug use six months after he left the hospital.

"'Do you think this is any way to honor your fallen comrades?'" Flike said his wife told him.

This prompted him to reach out to the psychologist of the 1st Special Forces Group, and begin his recovery. He has now gone on to earn dual master's degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and MIT School of Management, and works for a cybersecurity firm in Boston.

Flike continues to practice yoga, meditation and journaling, while reaching out to others. He encouraged veterans and non-veterans alike to seek help if they are struggling.

"Take it from a man who has been through hell and back. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it burns even brighter than you can imagine," Flike said.

"It was awesome," said Lynn resident Jon Lazar, the veterans service officer in Nahant, after the town hall. "It's a sheer act of courage, and brave, to get up there, especially in front of a lot of people, and talk about it."

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.