NOBLESVILLE, Ind.– A local veteran is on a new mission these days to help student veterans and those who are struggling after serving our country.
Dave Closson grew up always wanting to serve. His father, a retired sergeant major and airborne ranger, served in Vietnam.
“He is just a walking, talking excellent role model. A man of integrity, and family man,” Closson said. “Growing up, I always wanted to be just like be dad.”
Closson joined the service at a young age. He joined the Illinois Army National Guard.
“I thought I could have the best of both worlds. I could serve and do all the fun Army stuff I knew I would love, but I could also have a civilian life,” he explained.
Closson was deployed during his junior year of college. He went overseas and fought as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his first week there, Closson said he was driving a Humvee when he and his fellow soldiers were hit with an IED.
“All of a sudden, I heard this just loud explosion and everything went black and I felt my body being thrown to the right,” Closson recalled. “The sound is kind of hard to describe, but it reminded me of a slow glass breaking. Finally, things started to appear and the truck was full of dust. The windows were shattered. Both of my tires on the driver’s side were flat. We were still trying to orient ourselves, like what just happened? We realized, ‘Hey, we just got blown up, we need to get out of the area in case it’s an ambush.’ So we pushed on and got on the radio, and started checking on everyone in the truck.”
Physically, Closson was ok. He said mentally and emotionally, he had prepared himself for the worst.
“But you can only prepare yourself so much for being blown up,” he said.
Closson told CBS4 there were several times he experienced “near-misses.”
“So, it wasn’t a direct hit to our Humvee or a motor didn’t land right next to us, but maybe 15-20 feet away,” he explained.
Closson spoke candidly about his time overseas. He said several of his fellow soldiers were wounded in battle. One person took his life while deployed.
When asked how he is able to relive those difficult moments, Closson said to him, it feels like another life ago.
“That was part of the job. I had mentally and emotionally prepared for combat and so going through combat, I knew it was a part of the job. I knew things like that could happen. Once I returned, having my father who was a Vietnam veteran and saw a lot of combat there, I had a good role model in my life. “Somebody that showed me that yes, events like that can happen to you, but they don’t have to change you. You can still live a very successful fulfilling life,” he went on.
Closson was discharged in May 2006. He returned to Illinois just in time to watch his friends and former classmates graduate from college. That was difficult for him, because he knew going back to school would mean having to start over with new people.
“When I started school that fall, I was older than all the other students,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I fit in. I’m older. I’ve got all these life experiences. I was also still dealing with some post-traumatic stress, hypervigilance, couldn’t sleep, and years later I found out I had an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury as well from the IED, so that presented its own sort of menu of challenges when it came to focusing on class and organization.”
Closson struggled both in class and socially. He began to drink alcohol.
“Quite frankly, the desire to fit in, the wanting to numb my feelings as well, led me to drinking,” he said. “I fell into that perceived norm of what the college experience is.”
Closson became known as “party Dave.”
“It became my identity and I didn’t like that. I struggled with it,” he admitted. “I had that stigma, that Army guy stigma, I’m strong. I’m tough. I can do this. I don’t need help. So, I didn’t share.”
Eventually, he started journaling. Closson wanted to start living with intention and purpose. He created a planner that modeled his routine while he was in the military.
“I like to start with the overlook, that 30,000 foot view,” he said, showing the planner to CBS4. “When I was in school, there were times where I found myself saying, ‘Oh man, midterms are next week.’ They snuck up on me because I wasn’t looking that far out.”
Closson also included a day-to-day planner with specific areas where he could jot down his short and long-term goals.
“You’ve got to have a clear picture of where you want to go so then you can build a path on how you’re going to get there,” he explained. “The planning sheet is actually based on the military op order. It’s something that most military veterans are used to. It’s how we plan a mission and plan to go out on patrol. It really starts with that goal.”
Closson started handing out the planner to other student veterans in Illinois. Then, it started to get national attention. In 2020, student veterans from across the country are using it.
“When I first joined, it was actually the first time I left home,” Stanford Blount, a fellow soldier, said. “It was a very scary experience to say the least.”
Blount has looked up to Closson for years. He, too, struggled when he was discharged from the service.
“Transitioning back to normal life, I didn’t have a schedule planned out,” he said. “I’m used to a scheduled life in the military and transitioning out of the military, I don’t have a schedule at all, so it was hard to get organized.”
Blount said he faced so many challenges, that his anxiety and depression took hold. He, too, relied on alcohol.
“It got bad to the point where I would have drill weekends and I would start slipping up and being late, to where I was late an hour and a half and then sometimes, it was late half the day,” he remembered. “
Blount’s wake up call came when he showed up late, yet again, to a drill weekend.
“I got yelled at and had to do a bunch of running,” he said. “Then, they had me fill out paperwork to demote me.”
Blount never ended up getting demoted, but said it was an eye-opening experience. He turned to Closson for help.
“Wow, I’m actually screwing up my life. I need to stop doing this,” he remembered thinking.
Blount stopped drinking as much and said he now plans out his day. He wakes up early, meditates, walks and stretches. He wants to move out of Illinois and eventually start a dog boarding business.
“I don’t let alcohol control my life anymore. I control it,” he said proudly.
Because Closson has touched so many people’s lives and continues to serve his country, just in a different way, he was recently recognized in the national Veteran of Foreign Wars #StillServing campaign. The campaign honors veterans who serve their community after active duty.
“I’m just doing my thing, being true to me, so it’s always flattering to be honored in such a fashion,” he said about the nomination.
When asked what he would tell other veterans who are struggling, he advised they seek help.
“Ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said.
He also suggested other veterans find their “why” and become regimented in their routines, like him.
“I’m very structured and intentional. There are sentiments of power and freedom that come from having routines and being disciplined. Folks might think, ‘well, if I’m going to be disciplined, that’s not going to be free. I’ve got strict routines, I’m not going to be free. But in all reality, it empowers you and gives you more control,” he said.