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When Connie Walker retired from the Navy after 23 years, she planned to go to law school.

But her son, Michael Segich, had just returned from serving with the Army during the Iraq War in 2003. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and schizophrenia, and struggled to find mental health services.

Walker gave up law school. Her son essentially became her client.

She fought the complicated veterans health care system to get him medical benefits, appropriate medication, support services and jobs he could do even with the cognitive disability he had developed.

Soon she was speaking out for other veterans with invisible wounds and developing programs to help them, which this year led her to be named Wisconsin Woman Veteran of the Year.

“These people need inclusion; they need acceptance,” Walker, 63, told the Journey Mental Health Center board this month during a presentation. “Without a present and engaged advocate, the system is simply too difficult to navigate.”

Segich, 39, has lived in psychiatric hospitals and group homes but today has his own apartment in the same complex as his mother on Madison’s West Side. He works as a scorekeeper at Keva Sports Center in Middleton and as a grocery bagger at Metcalfe’s Market Hilldale.

“If I didn’t have my mom or the other people advocating for me, I could very well be homeless,” he said.

Walker is a “tireless advocate” for veterans, said Daniel Zimmerman, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. “The state of Wisconsin is a better place to live for veterans because of people like her,” Zimmerman said in a statement announcing her award in September.

Scud missile attacks

The bond between Walker and Segich, the oldest of her two sons, intensified after he enlisted in the Army in June 2001. It was three months before the 9-11 terrorist attacks would change the course of many military lives.

As a child, Segich had moved around the country for his mother’s Navy posts. After getting a two-year college degree, he joined the Army as a truck driver so he could see more of the world.

In 2003, he spent seven months in Kuwait during the invasion of Baghdad. He wasn’t in combat, but he had to put on gas masks and other protective gear and spend hours in an underground bunker during more than two dozen scud missile attacks.

He also breathed in air filled with smoke from burning oil wells.

The experience led to flashbacks. When his unit returned home, Walker stayed with him at a hotel for a few days for the welcome back ceremony.

“He would wake up screaming,” she said. “It was obvious something was wrong.”

The Army began to administratively separate Segich, which could have left him without benefits. Walker pushed for physical and mental health exams.

He was diagnosed with three mental illnesses, deemed related to his service. He medically retired in October 2004 with 100 percent disability, a few months before Walker left the Navy as a captain.

The challenges weren’t over. Segich, living at the time in Maryland with Walker and her husband, Paul Kobs, would lock himself in the closet and sleep on the floor, she said. On hot summer days, he would wear a parka with the hood up.

Medication helped but slowed him down. After working at a grocery store for eight days, he was fired. He stopped taking his drugs, believing they were to blame for his performance. His psychosis got worse, causing him to fear going outside.

Moving to Wisconsin

In 2011, Walker and Kobs, who was born and raised in Merrill, bought a house in the central Wisconsin village of Iola. They figured a change of scenery might help, and Segich could get mental health services in nearby King, where a Wisconsin Veterans Home is located.

The services turned out to be inadequate, Walker said, and Segich moved into a group home in Madison. That wasn’t a good fit either, she said, as Segich continued to deteriorate.

She moved to Madison in 2013, with Kobs still in Iola, and she and Segich shared an apartment. He had taken four different medications with mixed results. Walker urged his doctors at Madison’s Veterans Hospital to try a fifth, clozapine. They agreed, and it worked well.

But when Segich went to Journey’s Yahara House for support services, as approved by the VA, he started getting bills from the VA. Walker wrote to U.S. Rep Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and then-U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood. Soon, the services were covered.

“As much as I think the Madison VA is the best hospital I’ve encountered, they bear watching, like anybody else,” Walker said.

Segich moved into his own apartment two years ago. About the same time, the VA helped him get the job at Keva. He started last month at Metcalfe’s, arranged through Yahara House.

When asked about his jobs, his face brightens. “When people give you a compliment, especially older people, it makes you feel really good about yourself,” he said.

Educating about veterans

As the interwoven lives of Walker and Segich seem to be approaching an equilibrium, she is bringing attention to the needs of other veterans whose scars are unseen.

She helped implement a VA program in Wisconsin to train clergy to reach out to veterans and know where to refer them.

At Journey, where she sits on the board, Walker started monthly sessions for mental health workers about topics affecting veterans, such as PTSD, moral injury and military sexual trauma.

She is trying to convince the UW School of Medicine and Public Health to add an elective unit about veterans for medical students.

After founding a National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate in southern Maryland several years ago, Walker is preparing to help lead NAMI Homefront, a program for caregivers of veterans with mental illness, in Madison. It will start in February.

Walker, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in adult education, may have been diverted from law school. But she’s assembling a convincing case that veterans who return with mental anguish from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan need more help.

“We’ve normalized these wars in this country,” she said. “And in doing so, these folks are slipping under the surface of the water.”

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.