Without hesitation, Elizabeth Hallene illuminated a ray of hope when her son, Brennan, was mired in a dark place.
Her actions are perhaps the most shining example of The American Legion’s “Be the One” initiative to reduce the rate of veteran suicide. Through ‘Be the One’, The American Legion aims to encourage anyone — veteran or civilian — to take the appropriate action when a veteran’s life may be at risk and to raise awareness about reducing the stigma of seeking mental health treatment.
Mother and son are members of a proud military family, which was among the reasons Brennan opted to join the Massachusetts National Guard.
“When Brennan joined the Guard, I was a little scared but beamed with pride because my boy wanted to help his country,” Hallene recalls. “When he joined, I knew what was going on overseas in the Middle East and it worried me. But the pride I had — and still have — in him to this day, nothing could take that away.”
Brennan, the middle child, has two sisters.
“Brennan was a mama's boy and to this day, he still is, even though he makes me call him man-boy because he's not a boy anymore,” says Hallene, who is the department historian for the Massachusetts American Legion Auxiliary. “As a boy, he was fun, kind, loving, caring, considerate, loved people, loved life.”
He also had a passion for serving people, another reason for raising his right hand and vowing to protect America.
No green dot
Brennan joined the Guard in 2012 and was deployed to Afghanistan as an engineer with the 379th Engineering Company in May 2014. Not knowing whether he was safe gnawed at Hallene.
“My daily routine during his deployment was that I would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, have a cup of coffee, turn on the computer, and sit in front of the computer screen waiting for the green dot to appear,” she explains. “That green dot meant I was going to see my boy.”
One day, the minutes ticked by. No green dot. More time elapsed. Still no green dot. Instead, there was a news item about six U.S. soldiers being killed in Afghanistan.
“My heart left my chest. I didn't hear from my son. Communication was blocked out. I thought my son had been killed.”
After two grueling days, the green dot appeared.
“I felt a sigh of relief. I was happy. I was ecstatic. He told me he was OK, but he really wasn't.”
After Brennan’s unit repelled an enemy attack, he climbed into the back of a trailer truck. The rotted floorboards gave out, sending Brennan down. He suffered a couple of blown discs in his back, and a torn ACL and MCL.
“Knowing he was alive sent a wave of relief through my body, but I knew he had a long road of recovery,” Hallene says. “I worried. He had trouble getting the surgery to get his knee repaired. It took months before that was finally able to be done. I didn't know if it was going to affect him in the long term or if he would ever fully recover from the injuries.”
After what seemed like an eternity, Brennan and Hallene were reunited.
“I’ll never forget the day he came home,” she says, beaming. “I didn't know he was coming home. My daughter-in-law and our baby grandson and my son came to our home and surprised me. I saw the car pull in and I'm just looking out the window and there was my boy. I ran out of the house, gave him the biggest bear hug a mama could give. I was excited, happy and relieved.”
That night Hallene was able to sleep well for the first time in quite a while. Still, Brennan had a long road of physical and emotional recovery ahead.
While the reunion was joyous, Hallene’s mother’s intuition kicked in.
“The first day he was home, the only thing I could notice about his mental state was the light he had in his eyes before he left was no longer there,” she recalls. “Being a mom, I figured he just needed to get re-acclimated to civilian life and he'd be OK.”
Before his deployment, they would communicate daily via text or a phone call. After his return, weeks would go by without any communication. He answered in brief spurts, reassuring her that he was fine but busy.
“He would say, ‘Mom, I'm OK. I'm just busy. I'm back working. We got the kids. I'm just real busy.’ OK, kiddo, well, I'm here if you need me. Lo and behold — bam! — life changed.”
‘Longest 20 minutes of my life’
A fulfilling job is an important part of a successful transition back to the civilian world for servicemembers. Brennan worked as an emergency medical technician. But the trauma he experienced as an EMT only compounded his situation.
“He has PTSD, both from his time in the service in Afghanistan for things that he had to see and do over there to survive, and from being a first responder, paramedic, EMT,” she explains. “At the time, I didn’t know. He didn't want his wife to say anything to me because he didn't want me to worry. He always looks out for mom. It was a tough go. I guess he had been spiraling downhill for a minimum of a year.
On Aug. 7, 2021, Brennan called his mother.
“Something seemed off. He was having a really hard time, a really difficult time in both his professional life and his home life,” she recalls. “He needed some advice from mom. He was sobbing uncontrollably on the telephone. It wasn't my boy anymore. It didn't sound like him.”
After their hour-long conversation, Hallene knew in her heart her boy was not OK. “Everything in me, as his mother, told me he needed me and not just on the phone.”
She texted her daughter-in-law. Then waited. “The longest 20 minutes of my life.”
Finally, Hallene received a text back: "We need you to come."
Time was not on their side. They were separated by an hour’s drive. Thanks to a police escort, Hallene arrived only 30 minutes later.
“Most of the officers are veterans and know PTSD is no joke,” she says. “That is why this ‘Be the One’ campaign is so important, so other families can get the help for their loved ones before it's too late. When I got to my son, he was shaking uncontrollably, crying uncontrollably. I couldn't get him to calm down. I later found out he had a gun in his mouth earlier. He was ready to die.”
A ‘Be the One’ success story
Hallene greeted her son with a hug and tried to calm him down. Eventually, she convinced him to let her take him to a hospital. But as an EMT, Brennan didn’t want to go to a local hospital where others would know him. He agreed to go to one closer to where his mother lives.
About 10 minutes into the drive, Brennan started confiding in his mom.
“He began opening up about some of the stuff that he saw over in Afghanistan and as a paramedic EMT, some of the things he had to do to make sure he and the members of his unit could survive over there,” she says. “It wasn't pretty. It was heart-wrenching. My heart breaks for all soldiers, but mostly for my son.”
Hallene’s approach was perfect: “All I could do was sit there and listen. And that’s what the ‘Be the One’ program advocates: Just listen, don’t interrupt and be there for the veteran.”
After spending a couple of weeks in the hospital, Brennan lived with his mom, stepdad and their 14-year-old daughter. That’s when Hallene’s ‘Be the One’ mission transitioned to her family and their American Legion Family.
Family and fellowship
Hallene’s husband, Bill, is commander of Dudley Gendron Post 414 in Sutton.
“We thought that the camaraderie with the other veterans and the fellowship would help him, knowing that these veterans could understand more of what he was going through,” she explains. “And it proved to be right.”
Brennan’s two primary veteran supporters are Bill Hallene and Pete Gauthier, or Chaplain Pete, the role he has held at Post 414 for about 20 years.
Bill and Brennan would stay up at night, playing games and talking. Brennan, who refers to Bill as his “best friend,” shared stories about what he endured while deployed.
“I did everything I could to help him, to ground him, to be a dad,” recalls Bill, who served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne during Panama. “And I’m convinced the person who helped him the most was Pete. Family can only do so much. I’m his dad — it’s my job. You (Pete) actually did more than you will ever know.”
Gauthier, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam era, helps other veterans dealing with mental illness and substance abuse through his counseling role at the Providence (R.I) VA Medical Center. He brought his experience in leading groups for post 9/11 veterans dealing with PTSD, anxiety and depression to the post.
The post was a safety zone where veterans and first responders would meet, share their stories to their own comfort level and form bonds. Over weekly sessions for six months, Brennan and other participants found healing.
“When the group meets for the first week or two, it's tough to feel comfortable because you don't know the people, you don't know their stories, and you feel in your own head that you're the only one experiencing this,” Gauthier explains. “It really helps others in the group when you share your story. ‘Holy ----, I’m not the only one who feels like this.’ Brennan really had a big impact on other group members. When he was able to sit and tell his story, he had the whole table with tears in their eyes just listening to him. And that made all of them feel so connected and understand that they weren't the only ones dealing with stuff.”
In Gauthier’s eyes, Brennan is a hero. And vice versa.
“He embarrasses me and brings tears to my eyes because almost every time I see him, he'll come over and give me a big hug,” Gauthier says. “And he'll whisper in my ear, ‘You saved my life.’ I'll get in my car and drive home with a tear in my eye. I can't believe I had that impact on him, but he did all the work. He saved his life.”
A changed Brennan
Thanks to their mentorship, Brennan is doing much better. He became junior vice commander at the post and also joined the Sons of the American Legion. Hallene is thankful for the Legion Family’s role in her son’s recovery.
“Before Chaplain Pete started the therapy, Brennan would sit around the house,” she says. “And when Chaplain Pete started the counseling groups, he went from not wanting to get dressed and just sit in front of the TV or play video games to wanting to go to the post.”
Brennan also started looking for another job. He joked with his sister. He forged a deeper bond with his stepdad.
“My husband helped him. Chaplain Pete helped him. There's no doubt in my mind Chaplain Pete helped save my son's life. So did my husband.”
‘Be the One’ resources
It’s worth noting that Hallene’s action took place before “Be the One” launched in May 2022. She took great pride in sharing her family’s story with American Legion National Commander Vincent J. “Jim” Troiola when he visited the post last month.
“I thanked him because without the ‘Be the One’ campaign and him getting the message out there and letting people know there are tools that families can access through veterans service officers, through the Legion website to help them be able to help their veterans or their loved ones get the help that they need. I had to find the help on my own. I didn't know where to turn.”
Seeing her son’s progress inspires Hallene to spread the word about “Be the One”.
“We collectively, as the American Legion Family, need to listen to our veterans, old or young,” she says. “We need to listen to them and reach out and do what we can to help them. And once you get them the help, it doesn't end there. You should be following up with these veterans and keep on them to make sure that they're doing OK, make sure that nothing else happens.”
Hallene isn’t sure what her son is planning for Mother’s Day. But, thanks to her actions, every day is a blessing.
“I'm just thankful that he's here with me every day because in a matter of seconds, he could have been gone,” she says. “I hope one thing he has learned through this is not to be ashamed. You've done what you've had to do to survive. You are a kind, caring, loving young man. You have earned the respect of a lot of people, me, but you've always had my respect, Dad, Chaplain Pete, many members throughout the Dudley Gendron family and throughout the Legion community who know you.”
Being the One
The invisible wounds of war such as PTSD and TBI don’t discriminate. Veterans from all war eras deal with such trauma. All races are susceptible. Men, women and nonbinary suffer the consequences. While all have individual needs, the common thread for forging solutions is a support system.
“My son was afraid to get help because he was afraid to be labeled,” Hallene says. “I say the hell with labels. You need help? You find somebody. Don't hold it in. Don't take your life. It's not going to help you, and it's not going to help your family. There are people out there. Not all of us know what we're doing all the time, but there are people out there, whether it's your own family or it's mental health professionals, doctors, therapists, or Legion family members who will step up and help you. They will be the one for you.”
It's not just military family members who can “Be the One”. Civilians, caregivers and others all have the ability to assist a veteran who is in crisis. The Hallenes hope that by sharing their story, more veterans will receive the support they need.
“If we can help even half the veterans who are struggling, just think what an impact that would be,” Bill says. “100 percent would be even better. But just think about half — and the trickle-down effect. The next thing you know you’re helping tens of thousands of people.”
There is a long way to go to significantly reduce the veteran suicide rate. But by answering the call, Brennan’s caring cadre demonstrated how to “Be the One”.
“I’d be ecstatic for Brennan’s story — and my story, as his mom — to help one family, one veteran,” she says. “It’s so meaningful for that opportunity to help someone else. My hope is to help a lot more.”