Ty Oswald started BeArded WARRIORs, a veterans support group, to help others in Alabama like him. He’s also committed to reaching veterans across the US.
Listen to This Episode
- Ty is an Army veteran who experienced severe post-traumatic stress after serving in Iraq.
- He started BeArded WARRIORs because he saw a need for veterans like him in the Huntsville, Alabama area.
- BeArded WARRIORs hosts get-togethers for veterans in Huntsville. It has also grown into an online community for hundreds of veterans, service members, and their supporters.
- Ty discusses the stigma of showing weakness, e.g. seeking help for mental health issues, in the military and how BeArded WARRIORs tries to counter that.
- Facebook: BeArdedWARRIORs
- Instagram: BeArded.WARRIORs
- Twitter: @BeArdedWARRlORs (lower case L, not capital I)
This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
Ty Oswald is the founder of BeArded Warriors, a veterans’ support group based in Huntsville, Alabama. He started the group online to bring veterans like him in the area together, and it’s grown into a strong source of community for hundreds of veterans, service members, and their friends across the United States. I talked with him about his mission at my brother-in-law’s tattoo shop in Huntsville.
I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Ty is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.
This is Episode 22—I reserved this one for Ty, and I’ll let him explain why. You can read along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/022.
Regardless of how you may feel about the politics of warfare or about how reliant the United States is on its military, combat operations have altered the lives of millions of Americans—not only service members, but their loved ones, too. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, otherwise known in the US as the VA, about 22 million Americans are veterans, and the Department of Defense has estimated that another 1.4 million are active service members. It’s hard to determine how many of them have seen combat, and that’s because many have served in more than one conflict. It appears that three-quarters of all veterans, at least, served during periods of wartime. Beyond that, combat experience is a tricky thing to measure.
Unfortunately, one measure that’s shown an increase in recent years has been the suicide rate among veterans and service members. Estimates vary between different demographic groups, but there seems to be a consensus that the overall rate of suicides has risen since conflicts began in Afghanistan and Iraq. Groups most at risk appear to be males, those within the first three years of leaving service, and those over 50.
I should point out that the epidemic of suicide among veterans isn’t only limited to those who have experienced combat. In studying suicides in the US Army, epidemiologist Michael Schoenbaum and his associates found that suicides were also elevated among soldiers who were not deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. According to him, the increase in suicides is likely correlated with mental health issues that preceded enlistment, but that’s not to downplay awful events that veterans like Ty have had to deal with.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of projects and organizations dedicated to supporting veterans in the United States, some more prominent than others, but two things drew me to BeArded WARRIORs. One is that Ty lives not far from where I grew up, so I know how tough it can be to bring people together in that area. The other is that, although Ty is super humble about his role in the group, I can’t help but think that none of its success would have been possible if he hadn’t decided to do something for others like him. With that in mind, he’s precisely the kind of person I wanted to talk to when I started this podcast.
Ty and I talked in the office at The Tattooed Lady in Huntsville back in December. That was the week before he shaved off one of the best beards I’ve ever seen for a fundraiser. He’s already growing a new one for next year, but I’ll let him talk about it. Here’s Ty Oswald, Head Motherf***** in Charge—[laughs] that’s what he told me to say—at BeArded WARRIORs.
Interview with Ty Oswald
JM: Tell me about BeArded WARRIORs. What’s the purpose behind BeArded WARRIORs?
TO: Trying to bring awareness to the suicide rate that veterans and service members have. Right now, the current, underreported rate is twenty-two veterans and one service member a day, so roughly 8,300 people a year decide to end their life because of issues they don’t think they can handle.
JM: Where did the name BeArded WARRIORs come from? It seems kind of obvious for you where it came from.
TO: Right. Most people think it is because I have a beard and that’s where it comes from. The BeArded WARRIORs comes mostly from a metaphor for a mask or something that you’re hiding behind. There are, of course, female veterans that get out that have the same issues as the male veterans. Everybody knows that, usually when a guy gets out after several years of being in the military and shaving all the time, the first thing they do is quit shaving and grow a beard.
JM: I’ve noticed that, yeah.
TO: That plays into it. If you look at the page, the A in BeArded is capitalized. If you were to take out all of the lower-case letters, it leaves you with “Be a warrior.” That was the premise on it: just because you’re out doesn’t necessarily mean you stop being that person.
JM: You’re the only founder, right?
TO: I am. It all came over a lunch break one day. I was looking at some videos online while I was eating lunch. There was a theme to all the videos that kept popping up. It was a bunch of sports videos. After those videos went through, it went into a theme [with] a bunch of military style, go-get-’em style videos. It was kinda, ‘Why isn’t there anything like this in Huntsville?’ considering the huge veteran population that we have.
JM: Yeah, with the VA not far away.
TO: Right. There’s nothing that I knew of or still know of that helps specifically for service members that get out that are dealing with issues that could lead to them ultimately committing suicide.
JM: What kinds of activities do you promote with the different events you do?
TO: On the 22nd of every month, we meet at the memorial downtown on Memorial Street for like an hour. It’s a super informal meet-and-greet. That’s just a once-a-month, get everybody together—just keeping that support, chit-chatting, talking, catching up. We usually go eat afterwards to carry it over.
JM: What kinds of issues are you looking to address with all of these different things you do?
TO: Just for anybody that’s, for whatever reason, whether it’s combat related or, even with females, if it’s military sexual trauma/MST, or stuff like that, any issue that they don’t seem like they can deal with, it’s just buddies hanging out, talking over problems, letting steam off, or whatever like that. Through the contacts that have come through, if it’s something a little beyond talking in a small group, there’s reach-out resources to direct somebody to that they may not know about, that could either couple with being able to have somebody to call and talk to or to have an actual, formal treatment as doctor-patient, stuff like that.
JM: You were in the military how long ago?
TO: I got out in 2006.
JM: What branch were you in?
JM: How have these issues affected you?
TO: I was deployed back in 2003 for fifteen months to Iraq. By trade through the Army, I’m a helicopter crew chief. While deployed, we did a lot of convoy and VIP escorts. There were incidents that happened on the convoys that stuck with.
When I got out in 2006, I moved back to Huntsville. Most of everybody that I knew that had joined the military was either still gone, and the people that didn’t leave never were in the military or they didn’t deploy, i.e. my parents are both military but they never deployed, their friends and stuff. Most of everybody that I know here is military oriented but didn’t have that connection of the deployment.
Not having somebody to talk to, things manifested into hanging around the house by myself, blowing plans off, the same stuff that most people deal with when they get out. Like I said, you have a close knit group of people that you either deployed with or served with the whole time. Then you leave service and move back home, you lose that camaraderie. You lose that lean-on, you don’t have anybody to talk to, and then you don’t want to talk about your problems.
It’s kind of drilled into that, if there’s something wrong or something like that, then you have the weakness versus something bad going on. You get pigeonholed into a stigma of, “Well, they can’t handle it.” You keep it in until it finally…*pow*.
JM: Was there a point where you realized for yourself that you had to do something?
TO: It got to the point where sleeping—staying awake all the time because of that constant, repetitive of stuff going on from the deployment. I was staying awake all night, then going to work and fighting falling asleep. It got to a point where other people at work started noticing something was going on. Once it got to the point where somebody else started noticing something, then I was like, “Maybe I need to go talk to somebody.”
JM: Was there a point when you saw what other people were going through and you were like, “You know, maybe I could do something about this”?
TO: Like I said, it’s never going to go away. The biggest thing was realizing: people are going to cut you off in traffic, somebody’s going to do something that’s going to make you react in some way. You can’t necessarily control what they are going to do, but you can control what you do after the fact. If you get all hot and bothered, flipping people off, all that does is draw attention to what you’re doing now, not necessarily what they did, which could further make you withdraw by not wanting to get out and do anything and go into crowds.
I’ve already been through that myself and figured out, ‘Okay, they’re going to do this. I can’t do that,’ just to keep a level head on my own side. It’s physically going to affect you. Now that I have all of that in check, it’s like, how many other people are dealing with that same stuff that have nowhere to go or nobody to talk to?
When I got back in 2006, from 2006 to 2009, I didn’t have anybody to talk to or relate to about it. That’s three years, that’s a long time. It’s like, if I did it or went through it, somebody else is or has, and I can’t let them do that knowing what I know now. Even though there wasn’t anybody there that I knew of—because there were people there, I didn’t have that react-out.
I’m making sure on my part that everybody within the group has that reach-out, if they need it.
JM: During those three years when you didn’t necessarily have anybody to go to, if you had decided that you wanted help—I guess what I’m wondering is, for the typical veteran coming back that might want help who isn’t a part of your group, what do they do?
TO: The VA would be the easiest: 1-800-827-1000. That will connect you with the call center, whereever your region may be. Your regional hospital may be 45 minutes or two hours away, but they can get you the information to the closest community based outreach clinic/CBOC.
JM: I guess what I’m trying to get at is: why are the issues that affect veterans so widespread and so strong? Is it that they don’t go to seek help?
TO: Usually. That’s going back to where I touched on—you get a stigma of, if you’re asking for help on a mental health issue, it’s perceived that you can’t handle it. Nobody wants that check mark in their box of, “Well, we got deployed, such and such happened. John, Tim, and Bob were over at the same time. They’re not going to talk to anybody, but you did.”
I talked to a guy a couple of days ago. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody about what’s going on or the issues that he’s got because he was told while he was in that, once he got tagged with having a mental issue, regardless of PTSD, TBI, or what-not, that he would have to claim that if he was going to get a concealed carry permit; claim it for insurance purposes, for health insurance, and his premiums would be higher. He would have to do it on background checks for anything; you can, if you want to, but it’s not a requirement. Especially for security clearances for work, having PTSD, a TBI, or any combat-related health issue is not a disqualifier of any kind, even if you’re going for a top-secret clearance.
That’s one of the things that really gets under my skin. It’s 100 percent bad information, but people are taking that. The veteran that I talked to had been dealing with that for the last ten years. For ten years, he was holding himself back from stuff because he though that, if he put it out there, it would come back and go against him.
JM: This was after the military.
TO: Right. Well, even in, people think you’ll be held back from promotions because they’re not fit for the position or a whole slew of things. A lot of that comes back to bad rumors.
JM: You’ve been out for about ten years, almost ten years. Are you aware if there are any changes happening in the military to start looking at mental health a little better?
TO: From my understanding, there’s a big push for it, but there’s still a lot of the bad rumors of, if you go talk to the mental health people, then you’re tagged. People don’t want that. It’s almost in the same [vein] as, if you’re a ranger and you go out and twist your ankle, then you’re going to sit there and try to fight through it as hard as you can. You don’t want to go to a sick call because you don’t want everybody thinking you’re weak or something like that, which is not the case but that’s the way it plays out.
JM: We talked a little about this already, but when you came back post-military and you were still having these post-traumatic experiences, how did that affect your daily life? You seem like you’re able to function pretty well now.
TO: Well, it took a while, just like anything. Somebody starting in a business might start out cleaning floors and, twenty years later, they’re the CEO. They weren’t the CEO the whole time.
At face value, if you were to see me and talk to me today, you’d probably never think that, eight years ago, the only thing I did was wake up, go to work, stop by the grocery store on the way home if I had to, go back home, sit there, and not do anything else. People would [say], “Hey, we’re going to hang out at the bar a little while. Come out and hang out.” “Oh, yeah. Sure, I’ll be there,” then [I would] never show up. The crowded areas, places you don’t know, they’re all triggers of some sort.
I had to figure out what a new normal was. Pre-military, it didn’t matter where we were going—fine, sure. Crowds of people? Whatever. Situations puts you in, when you’re in a different crowd of people that may or may not be trying to kill you, then you have that stuck in the back of your head when you go into an unfamiliar area with a large group of people you don’t know, it just makes you not want to do that, which like I said puts you back into becoming a recluse or isolating yourself to where you don’t want to deal with it.
Eventually, the people that you do know that reach out, try to hang out with you, quit because you make plans and then you don’t follow through with them. “Alright, fine. You don’t want to hang out with us? We not even going to throw the invite out there initially.” [Then] you’re by yourself.
JM: I know you’re not a licensed counselor or anything, but are you able to spot those warning signs in other people now and help them with that?
TO: Yeah. Everybody’s so different. The situations that lead to this veteran’s PTSD versus theirs, everybody does basically the same thing.
There’s the isolation, trigger anger out of nowhere. Somebody will have a conversation about something, and then you blow off. That’s usually because you were already holding back so much for so long, and that was the needle the bubble. Whomever was there is what gets it.
Any kind of substance abuse: most people drink, but you can tell if somebody’s drinking and having a couple of beers with their buddies or if somebody’s drinking and the next thing you know, they’re blacked out.
There’s all kinds of little stuff. Everybody has to be mindful of it because there are the signs there. You just have to know what that person’s normal is and realize what is not normal, which is why with BeArded WARRIORs, we always try to include family members. Just because a service member or veteran has PTSD, a TBI, depression, or an abuse problem, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t carry over to a spouse, the kids, or both.
Everybody’s involved with it because everybody has to deal with it. That’s why we always try to include everybody. That way, there’s a learning curve for everybody since there are so many different, little things that add up to the big picture.
JM: How do you get families and friends involved?
TO: Through talking on the forum and the events. Everybody’s invited, whether you’re a veteran, a service member, a family member, or just a military supporter. The majority of the people that are on the BeArded WARRIORs Facebook page are non-veterans, but they’re spouses of [veterans], brothers of, sisters of, cousins of, friends of [veterans]. They want to be able to let whomever needs help know that there’s somebody out there, even if they just want to talk, that they’re there.
JM: Did all of this start by you starting the Facebook page and going from there, or did you have your first event and built the Facebook page around that?
TO: It all came from the Facebook page, and it’s grown. There was a need in Huntsville for veterans, period. That stemmed from my own personal experience of there not being anything here when I got out and didn’t even know that I needed the help. I was, like, “Well, if nobody else is going to do it, then I will.”
I made a page, and it started off as posting events, car shows, job fairs, and stuff like that geared towards veterans, veterans organizations, or getting veterans together, regardless of where it was. A couple of my friends Liked the page, a couple of their friends Liked the page. Through that, it grew into something that I wasn’t expecting.
JM: It’s outside of Huntsville now, which is interesting to me.
TO: Right, right. [laughs] There’s at least six people at minimum in every state and three people over in the UK, one of which I know—I served with him. It’s grown way beyond what I expected. For the longest time, I figured it was going to be myself and my buddy up in South Carolina, Noah. He Liked the page before I did. [laughs] I figured it was going to be me posting stuff and him reading it, and that was going to be about it. [laughs]
JM: [laughs] Funny how that worked out.
TO: It’s really blown my mind at how big—it’s still small, of course—but how big it blew up to. I think there’s 1,460 people that Like the page, fifteen thousand people saw the page last week. The forum, which is a closed group, has 760 members. It’s growing at about five people a day. It’s just, like I said, word of mouth. “Here’s a group of guys, girls, and supporters that want somebody to know they’re there. If you need a reach-out, here you go.”
JM: That’s excellent.
It’s since grown. You’re not only including veterans but practically anybody that’s interested. What other kinds of experiences do you help people through, or does it work like that?
TO: It’s anything. It’s whatever somebody has an issue with.
There’s a guy that was in South Carolina. He moved there from Texas to be closer to his daughter when he got out. He didn’t have a ride, and he was getting down on himself about stuff going on and issues that he had from his service. Talking to him and another guy on the forum getting into the conversation, he found out that he was into mountain biking.
Seann was into mountain biking himself. He got a bunch of his cycling friends to donate parts and a bike. He built a mountain bike for him, then drove 45 minutes to his house and gave it to him after a car show or event they went to. He was, like, “By the way, here you go, man.”
It was out of a conversation, totally out of the blue. We had talked behind the scenes to figure out how we could do it. “Hey, if this will help him get out there—one, it’s good get out in the open and fresh air because I guess he was staying inside all the time. Plus, riding a bicycle is good for you physically. It was one of those full-circle, mind-body…
JM: Yeah, yeah.
Are you working with any other organizations?
TO: Yeah. Right now, I have a fundraiser going on.
JM: I like the name, FundRAZOR.
TO: Yeah, FundRAZOR. Play on words.
There’s an $8,395 goal that goes back to the twenty-two veterans and one service member suicide a day. I’ve been growing my beard for a year, so twenty-three times 365 is 8,395. Right now, I’m $975 away from the goal. Saturday’s the planned day to shave it off and start all over again for next year.
The money being raised is being split between Unstoppable Heroes in California and the Oscar Mike Foundation up in Chicago. The one thing about both of them that I like the best is [that] 100 percent of the money they receive through donations goes directly to a veteran in need, adaptive equipment if they’re missing an arm or a leg through a physical injury, a revamp if they need some sort of a home redo for their disability, a ramp, counters, or whatever. The money they receive goes directly to a need, a service, or something like that.
JM: What excites you about BeArded WARRIORs? What do you like about it?
TO: Just keeping that camaraderie with everybody. Like I said, everybody wants a lean-on. Regardless of how great everything may be going, there’s always that one day that sucks, and you want to be able to reach out to talk to somebody. Having an entire group of people to be able to reach out to at any time of the day or night, for any reason at all without any kind of judgment, is awesome. That’s the best part, just people honestly helping other people out.
JM: Do you have any goals in mind? What do you see in the future? [pause] Or you don’t think of it that way?
TO: I don’t. As long as there’s somebody that needs help on something, reach out. Regardless of what it is, if I don’t know how to do it or somebody that can here, we’ll find somebody.
JM: I always try to ask everybody I talk to what something the rest of us can do to help out in whatever area they’re working in. What is something that an average person can do to help maybe a veteran they know or somebody that’s dealing with the warning signs of stress like you mentioned?
TO: The biggest thing is, when you see somebody, just ask them how they’re doing, even if they’re not a veteran. It boils down to, granted what we do at BeArded WARRIORs is geared to service members, veterans, and their family members, it still comes down to people helping people. If you see somebody that’s, regardless of where you’re at, if they look like they’re having a bad day, when you go by say hi.
Everybody has some sort of struggle that they’re dealing with. It may not be as bad as the next guy or whatever it is, but somebody that just walks by and you say, “Hey, how are you doing?” or smile when you walk by, that could be whatever that is that person needed that day versus going home and saying, “Oh, that’s it.” *pow*
JM: That makes me wonder: have you always had an easy time helping people, or is it something you’ve learned since you started BeArded WARRIORs?
TO: No, there’s been a learning curve. Like I said, it goes back to, especially males, they don’t want to accept the fact that there’s something wrong or that they need help with something that they can’t do on their own.
There’s been a bit of a learning curve on the approach to some people and how to help them, or some people reach out and they just want to talk to get whatever it is off their chest because they’re having a bad day. Some people that they talk to, their go-to may be to help fix whatever the problem is, and that [can] further aggravate what’s going on and make them withdraw again.
If somebody reaches out or says, “Hey, I need to talk,” just listen. You’ll know in the conversation as it’s going where you can interject or [say] “What about this?” “Have you thought about that?” The biggest thing is just listen and let somebody get whatever it is off their chest.
JM: That’s good advice.
How can we follow BeArded WARRIORs online?
TO: The Facebook page, facebook.com/BeArded WARRIORs. You can Google it. Instagram: BeArded.WARRIORs. On Twitter: @BeArded WARRIORs.
JM: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to add?
TO: Just a reminder, if you’re in the Huntsville area: on the 22nd of every month at 5:00 PM, we meet at the downtown veterans’ memorial for about an hour, then hang out, chit-chat, and catch up.
JM: I’m excited to see what you look like without the beard.
TO: Yeah! Apparently there’s a lot of people, with there only being $900 away. [laughs]
JM: [laughs] Alright. This has been great. I really appreciate your time, Ty.
TO: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
JM: I thought of one other question for Ty that I sent to him later: What motivated you to join the military? This is what he said: “Patriotism and service to our country is a family thing. Both parents, both uncles, both grandfathers, my cousins, brother-in-law. It was something I always wanted to do. I always grew up thanking those in uniform and had utmost respect for each person I saw wearing a uniform. I wanted to be that example to another young person looking up to their ‘hero.’”
Nicely said, Ty. Thanks for your service. We really appreciate it.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
The Plural of You is produced by me, Josh Morgan, in snowy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.
You can find show notes, past episodes, and other resources at pluralofyou.org. You can keep in touch and get updates about people helping people on Facebook and Twitter at pluralofyou. If you’d like to have the next episode sent to you automatically, visit pluralofyou.org/subscribe and subscribe to the podcast.
If you liked my talk with Ty, check out Episode 6 with Ian Acker. Ian founded Fit To Recover, a sober gym in Salt Lake City, and he’s another person like Ty who started something life-changing with a simple idea. You can find that at pluralofyou.org/006.
In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
Wherever you may be listening from, take a moment the next time you see your country’s flag and think about the countless people and events that have made flying it possible. I know that’s cliché, but I also know for me that I’ve been cynical toward the politics of war in the past and the people involved. The truth is that, no matter where our political preferences may lie, you and I will never know a fraction of the sacrifices that people like Ty have made with their countries in mind, so give the human cost some thought the next time you pass a flagpole.
That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.