OKLAHOMA CITY — Ryan Pitts’ military career will come full circle Thursday when the Afghanistan war veteran returns to Lawton for the first time in years to help officially open a new nonprofit mental health clinic designed to cater to active and retired military personnel who have served since Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2003, Pitts enlisted in the Army at 17 and attended basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Sill before being twice deployed to Afghanistan. During his second deployment in 2008, Pitts was critically wounded when an anti-Afghan force of more than 200 launched an assault again the 49 Americans occupying a patrol base.

Injured by shrapnel and unable to stand because of his wounds and blood loss, Pitts relied on grenades and laid suppressive fire until a reinforcement team could arrive. He then gave the team his weapon and ammunition and continued to launch grenades.

Later awarded the Medal of Honor, Pitts spent a year recovering in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before going to college.

Several years later, Pitts realized he was fighting a new battle — depression — but kept delaying getting the help he needed. At his wife’s urging, Pitts said he finally realized it was a battle he couldn’t fight alone, and he reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help.

“We learn in the military, you play hurt or injured,” he said. “And knowing the difference between the two when it comes to mental health, I think, can be challenging.”

Now 36, Pitts, of Nashua, New Hampshire, spends his spare time volunteering as an ambassador for the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics, in hopes of urging other veterans and active military personnel to get the help they need regardless of who is providing it. He hopes his story inspires other veterans to shift their mindset on mental health.

“I just want to get out there and drive people to just fight to get whatever services they can get and to not be held back by stigma or what they think their peers are going to think, to just try and break down those barriers and live the lives that we’ve earned,” Pitts said via phone during a layover while en route to Oklahoma for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“I think in small military communities like Lawton, there are few options,” said Anthony Hassan, CEO of the Cohen Veterans Network. “There are few people willing to invest.”

It will be the 19th such clinic that the Cohen Veterans Network has built in recent years.

Organizers have focused on opening clinics in smaller towns that have large military bases and a lot of veteran density. Hassan said the locations are selected based on the premise that if they are there, they’ll seek help. The clinic serves active, honorably and dishonorably discharged veterans, and also helps connect clients with other local services.

Since April 2016, the Cohen Veterans Network has provided low-cost or free care to more than 25,000 veterans and their families nationwide. The Lawton location, which is funded by a $6 million donation, aims to serve 600 veterans and their families the first year, Hassan said. It will employ about 15 staff members.

Nationwide, half of the network’s employees have military experience or a spouse who served. Hassan said that lived experience is critical in building connections and trust.

In Oklahoma, they’re also aiming to reach a statewide clientele by offering telehealth services.

The clinic is unique in that it not only focuses on a niche sector of the military community — anyone who has served since Sept. 11, 2001 — but because it also aims to provide services to their families. They focus on providing a holistic approach by treating the entire family system, whereas most VA programs tend to focus solely on the veteran, Hassan said.

Hassan was stationed at Fort Sill from 1985 to 1987 and lived in the Lawton community. He said there are 6,000 veterans across Oklahoma who have served since Sept. 11 and an estimated 12,000 family members. That number increases when factoring in active military personnel.

“We want to get upstream on the problems,” Hassan said. “We want to get engaged with these younger veterans earlier in their transition so they don’t develop chronic conditions and lifelong conditions that impact their quality of life, unlike our Vietnam-era veterans, our Korean War veterans, who came back with really nothing. They suffered in silence for so many years. We don’t want that to happen.”

He said most post-Sept. 11 clientele are suffering from depression and anxiety.

“It’s followed by family problems, couples problems, transition difficulties,” Hassan said. “It’s not easy leaving the military and entering into civilian life where employment may be a new challenge or you might have financial distress. You may have some housing challenges, you may have some challenges integrating, so we’re seeing life problems.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt, who also is expected to attend the opening celebration Thursday, said that Oklahomans enjoy their freedoms because of the sacrifices made each day by the men and women who served.

“The Cohen Veterans clinic embodies the respect and care we owe our veterans upon returning home, and I am proud to have one here in Oklahoma,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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