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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Hawaii Navy vet revisits his depression

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Vets address mental illness
Video: Veterans target mental illness

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Air Force veteran Glenn Reys shows a quilt he made and explains how sewing has therapeutic value in his fight to overcome addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Spark M. Matsunaga VA Medical Center



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Aiea Iuli, a Navy veteran who was on the USS Midway at the end of the Vietnam War, introduced himself yesterday as someone who has depression and substance abuse problems.

The 52-year-old, speaking to a group of mostly fellow veterans who have benefited from programs at the Spark M. Matsunaga VA Medical Center, said it's taken him a long time to get to this point.

"I couldn't say that before, because of the stigma that was attached to it," Iuli said.

Iuli had substance abuse problems throughout his time in the Navy, and in 2000 was diagnosed with depression and ended up in the psychiatric ward at Tripler Army Medical Center "because I didn't want to live no more."

Overdoses led to two more stays at Tripler, but Iuli said he was in denial, and didn't want to admit he suffered from depression or take medication for it.

"When I grew up, that's a sign of weakness if you are depressed," Iuli said. "I was ashamed to say that I had depression."

But with continued help, coupled with a spiritual awakening and faith in Christ, Iuli eventually accepted that fact and "hope started being instilled in my life. It was enough hope to get me moving in the right direction."

Now he works full time as a Hawai'i certified peer specialist at the Matsunaga Center helping other vets, and yesterday was one of a handful of speakers to kick off Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Glenn Reys, an Air Force veteran who is a graduate of the alcohol and substance abuse program at the Matsunaga Center, offered this bit of advice for Gulf War and current Iraq war veterans who need help: Don't put off getting it.

"If you want to seek help, seek it now," Reys said. "Don't wait 20 years later to say, 'I have this problem.' "

The Department of Veterans Affairs said as many as 2,900 O'ahu veterans use mental health clinic programs at the Matsunaga Center, adjacent to Tripler, for issues including post-traumatic stress disorder, psychotic disorders and substance abuse.

Most are Vietnam and Korean War-era veterans. Between 250 and 600 veterans receive care on the Neighbor Islands.

Mental Illness Awareness Week is a national observation established by presidential proclamation in 1990 to focus attention on the high incidence of mental illness in America.

Awareness programs are being run daily at the Matsunaga Center through Friday.

Reys, the Air Force veteran, said PTSD and alcohol abuse "have taken a great part of my life."

He's found therapeutic value in sewing Hawaiian crazy quilts, a talent he developed over the past six years.

"This kept me busy," Reys said. "When I do sewing like this, I can sew for like six or eight hours, and it's no problem. That's what I do in my continuing recovery."

For Richard Kahihikolo, a lifelong love of music has helped on the road to recovery.

Kahihikolo was in the Navy, got out in 1971 and worked for 18 years as a civilian at Hickam Air Force Base.

"I had a hard time taking orders from military personnel and my anger and PTSD came out and I gave up on everything," the 56-year-old Vietnam War veteran said.

In 2002 he was introduced to the VA clinic and its substance abuse treatment programs. There were relapses before Kahihikolo hit bottom and started making his way back up. At one point, his family had filed a missing persons report on him.

"I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I didn't want to die alone on the streets like my two friends did," he said.

He graduated from the substance abuse program, and participated in a back-to-work program at the Matsunaga Center that helped him cope with mental illness and bring out his talents as a guitarist and singer.

"The program gave me hope for a better life," Kahihikolo said. "I still have problems that I have to work on like my anger and my weight problems and my health, but now I know that I have help to work on those things."

Yesterday, Kahihikolo grabbed his guitar and mesmerized those gathered with "Days of My Youth" in English and "Wahine Ilikea" in Hawaiian.

He's got a group called the Pueo Kane and last night was scheduled to play at a Radford High School reunion at the Hale Koa Hotel. Music is good therapy, Kahihikolo said.

"That's what calms me down when I get into that rage," he said. "What I do is I get my guitar, go to the beach and listen to the waves hitting the shoreline."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.