Veterans Day is largely intended as a day to thank living military members for their service and sacrifices, and somberly remember those we have lost.
It originates from the armistice ending World War 1, signed in a railroad car outside Compiègne, France, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
A year later, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. And in the subsequent 101 years, we have seen many more wars and conflicts leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of grieving relatives.
Amid criticism aimed at various administrations in their handling of veterans, there are groups of ex-service personnel and civilians alike who are organized and committed to helping those in need, often neglected by the systems of government they fought so hard to protect.
One such man is Sergeant Peter Mayotte, who along with a tight band of others, not all service folk, have formed a group called The Comfort Crew in Los Angeles, California.
Pete clearly understands the challenges faced by combat veterans with PTSD, having been one himself and serving from 1982 to 1988. He joined the army at age 17, and by 18 had earned top level Pentagon security clearance. He was involved in covert operations that had him “going into some pretty heavy places and being involved with some pretty heavy duty stuff in Grenada, Central America and in the DMZ, the border between North and South Korea.”
At 23, he was granted an honorable discharge and began a career in modeling, traveling the world, the first male model to grace the books of IMG.
All seemed to be fine until one night, whilst asleep with his girlfriend by his side, he suddenly “jumped up out of bed thinking I was in the jungle and almost ran out of a third story window. Fortunately, I hit the frame and was knocked out”
“Basically, my experience is that the army train you so highly, that it took me several years after leaving for my guard to go down,” he explains.
“I was traveling all over the world and having a whole new experience in life when the flashbacks began. So that was when I knew something was wrong and my dad, being an ex Marine Captain out of Pendleton, took me to the VA.
“They locked me down on the psyche ward for 68 days, to see what was wrong with me — that’s how they do it. They consider you a danger to yourself and to others when you have flashbacks and so they put me in this unit in the Kansas City, Missouri, VA. Whilst there, they diagnosed me as being bi-polar with PTSD.”
Thus began a dark decade where Pete was moved around several institutions and was given various medications that would have disturbing effects and consequences. He also began the arduous battle of seeking benefits in a system not known for being user-friendly.
His chosen weapon was the pen, but he says: “It’s a very long and tedious process where many guys in from Vietnam and other conflict zones gave up and killed themselves before ever gaining benefits.”
In 2011, still struggling from severe PTSD, Pete entered the West LA VA Hospital known as ‘The Domiciliary’, and underwent their 90-day alcohol treatment program. On completion of that he then volunteered to be a case study under the guidance of Dr Beverly Haas, PHD, head of the combat trauma unit and highly respected amongst her peers in the advancement of therapies. Dr Haas has worked at the unit for almost 40 years, and Pete gratefully acknowledges how she helped him get through the many issues blocking him from living a normal life.
“I began to do things the right way. I listened to doctors and experts for the first time in my life, and especially Doctor Haas,” he says.
“For me, I had great trauma around helicopters and confined spaces so part of the treatment was for me to be guided in the minutest detail and ‘relive’ such situations.”
It was the beginning of an eight-month road to recovery that was to inform and determine Pete’s eventual purpose in life.
“When I arrived at the hospital, I noticed that all the veterans who suffered from PTSD were up all night because they were hyper vigilant,” he explains.
“They’d eat breakfast at 7.30am and their last meal was at 4.30pm. They may nod off for a couple of hours during the day but when it came to night, they were alert, they were on guard, they were hyper. They were also hungry and cold and they had nothing to keep them calm. No calming movies to watch, no good blankets.
“So whilst on the various programs, sober and committed to do whatever it took, I realized that the best part of my life was when I was being of service.
“In the military, the regimentation of service and helping others was what I was good at, and as I got clear through the program, I realized that I wanted to do something for the veterans at the VA.”
So as Pete got back on his feet, he began dedicating his life to helping his military family do the same.
“I’d slowly moved from living at the VA to living in my apartment,” he recalls.
“It was November 2011. I was still over there, but slowly came over here [to my apartment] and transitioned. One of the hardest things for a vet to do is to keep a place without going back off — the lowest rate of success was keeping a place.
“So I asked myself, what can I do for my brothers and sisters at the VA? I got a U-Haul truck and asked people to donate, and at the beginning I was just winging it and people brought items. People just jumped on board, and it wasn’t much the first time, but I went to the VA and took the items. And that was the beginning of The Comfort Crew.”
From these simple beginnings, The Comfort Crew grew and has now aligned with other local charities and supporters.
“The next year, this wonderful lady called Barbie Herron wanted to get on board with me and go to the VA,” Pete explains.
“Barbie is remarkable. Her son Lyon is almost 30, has survived childhood cancer and had 34 surgeries since being diagnosed at three years old. Barbie and Lyon started a charity called The Young and the Brave where they deliver these lovely care blankets to children in hospital to keep them warm.
“They give them their own personal blankets with animals on them, or something else depending on how old they are. And so Barbie, her daughter, me and three of her good friends went to the VA and took blankets and various items that help calm. Barbie’s got another charity called Cozy Courage, and her partner in it is a lady called Sheri Perry.
“And Global Angel was established by a lady I grew up with in Malibu called Amber Dawn Shopay. You can go to her site and shop for quality merchandise and decide which charity you want to donate the money to.”
“So I’m the facilitator of getting us into a federal hospital and getting one on one with the veterans,” he adds.
“And then I get out of the way because these women are amazing and when they get there, they just envelope these veterans in love, something that I’m personally not that great at but it’s helped me to come out of my shell.
“We do this twice a year, every six months, it’s almost perfectly divided between Memorial Day and then again in November.
“I needed a purpose in my life and doing this felt like a great purpose. I organize the donations and then these wonderful guys who are like brothers to me come and help me. We go to Costco and buy thousands of dollars worth of stuff, load it up on one of my friends trucks and deliver it to the VA.”
We spoke to Pete as he was preparing to head out for Veterans Day this year, and share his experiences and the generosity of others with his military community.
He says, “The West LA VA combat unit had the highest suicide rate when I was there. It now has the lowest. I’m told by Dr Haas that these guys look forward to seeing us. All the women talk with the women veterans and they listen to their stories and try to give them hope. These are women that have been abused in the military and in life.
“We all sit in the parking lot and it’s very important that all the vets speak first, and we all listen carefully, and then I tell my story last. Their first thing on entering the VA is fight or flight. They’re either gonna stay and fight until the bitter end or they’re just gonna run away.
“I tell them about where I was, and they relate to that because I had nothing. I’d just given up, I was a mess and I came here and I stepped out of myself and I listened to the experts and I could tell if they were talking bulls*** — but I just got really lucky and those people really cared for me and they’re still there.
“So I urge them to stay. I get down on bended knees when I talk to the women and I tell them that I cannot relate to what you’ve gone through but I love you and I care about you.
“And so often, the toughest guy you’ve ever seen, when I hug them at the end, he’s in tears. We’re in tears, just so happy to be heard and cared about. Literally, the amount of love, imagine it’s like an angel’s wings surrounding you on your worst day. Just being there for somebody else and them realizing that someone does care about them.”
Pete has not had an easy road, but his work on Veterans Day, and throughout the year, gives him purpose and a sense of community that helps him while helping others.
He says, “Be good to yourself first, but be good to others. That was how it started. So I tell them all the wonderful things that happened in my life. I’m poor. But I’m happy. I’m richer than I could ever imagine, and people can see it in my eyes when I talk to them.
“It’s going to be very emotional for me to talk, having lost my sister Lori this year. She was like my mom, my dad, my sister and my brother. So this year I went overboard. We got so much more stuff to donate. We’re so lucky. I think more people felt the emotion this year, we’re almost overwhelmed. We’re going to load up so many rooms at the VA.”
And that is service. Whenever I see Pete or speak to him on the phone, I ask him how he is and he always responds with the same line…
“I’m great! Too blessed to be depressed!”
The Veterans Crisis Line connects veterans and their families and friends 24/7 with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.