NFL Star Herschel Walker talks to Airmen about Mental Health

Originally published in the Northwest Florida Daily News on March 27th, 2012

EGLIN AFB – When Herschel Walker stepped into the limelight March 22, it wasn’t to slip between linemen, barrel over a cornerback or pummel a mixed martial artist decades his junior.

His resume as a Heisman Torphy winner, Olympian, and 14-year NFL running back had nothing to do with his visit to Eglin Air Force Base.

He was there to speak about his shortcomings.

“This is more difficult,” he said, before he addressed airmen, veterans, and their families. “Playing a football game, you have those pads on, that helmet on, and you’re hiding. Here, you pull the covers back. You let people know your weaknesses. You let people know who you are.’

Walker, 50, has visited more than 60 military facilities across the country to speak of the wraiths that have lurked beneath the “covers” of his statistics and uniform: the multiple personalities that have silently plagued his personal life.

Walker suffers from dissociative identity disorder, which he said was exacerbated by an unwillingness to admit weakness. He urged anyone with mental heatlh problems, particularly those with self-destructive tendencies, to discover the humility needed to ask for help.

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Col. Colin Miller, commander of Eglin’s 46th Test Wing, said he was inspired to bring Walker to the base after visiting with Airmen who had attempted suicide.

“Sometimes there are no signs at all when someone is suicidal,” Miller said. “A person is dealing with everything internally, and then they make an irreversible decision.”

“Herschel’s story is so important,” he added. “Sometimes, the only person that knows you’re hurting is yourself. If you don’t put your hand up, no one’s gonna help you.”

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Merchant, commander of the Air Armament Center, said the Air Force has suffered 22 suicides thus far in 2012.

Walker speaks to bases without a fee.

“It’s really his ministry in the military,” Miller said.

Such genuine sentiment was evident in Walker’s conversational delivery. He never paused for water or to gather himself as he guided the audiece through his life’s darkest moments as if he was threading a needle through an opposing defense.

The only interruption came when a gust of wind came through the open hangar and blew over an American flag, which he nimbly scrambled to rehoist.

He traced his mental illness to being bullied as a shy and stammering middle-schooler. He said he created alternate personalities to make himself so powerful as to be irreproachable.

He said although doctors have speculated his disorder could have been responsible for creating a super-athlete, it also spawned a collision of destructive desires.

Walker eventually reached out to his ex-wife and pastor for help. Without them, he said, he would not have been at Eglin on Thursday.

Walker is the only player ever to finish in the top three in Heisman voting every year he competed. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999 and is still active today as a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

Walker said he smiles more now than he ever has.

After his speech, a line of visitors extended across the hangar waiting to get his autograph.

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