(NEW YORK) — Rick Allen, the drummer for the English rock band Def Leppard, and John Roberts, a former Marine, come from very different backgrounds but their experiences with horrific trauma and recovery brought them together for a greater cause to help wounded veterans.
In 1984, Allen was in a car accident in England that cost him his left arm. More than two decades later, the rocker still remembers his seat belt coming undone and being thrown from the car through the sunroof.
“Everything’s in slow motion,” he said. “I must have been going a good 65, 70 miles per hour. I landed in a field several hundred yards away, and I remember standing up and saying, ‘I’m a drummer, I’ve lost my arm.’ It was very surreal.”
Allen said he remained conscious during and after the accident, which he said saved his life.
“My body tensed and I didn’t actually bleed until I got to the hospital and they actually put me under an anesthetic,” he said.
Roberts also was awake throughout his ordeal. In 1992, he was serving as a Marine on a military operation in Somalia. He said he and his unit were in a helicopter, about 200 feet in the air, when the rear engine blew out mid-flight. Roberts said three Marines around him were killed in the blast. He survived, but was severely burned.
“Unfortunately I was awake for the whole thing,” he said. “Having the flames hit you, part of the engine blow into arm and the rest of your body — and then we crashed into the ocean.”
Roberts said the burning helicopter rolled over and sank, and he was underwater for about 10 seconds. When he finally got loose, Roberts said he swam out of the back end of the wreckage and was picked up by another helicopter, which flew him to a ship. There, his wounds were triaged. He was given morphine and then flown back out on another helicopter.
“I, really, woke up two months later in Germany,” he said. “I was in a German army hospital for a few months.”
In the years since their accidents, both Roberts and Allen has been drawn together, not only because they both endured terrible physical pain, but they also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“The self-medicating, the anger, the isolation,” Roberts said. “What we did to our families — living with us was not pleasant.”
Roberts now dedicates his time to injured veterans as the executive director of the Wounded Warriors Project, which helps injured veterans make the transition from active duty to civilian life. Allen founded the Raven Drum Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides free music therapy.
In working together, the two men strive to raise awareness about PTSD.
“One of the main issues is that the warriors won’t ask for help,” Allen said. “And we are really here to highlight the fact that you’re not a coward if you ask for help.”
To deal with the issues of PTSD, Roberts and Allen started meeting with families and the injured at Def Leppard concerts about an hour before the show. They are called “Warrior Gatherings.”
In these sort of group therapy sessions, Roberts and Allen share their stories of how they deal with PTSD — both the good and the bad — which Roberts said encourages others to open up about their suffering.
“A lot of them, they won’t share this information with their wife and in an hour we’ve learned things about them that they haven’t shared with their wife who’s sitting right next to them,” Roberts said. “It’s strange. They don’t know us, but they feel comfortable enough when they are in these groups, and they hear us being very honest and open with our past, and they feel it’s OK to start talking.”
“It’s a wonderful way to draw people in — through shared trauma,” Allen said. “And the warriors realize they’re not alone.”
The “Warrior Gatherings” started in 2009 and are now in their third tour with the band. Roberts said they give the warriors notice that they will be talking about PTSD before show.
“It’s interesting in an hour time frame we’ve gotten people to open up,” he said. “They have talked about suicide. They have talked about the anger, some of the marital struggles that are going on in the homefront.”
One of their end goals in hosting these sessions is to educate the public that suffering from PTSD is normal.
“This can happen to anyone whether you’re a warrior or a rock star or civilian,” Roberts said. “We want to tell people it’s OK to ask for help. Asking for help is not a weakness. It really takes a stronger person to ask for help than to sit home in silence, suffering, not moving forward with your life.”
Roberts and Allen, two friends from different sides of the pond and different sides of the military-civilian divide, are helping veterans heal, and in the process, they are healing themselves.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jennifer Graham, Deseret News