A soldier’s homecoming is in many ways like the arduous journey Odysseus undertakes in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” says veteran Toby Williamson.
The trials do not stop just because a warrior has left the field of battle, but they can be beaten. The demons — whether they are mythological creatures or simply painful memories — can be kept at bay.
“I’ve taken a lot personally from that,” says Williamson, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2000 to 2006, including a tour in Iraq. “In knowing that, as a great warrior, I can defeat these trials that I face in making this transition home from war.”
It is because of this idea that Williamson chose to call the free benefit concert he organized with the Lynchburg Area Veterans Council (LAVC) Odyssey Fest.
The event, which is being held Saturday at Fifth & Federal Station and features music from six Central Virginia acts, is meant to raise awareness for local programs that assist veterans and first responders with mental illnesses.
“There’s a lot of really great, valuable resources in our community that very few people are aware of,” says Williamson, who spent five years as a veteran resource specialist with the Virginia Department of Veterans Services’ Virginia Veteran and Family Support Program.
“Oftentimes, [they] don’t find out about these life-saving resources until they or, perhaps, a loved one experiences some kind of crisis that brings them to these resources. And unfortunately, sometimes it’s too late.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 6,000 veterans have died by suicide each year from 2008 to 2016.
In 2016, the suicide rate among veterans was 1.5 times greater than among non-veterans, the most recent VA National Suicide Data Report revealed.
Williamson and members of the LAVC were moved to organize Odyssey Fest after a Lynchburg veteran took his own life last June.
“We want to see the launch of a successful mission in this area, in Central Virginia, to eliminate this suicide rate among vets and first responders,” says Tom Current, president of the LAVC. “We want to do our part to try and do that.”
Both Current and Williamson emphasized Saturday’s event — which features performances by the E.C. Glass School of Rock, Rustburg country duo Bo-Zac and Charlottesville bluesman Eli Cook — is also calling attention to the high suicide rate of first responders.
A study commissioned by philanthropic organization the Ruderman Family Foundation, found that more EMS personnel died by suicide than in the line of duty in 2017.
This data corresponds with a 2015 study in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, which found that 37% of the 4,000 respondents had contemplated suicide and almost 7% had attempted it — a rate 10 times higher than the national average among adults in the U.S.
“First responders, they see a lot of trauma every single day in the jobs they perform,” says Williamson. “ ... They don’t have the same exact resources that we have in the VA as veterans, but that’s not to say there aren’t resources that exist in the community.”
In addition to live music across two stages, organizations, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Horizon Behavioral Health and the Virginia Department of Veteran Services, will have booths onsite at Odyssey Fest highlighting their services.
There also will be information tables on Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which uses fly fishing and other outdoor activities as a form of rehabilitation; the downtown YMCA’s Yoga for Warriors program; and Motorcycle Missions, which Williamson hopes to bring to Lynchburg.
Originally founded in Austin, Texas, in 2016, Motorcycle Missions helps veterans and first responders with PTSD by bringing them together to fabricate a bike.
While Odyssey Fest is free, donations to the LAVC will be accepted, and, Current says the majority of proceeds will be used to start a local chapter of Motorcycle Missions.
“The reason it’s free is I don’t want there to be any reason to hold anybody back in coming” and learning about resources “that can literally help them where they are right now [to] get into a better situation,” says Williamson.