Veteran conquers mental illness as he pursues degree to help him aid others

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

This story has been updated to correct the name of the Robert J. Delonis Center shelter in Ann Arbor.

Ypsilanti — John Wilkerson knows about treating mental illness.

He has been sick himself.

After years of suffering, the retired Marine said he is better now. Healthy enough, he said, to enroll at Eastern Michigan University, where he is studying for a bachelor's degree in social work, with a goal of helping those who are not. Already, he is working as an intern with the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor.

Residential case manager Summer Burrell of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor discusses a client with social work intern John Wilkerson.

“I hope to pursue my master’s degree in social work with a concentration in mental health,” he said. “I plan on working with the homeless population, and of course veterans."

When a veteran’s life runs smack into mental illness, experts say, the remedies are too often hidden, seemingly scarce.

Once Wilkerson found the way, he was mostly OK.

“Oh sure,” said Wilkerson, 58, who's an undergraduate at EMU. “I still have my days. But with a lot of the right help, I am so much better.”

But if he had known from the start where to turn, Wilkerson said, he could have put disabling depression and anxiety behind him much sooner.

It would not have cost him his marriage, his job, his automobile and the life he expected after serving in the infantry and military intelligence, in peacetime, from 1979 to 1987.

“There was just a lot of things going on,” Wilkerson said. “At that point, I was taking some therapy and some medication. But I was undertreated. That was the phrase I like to use. It just wasn’t enough to help me balance, where, you know, I could have a good work-life balance.

“Anxiety, depression, not being able to get out of bed. Sometimes just getting angry for no reason at all, or angry at stupid stuff.

“Things would go better. But I just had a lot stressors in life, and that’s when I hit 45 days where I barely got out of bed.”

Largely unprepared for the tasks that confronted him, he consulted with a lawyer and tried to navigate a space between unemployment benefits and Social Security disability, a classic Catch-22.

Unemployment requires making oneself available for work. Disability requires being unable to work.

“It’s long. It’s arduous. And you generally get more no’s that you get yes,” he said. “I was single. My kids were minors. I had no siblings. My parents had both passed away at that point, so I didn’t have a safety net.

“So you run out of money. You move out of an apartment. I lost my car because I couldn’t afford to keep paying for that.”

He counts himself lucky. Some friends around Washtenaw County took him in. He did not live on the street.

But from about December 2011 to June 2012, Wilkerson was homeless.

He eventually ended up in shelters, including some beds designated for veterans at Robert J. Delonis Center, at the edge of downtown Ann Arbor, which is part of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County.

"I feel my experiences in homelessness makes me relatable and empathetic," Wilkerson said.

Through effort and chance, he finally discovered how he fit into the system for aiding sick veterans.

“I was able to enroll for welfare and the VA,” he said. “As I’ve told people, it’s funny, back in my day, when you got out in 1987, they really didn’t explain all of the benefits that you have. If I’d have known that, I probably would have gotten with the VA health system right then.

“If I would have had VA docs, I probably would never have lost my job,” said Wilkerson, who worked in information technology for several years. 

While health care experts say it is difficult for the mentally ill to access proper care, it is especially true of sick veterans.

In fact, too often, even healthy veterans are unaware of available benefits, officials say.

According to a recent report, most veterans and their families in Michigan are not using the G.I. Bill for post-secondary education, which the federal government renewed after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Although educational attainment among veterans has increased, it lags significantly behind the non-veteran population and the gap is widening, according to a report issued by the Michigan Independent Colleges & Universities.

In Michigan, about 22% of veterans had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2017, compared with 30% of non-veterans, according to the report, which says the figures in 2005 were 19% and 25%, respectively.

As he grappled with the bureaucracy to get well, Wilkerson said he faced hurdles to getting a degree. Because his service ended before the re-enactment of the G.I. Bill, he was not eligible for benefits.

He qualifies for full Federal Pell Grant benefits, to which the staff at Eastern Michigan has guided him, including helping him with appeals. He fills out his Free Application for Federal Student Aid annually. 

Whether it is something as simple as financial aid for college or as complex as navigating the system of delivering mental health care, Wilkerson said he wants to help others.

“In mental health care, everybody’s different,” he said. It’s a matter of finding the right balance. If you need meds and therapy, it’s a matter of finding the right meds and therapy."

Marine veteran John Wilkerson waits for the bus from Eastern Michigan University to his social work internship in Ann Arbor, Monday.

The keys for him, he said, were the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and, on campus at Eastern Michigan, the Lt. Col. Charles S. Kettles Military and Veteran Services Resource Center.

Wilkerson is on track to receive his bachelor’s degree in April and is already working at social service agencies in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, helping veterans and others.

“I will be honest, anyone who’s in mental health recovery, you have your bad days,” Wilkerson said. “There’s just some days when you feel like the meds aren’t working.

“Mental health days are a very real thing. Every so often, I need a day. A day when you don’t have to work or do anything. That is important.”

At the Kettles Center, Eastern Michigan has created a space for veterans.

It is named for Charles Kettles, a Medal of Honor recipient, Ypsilanti native, EMU alumnus and Vietnam veteran who died earlier this year.

“We have an environment here where it’s just like the U.S.O., where people feel comfortable just coming in here,” said Michael Wise, the center's assistant director.

“We all kind of get it. We’ve all been through it, like John. So it creates that climate where veterans feel welcome. It becomes a family, every day,” said Wise, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.

“Veterans are non-traditional students on campus. They are coming in here in the middle of their lives," he said. "They’re not just worried about going home for Christmas and when’s spring break. They’re in life. They own their homes. They have families.”

Wilkerson is moving ahead with his life. He has begun filling out applications from graduate school and trying to help others navigate around the challenges he faced.

“The biggest problem for me was: No one tells you what it is like to prepare you to be homeless,” Wilkerson said. “It’s not like you go to a website and click on a button.

“It’s like no one person knows everything. It takes multiple people to help you get through the whole maze of all the programs, all the systems."