Peer Support for Iraq and Afghanistan (and other) Veterans
By Jim Driscoll, Ph.D., M.B.A., Vietnam combat vet
A Publication of the National Institute for Peer Support (www.NIPSPeerSupport.org)
9211 Topeka St., Behesda, MD 20817
Table of Contents
1. Introduction: Welcome to Iraq-Afghanistan era Vets
2. A Realistic Look at the Situation of Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan
3. The History of Vets4Vets (V4V)—A Successful Peer Support Community.
4. Assumptions of V4V
5. One-on-one Listening Turns and Mentors: The Simplest Element in Social Support
6. Peer Support Groups: The Basic Vets4Vets Support Group at a Workshop or At Home
7. Topic Discussion Groups: The Second Function of Peer Support: Identifying Problems and Sharing Practical Information
8. Action Groups: The Third Function of Peer Support: Taking Action
.9. Residential Weekend (or Shorter) Workshops
10. Workshops for Couples
11. Workshops for Women, LGBTQ and Other Constituencies
12. Children and Extended Families: Peer Support Helps
13. How to Build a Local V4V Peer Support Community: One-On-One Outreach
14. Bridging the Great Disconnect: Finding Services for Returning Veterans
15. Self-Medicating Behaviors
16. Building a National Peer Support Community of Returning Veterans
17. Dealing with Conflict Among Returning Vets
18. An Invitation to Iraq and Afghanistan (and other) Veterans
19. Our Personal Stories
This is Vets4Vets (V4V)-
In a quiet room about twenty Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans sit in a circle and listen as one of the members reads from a simple meeting format which describes what the guidelines for the gathering will be. After he has finished, the remaining time which has been allotted for the meeting is divided by the number of vets in the room. Someone sets the timer and the first veteran begins to speak.
He was an Army scout sniper, trained and willing to kill. It was, after all, his job. He has seen things that most people only know from movies. Today, among his peers, he is able to talk about his experiences in great detail in a way that he would not be able to with others who had no concept of what military life and war are like. Even though his family and friends outside the military want very much to help, there are things he just does not feel comfortable saying to them. In this safe environment, he is able to set aside the trained-to-kill warrior and allow himself to express deep feelings of sadness that are inevitable from having seen war and he is able to cry.
His fellow vets simply listen with open ears and hearts without judgment until it is time for the next vet to speak.
She served as an MP in the combat zone. Officially barred from “combat duty,” every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, women service members drive vehicles on roads where IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and other hazards abound. When it is time for this particular vet to speak, she shares her story of pressing her M-16 into the chest of the Iraqi man who insisted on getting too close to the vehicle she has been tasked with guarding. She describes the horrible things she saw during her deployment.
She also speaks of fighting a “double war” as she talks about the sexual harassment she had endured. After a few minutes of speaking, she pauses. Then with great difficulty, shares the story of her sexual assault by a fellow soldier. Surrounded by attentive and compassionate fellow veterans at this Vets4Vets meeting, it is safe for her to express an avalanche of rage until ultimately the tears fall.
Another veteran speaks about the frustration he has felt in trying to return to the civilian workforce. He speaks of a general feeling of uneasiness and of how he has not been able to keep one job more than a few weeks since his return.
Yet another veteran shares his fears that his wife will make good on her promise to leave him if he is not able to stop drinking.
A young medic talks about how much she loved the Iraqi children and what a positive impact they had on her. She beams with pride when she talks about ways that she was able to help them.
On it goes until each veteran has had an opportunity to speak. No one comments on anything that is said, even after the meeting has ended. We just listen. We understand.
Through this experience many of us have learned to live in right relation to the emotions that we experienced as members of the military. We share the joy and good memories and also share some of the things that have been more difficult. Notice that we do not say that we have learned to forget, but just that we have found a way to not be controlled by things that at once seemed overwhelming.
This was the first Vets4Vets (V4V) Workshop held in Miami, Florida, in December, 2005.
There were a very few atttending that workshop who had actually served together in the same unit, but most were completely unknown to each other. All had two things in common though; all had all served in the US military since 9/11 and all had an intention to help not only themselves, but also other OIF/OEF vets (“Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom” as these were then called.) As a Vietnam combat veteran, I led the workshop and there were also a couple of other older veterans, one from the first Gulf War and another Vietnam veteran. They came as special allies to the more recent veterans and to support them in this new mission of helping each other. Both of these older vets had learned a lot in their time since returning from their wars about what works when trying to help veterans and what generally doesn’t. To these and the many other older veterans who have lent their support along the way, the younger vets offered sincere gratitude.
To many attending that first workshop, the process seemed very unusual. A technique which actually encouraged vets to feel our feelings around the war and to express them openly was very much counter to what we were used to. At times it felt ridiculous and even embarrassing but we all had such a deep commitment to each other, we were willing to “give it a go.” One thing most of us have realized is the more you let yourself go with the process and the longer you’ve been doing it, the more natural it seems and the benefits of the form of peer support that we’ve come to use are very evident over time.
Over the next six years, in groups of thirty or so, we held 84 more of these Vets4Vets weekend workshops.They were flown from all over the country to various locations just to be with their brothers and sisters, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan era or the “Global War On Terror” (GWOT) as it used to be called, who can understand their experiences. Many continued to get together regularly in local meetings in various cities, over forty at our peak, once every week or two or once a month to continue this process. Many stayed in touch with each on a one-on-one basis in person, by phone, by email, by text messaging or social networking (Face book was popular) some on a regular, weekly basis (including conference calls set up by our national office) and some just have agreements to take a call from a buddy, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on the nights when things get really hard.
We older vets know this process of peer support works! There is much literature about peer support for almost every other group under the sun (E. M. Kyrouz, K. Humphreys and C.Loomis, 2002). If you have a problem with drugs and alcohol, if you overeat or have trouble with your finances, if you got a divorce, if you have a disease, if you have problems with your pet—there are peer support groups for you and others in your situation. It is a proven fact that there is something very helpful about getting together with other people who are going through the same experience and talking about it. Hearing about what they are going through helps as does talking about it with someone who can relate.
You can review many of the scientific studies of the impact of peer support groups in the References Section and we have our own empirical studies which we will review later (e.g. A. MacEachron and N. Gustavsen, 2012), but for now, just take our word for it. Every one of the more than 1,500 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who went to our workshops liked being with other vets of this era and got something out of the process. Most talked about things they had never shared with anyone before, not their partners, not their civilian friends, not their families, not their therapists. They found out that they were not the only ones (who couldn’t sleep, who swerved when they drove under overpasses, who choked their partner in the night, etc.) They found out they were not “crazy.” They were just having what the Veterans Administration (VA) calls “a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, i.e. combat.” They made real connections with other veterans they met at the workshop and for that reason, they stay in touch!
For many, their lives get better after they began to associate with Vets4Vets.
Some went back to school. Others got jobs. Some of their marriages got a lot better. Some got into recovery from serious addictions. Many finally went to the Veterans Administration to get the benefits they had earned—after being urged by a fellow veteran in Vets4Vets—or to a Vet Center or another government agency or nonprofits to get additional support from a trained therapist.
Returning veterans came together as Vets4Vets (V4V) because it is often not easy to talk about what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Loved ones just wanted to know that the vets were home and ready to “get on with life.” They did not want to hear that for many “home” was still half-way around the world where some best friends still were, where things were simple and predictable, where one still felt like there was a job to do. Family and friends didn’t know that the vets were thinking about reenlisting, loved ones didn’t understand when the vets still swerved their cars when going under an underpass in the United States (as was life-saving in Iraq to avoid the grenades often dropped from the bridges over head—or to avoid a box in the road with a potential bomb inside.) They don’t understand when the vets jump at loud noises or don’t like watching the evening news. They don’t know why vets get angry or want to spend time alone. They don’t understand when vets drink too much, too often. Some had resorted to all sorts of self-destructive behaviors or had even considered suicide. Even the best had bad days, bad weeks or even bad months. For some, things hadn’t been going very well at all since returning home from deployment(s).
There were vets for whom things had been going pretty well. Not all necessarily had been having trouble. However, even after deployments ended, the vets remained committed to being there for fellow service members and Vets4Vets was a great way to do that!
It is true that many people do care and try to be supportive. Often family and friends would try to be there for the vets when they came home. With very good intentions, loved ones asked questions about the war but couldn’t understand why the vets were slow to talk about it. The vets found it very difficult to talk about some of the more troubling things they remember. Sometimes, if the did share some of the things it was hard to talk about, the reaction actually made things worse. Most at one time or another has been asked the question, “How many people did you kill?” The vets know that there is no right answer to that question! For those who did kill, it felt like being asked about a hunting trip and for those who didn’t, the thinly-veiled disappointment left a feeling of being less of a veteran. When people brought their politics into the matter, it often left these vets feeling disappointed and angry. For most of them, military service had everything to do with commitment and nothing to do with politics.
A Word on the Using the First Person
Before going on, let me say a word about how I will talk in this book. Since I learned the tools of peer support with people of all ages, including a number of Vietnam veterans, and since so much of what we did in Vets4Vets applies to veterans of any era and since so much of this book reflects things I learned together with younger veterans, I will use the first person–”I” and “we” throughout unless something specifically refers to Iraq-Afghanistan vets. Veterans of all conflicts need the tools of peer support. While Vets4Vets focused on a particular generation of veterans from the United States, I truly believe the lessons from this very successful project apply to us all.
A Realistic Look at the Situation
While the exact numbers are in dispute, most veterans’ advocates believe that more of us Vietnam veterans took our own lives than the nearly sixty thousand who were killed by the enemy—some say two or three times as many of us killed ourselves. It is no different, probably worse for veterans of this era. By the “end” of these recent wars, more Iraq-Afghanistan veterans were killing themselves each year than were killed by the enemy. They are on track to match or surpass that sad statistic from they sometimes call “our fathers” war (Indeed, I was surprised at how many of these returning veterans were in fact the sons and daughters of us Vietnam veterans.)
By now, we have all heard the disheartening news stories about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. You may have read the story of the young veteran who finally got his courage up to take his pain to the local Veterans Administration only to be told to go home
and come back in three weeks—and then took his own life. Or the veteran who took his gun and shot two people who were making too much noise outside his apartment. But these few highly publicized cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Like the veterans of every war, too many of this generation are turning to alcohol and other drugs to dull the pain, they are, having trouble finding and keeping jobs (the unemployment rate for Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans is higher than for our non-veteran age mates), already they are turning up at the homeless shelters much sooner than did we Vietnam veterans after our war and all to many of them are choosing suicide. Indeed, for some time suicide was the single largest non-combat cause of death in Iraq. And remember, you don’t read about every suicide; indeed, the authorities are always reluctant to describe a death as a suicide. Suicide is not overed by mitary insurance, so there is a tendency to avoid that diagnosis. Moreover, do you count our young friend who had a drinking problem and drove her car the wrong way down the biggest highway in the state late one night as one did? We don’t want to be like our fathers’ generation
The newest of our nation’s veterans know that these problems are real and pressing but often are not from hearing it in the news. However, those problems are evident in their lives and in the lives of their friends.
As of 2011, when we compiled this review of the literature, over 2.2 million had have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and about 1.22 million had separated from active duty, according to the VA (R. D. Kaplan, 2011). This does not count those still in the Guard or Reserve, nor those on active duty, nor family members who often suffer as well along with us. Many more have served since then and continue to serve.
For fully thirty per cent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the comprehensive Research and Development (RAND) study reported these psychological injuries reach the level of a diagnosis for PTSD, serious mental illness or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) (T. Tanielian and L. H. Jaycox, 2008.) These numbers increase dramatically for the Guard and Reserve and for those who serve multiple deployments. Between 15% and 30% in other studies experience PTSD. Fully fifteen percent show the symptoms of what is called “full-fledged” PTSD, a highly-specific mental condition requiring a number of exact causes and symptoms including intense fear, horror and feelings of helplessness. According to that same study, fewer than half even with these serious symptoms gets appropriate medical care. Left uncared for, many less serious symptoms can have serious impacts.
This is not to mention the many thousands who do not yet now warrant a full-blown diagnosis, but know (or gradually come to know over time) that they have “issues” they need to deal with, “issues” related to their military service. These impacts of military service are especially true for those who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but plenty of others have been subjected to trauma in military training and service outside of combat sufficient to give “issues” to men—and especially women—who have not been deployed to an active combat zone. A truck can roll over you in training and a live round can kill you. Frankly, if you have spent a day in basic training and had that drill instructor screaming in your face, you are welcome at Vets4Vets.
Every veteran who has served in combat will experience what our Vets4Vets Advisory Committee Member and noted veterans’ psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay calls the “psychological injuries of war.” The Walter Reed Institute of Research identifies the following negative impacts of “battle mind”: withdrawal, control, inappropriate aggression, hypervigilance, “locked and loaded” (with weapons), anger/detachment, secretiveness, guilt, aggressive driving, and conflict (with others) and misuse of alcohol. (Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 2006.)
As a result of these psychological injuries of war, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are already committing suicide at a higher rate than even veterans of the Vietnam War. In 2011, Robert D. Kaplan, a supporter of the war assessed its costs in the following paragraphs (Kaplan, op cit.) In 2009 alone, there were 334 military suicides. Marine Corps suicides were then 24 per 100,000, compared to 20 in the comparable civilian population. According to the VA, twenty-two veterans a day die by their own hand (of course many of them older vets.) As for active duty troops, Nancy Berglass, Senior Non-Resident Fellow at CNAS, the Director of the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund, and Principal of Berglass Community Investment Consulting. saying they are taking their own lives at the rate of one every 36 hours. According to Kaplan, “More than 100,000 soldiers today are on prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and 40,000 are thought by the Army to be using drugs illicitly. At least one in six service members is on some form of psychiatric drug.
Returning veterans have always caused problems for our spouses and partners and our children as well. Again according to Kaplan, “There have been around 25,000 cases of domestic violence in military families in the past decade: 20 percent of married troops returning from deployment are planning a divorce. Problems in family relationships are reportedly four times higher following a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. In families where one of the spouses is deployed, instances of child abuse are 40 percent higher than the norm. In 2009 alone, 74,646 criminal offenses were committed by soldiers.”
Returning veterans rely on alcohol and other drugs for self-medication of these symptoms and report very high level of substance abuse.
They experience unemployment rates in excess of the very high rates for their civilian peers even during the Great Recession, despite their training and experience. For example, young male veterans of the Iraq War had an unemployment rate of 21.6 percent in 2009; more than double that of the general population (Kaplan, R.D., op. cit.)
Veterans for America, according to Kaplan, estimates that 10,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were already homeless.
On the positive side, when veterans are treated for their psychological injuries, we are above average employees and leaders in their communities.
A Brief History of Vets4Vets:
The Founder’s Perspective
Vets4Vets was arguably the most successful, non-governmental program ever undertaken to help U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans deal with the stress of combat and lead more productive lives. From 2005 to 2011, V4V brought a total of 1,500 returning veterans to 85 residential, weekend workshops in sixteen different states to learn the skills of peer support and enjoy its benefits. Some veterans attended more than one workshop, bringing the total number of individual veterans attending the workshops to 2,500! Participants in these workshops returned home to set up forty local peer support groups attended by another 1600 returning veterans. By our peak in 20122, we hired and trained a staff of ten returning veterans who provided peer support directly to another thousand returning veterans one on one in addition to setting up local support groups and weekend workshops. Six of the young veterans used the materials in this book to lead at least one weekend workshop themselves. They led twenty in all. Most of those were led by one young veteran, Abel Moreno, who served as Deputy Director of Vets4Vets. Indeed, he contributed so much to this program that we sometimes referred to him as the co-founder. In addition, returning veterans from their own constituencies led two weekend workshops exclusively for returning women veterans and another three for LGBTQ retuning veterans. A non-veteran expert in peer support led a third workshop for women vets. Making a total of six “constituency” workshops.
According to evaluation results published in the peer-reviewed literature, participants in these workshops reported significant decreases in the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) using the standard professional measures used by the Veterans Administration (A. MacEachron and N. Gustavsson, op. cit..) They also showed significant increases in measures of Self-efficacy and Social Connectedness, again using reliable and validated measures from the professional literature. Both these dimensions have been associated with positive psychological functioning in a range of empirical studies. These three measures were recommended by a professional evaluation research team (Pima Prevention Partnership) who observed several of our workshops and conducted focus groups with a number of workshop participants. These later evaluators drew on our original evaluation by the Center for Community Support and Research at Wichita State (2009)
Not only did the published research validate the effectiveness of our workshops, their data also confirmed the steps in our theory of change, Vets who attended our workshops were more likely to believe that listening to each other without interruptions was a helpful tool; that it was important to keep these conversations confidential; the expressing feelings was helpful rather than keeping them to themselves and that using drugs and alcohol got in the way of this process.
In addition to this rigorous research, participants in the workshops gave glowing personal testimonials. Again and again, veterans described talking about incidents from their combat tours which they have never discussed with anyone else, not their families and not their therapists. After almost every workshop, veterans reported that the workshop had literally saved their lives.
In some ways, these results should come as no surprise. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, a member of the V4V Advisory Committee told us so when he joined. “What a combat veteran needs most on his return, Dr. Shay told us “is the chance to talk with another combat veteran.” Dr. Shay treated combat veterans for over twenty years in the Veterans Administration. He captured the essence of PTSD for many of us with his bestselling book, Achilles in Vietnam. He was honored with a MacArthur Foundation “genius
“ grant. Dr. Charles Hoge, another psychiatrist and the head of PTSD research for the Army at Walter Reed confirms this observation and joined Dr. Shay on our Advisory Committee as did a number of VA and non-VA psychologists.
So how did Vets4Vets come to be? In the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001) I’ve left my personal story to the end of the book along with the story of an Iraq vet who helped me write this book. Our hope is to add other stories from other veterans who took part in Vets4Vets. Here is the short version.
First, why focus on veterans. The short answer is that I am a veteran and care about veterans. Like many Vietnam veterans, I turned against the war as a Marine Corps Infantry Platoon Commander in combat west of Danang during 1968 to ’69. It was not political. I just watched too many of my fellow Marines get killed capturing and recapturing the same piece of land—which we called “Dodge City.” On my fourth day in country, I slowly walked past the bodies of eight Marines from the next platoon to mine who had been killed in ambush about a hundred yards from me the day before. Three weeks later, three men in my platoon died there under my command in a similar ambush. On my return to our Hill after that ambush, I was incensed to find out that another Marine had died in the third platoon from our company a couple of weeks before I arrived—in the same part of Dodge City. Twelve Marines in six weeks taking and retaking the same small piece of land. From then on, I became a very “defense-oriented” platoon commander. I did not want any more members of my Platoon to die because some general decided it was time to go back to Dodge City—but not finish the job.
When I returned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, I didn’t get involved in the anti-war movement (which may not have existed there at the time), but I did file a formal complaint (“requesting mast” in the naval tradition of the Marine Corps) against the Second Division’s treatment of African-heritage Marines—based on the stories told me by members of the battalion basketball team I was coaching. That complaint ended outside the Division Commander’s office when two full colonels on his staff told a racist joke for me to hear while I waited: “What do you think about Black Marines? Great idea, everyone should own one.” Since the General’s staff felt free to make racist jokes in front of someone making an official complaint, I decided that internal pressure within the Marine Corps were likely to succeed.
It took me thirteen years, an MBA from Harvard, a Ph.D. from Cornell (both in “Organizational Behavior” which became my obsession) and seven years of teaching at MIT’s Sloan School or Management, (where I failed to get tenure in part because I spent so much time reading to figure out how I and our nation got into Vietnam), before I decided to spend the rest of my life in social change. I did not want any more young men to die in war, especially ones as deceiptful as Vietnam—not to menion the three to five million Indochinese who also died.
My focus on peer support is equally easy. Two peer-support programs have shaped my life—one a recovery program for compulsive overeaters, the other “co-counseling” (Reevaluation Counseling or ‘R.C.”, see H. Jackins, 1962, 1965 or www.rc.org.)
As to peer support for recovery, like many young men, I started blackout binge drinking during high school and continued through college and military training. On my return home from combat, I gradually “switched addictions” and turned to compulsive eating as do many veterans. I put on seventy pounds in the first couple of years. Eventually, I found that peer-based recovery program.
As to co-counseling, I learned it when I was deciding to quit being a college professor to work full time in the peace movement in 1982; I knew that I needed another way to relate to volunteers other than my habits as a Marine Officer and college professor, who may well have had more power over my graduate students than I did over my Marines.
However, it took a while to focus my social-change work on peer support. Despite helping win some significant victories including stopping U.S. Nuclear testing in Nevada and winning the full public funding of state elections in Arizona (where I lived for thirty years), I gradually became dissatisfied with the overall pace of social change. Yet every week, I would watch dramatic individual gains in both my peer-based overeaters program and co-counseling. Moreover, some of the basic tools were the same in both programs, most importantly, the practice of taking uninterrupted turns listening to each other with encouragement to express feelings, even deep ones. Over twenty years, I became convinced that bringing more of the peer-support tools from these two programs into social change might lead to more progress.
So, in 2004, I set up the non-profit organization now known as the National Institute for Peer Support for that purpose. I could just decide to set up a non-profit in large part because I had always raised money in my social change work, some$28 million for the projects I was personally involved in. I credit co-counseling for the determination to take on and persist at fundraising when so many people around me refused. The Institute experimented with a number of small projects to spread the tools of peer support—with school teachers, with poor African-heritage mothers in low income neighborhoods and, of course, because I was a vet myself, with returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan
My only contact with this new generation of veterans was through the peace movement where I had worked. Therefore early in 2005, I flew to Fort Bragg, NC, and held a day long raining for ten returning veterans who were involved in the early stages of setting up Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans Against the War. I charged them with returning to their home communities and setting up a non-political peer-support group for their peers, Later, I raised the funds to pay each of $500 a month, However, only one of the ten, Kelly Dougherty, was able to succeed. She set up a support group in Colorado Springs winch met weekly for a year and then every two weeks for another year. It only ended when she left for Philadelphia to become the first Executive Director of the national organization of anti-war veterans, Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans Against the War (www.IVAW.org.)
Given the failure of the other nine trainees(in fairness, due to the low level of guidance and support I was then able to provide), I deiced to try something different. I raised enough funding to try one of the weekend workshops which are so effective in co-counseling. That is the workshop with which this book begins
That first workshop worked so well, that I set out to raise funds for more. I was able to raise enough for several in 2006 and then I got the phone call every Executive Director/fundraiser in social change dreams about. Nancy Berglass, head of the Iraq-Afghanistan Deployment Impactd Fund, called me up one day and said she had herd indirectly from several veterans who had attended these workshops and wanted to know if I needed money to do more! Nancy represented David Gelbaum, a hedge fund manager who had given $250 million to help returning veterans. He must be the ultimate guilty liberal. His other two major philanthropies wore the ACLU and the Sierra Club! He really did believe that we could oppose the war and support the warrior. Nancy guided me through a proposal which got us $556,000 and within six months I had the good sense to ask for and get another $600,000. Almost 1.2 million dollars in total. Over the next five years, I was able to raise triple that amount from foundations, wealthy donors and the State of Texas with major in-kind support from Air Compassion for Veterans. We were able to organize those 85 workshops such that no veteran had to pay for his or her travel, room or board—in the generally comfortable accommodations of religious retreat centers—two to a room with private baths. I felt these vets had spent enough time in bunk beds!
Unfortunately, V4V fell victim to its own success. While we were able to continue to raise funds in many localities to pay for our workshops, especially in Texas which has its own lottery to fund programs to veterans, I was not able to raise the funds to support our staff of five at our central office in Tucson, AZ where I lived. I warned the Board and staff, including three returning veterans at our central office, that we were facing this central office funding shortfall, starting in 2009 when the Gelbaum funding ended. I repeated these warnings and one of the three returning veterans took another job with a similar veterans organizations. Finally, in 20011, when a number of grants failed to materialize simultaneously, I told the Executive Committee of the Board that we would have to close the Tucson office and build on the base of funding, staff and volunteers we had established in Texas. I stopped taking a salary myself. Unfortunately, the whole Board, composed mostly of returning veterans, countered my proposal and fired me instead of closing the Tucson office. As might be expected, the young veterans in the central office were no more able to rise funding for their salaries than I had been. V4V as as a separate non-profit stopped organizing workshops after my departure and finally announced an official end to its operation in June, 212.
As you can imagine, this was a painful period for all of us. Like many veterans dealing with the injuries of war, we did not handle the breakup well. Personally, I gave up working with veterans for three years—except for a couple of workshops I helped lead for veterans and allies inside the co-counseling community. It has been a lingering sadness given the good we were able to do that I have not been doing work with returning (and older) veterans.
However, as you will recall, I set up this nonprofit to spread these ideas of peer support very broadly across many social change issues. Given the success of our veterans program, even before our breakup, I had decided that it was time to add a second major program. By that time, there were several veterans who were already ruining most of the current V4V workshops, so I had the time to devote to starting a new project.
I decided that the climate crisis was the next big challenge. I decided to bring the tools of peer support to the activists in that movement. Frankly, I chose this issue for its political appeal. It obviously affected the whole population—and like a good fundraiser, I knew that there was lots of money to fund an environmental program. It was only after I began to read more deeply about the climate crisis that I realized the immediacy and the scope of the climate crisis. Indeed, I had already scheduled my first climate change workshop for Tucson in August, 2011—and then, due to our breakup, I found myself with lots of time to put into the climate project.
Since 2011, I have focused full time on bringing these tools into the climate movement. I have set up peer support groups in AZ, MD and DC , set up support groups in person and by telephone for Citizens Climate Lobby, a national climate organization (www.CitizensClimateLobby.org) and conducted a series of training for the Great March for Climate Action (www.climatemarch.org), fifty dedicated activist who walked from LA to DC from March to November, 2014.
What is different this time with the Climate movement, based on my reading and the V4V experience, is that I am doing this all with volunteers. No permanently paid staff, including myself. There is a long history of experience and research which questions the value of relying on permanently paid staff to do social change (Driscoll, J.W., 2014.) Fortunately, I now receive Social Security and my wife has a good pension as a retired teacher. It is slower, but I am convinced that this volunteer based approach to building social change moments is correct.
However, I have never given up the dream of building a peer support community for returning veterans. By coincidence, when I attended the huge Climate March in NYC in September, 2014, I got talking with the Executive Director of Veterans for Peace (the organization for anti-war veterans from all eras.) He was trying to figure out how to support returning veterans better because one of the IVAW leaders had just committed suicide. Indeed, since he and I talked another suicide by an W IVAorganizational leader had followed quickly in his stead. I am now in discussions with the VFP Board to explore an all-volunteer peer support project for retiring veterans. In the meantime, I am taking the time to finish this manuscript which I had been working on for a couple of years before the end of V4V in 2011.
Unfortunately, this volume is not the same glowing success story as when I began writing, with lots of funding to hold our workshops and a staff of ten returning veterans.
However, I want the basic tools of V4V to be in the hands of returning veterans—indeed, all veterans everywhere. That is why I am now finishing this book.
As will be detailed in this book, peer support is rock simple. The basic tool is for two veterans to take timed turns listening to each other talk about their experiences in combat and the military without interruption, in confidence, and with encouragement to express their feelings even deep ones. It’s that simple.
The two peer support communities to which I referred above have developed certain assumptions and ground rules drawn from co-counseling and peer-based recovery which make this easier. As Dr. Shay emphasized to me, this structure is important. The idea of getting angry veterans together to share their feelings is not necessarily the answer. Especially over alcohol. Think Hitler and the Brownshirts. The structures and assumptions required to guide this process are laid out in this manual.
I invite you to “steal this book”: as peace and environmental activists Abbie Hoffman said in the title of his own book. The National Institute for Peer Support is not trying to make money. We are using a Common Dreams copyright. All you have to do is just give us credit if you write about us. I am not trying to make money on this. Indeed, I now question the wisdom of raising that $28 million—and the almost one million of it that went to me as salary over thirty years (averaging about $30,000 per year)!
So here is the result of those six years, three million dollars and countless person-years of effort to set up peer support for about 4,000 returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. This book includes everything you need to know to set up peer support for yourselves and other veterans. Several of us V4V alumni are happy to assist you by phone or internet. The three basic building blocks of V4V are the weekend workshops (which can be cut back to one day or even a short class), the small peer-support group and the basic one-on-one listening turn (with or without the development of a mentoring relationship.) All this and more will be presented below. However, given the two traditions from which I learned peer support, it is important to being with our assumptions. These assumptions are a crucial part of the structure that keeps veterans peer support on the right track.
Assumptions of Vets4Vets
We’ve all heard that assumptions are bad. There’s no need to repeat the old adage about what happens when you assume. However, there are actually some cases where it is advantageous to make some assumptions. Before going into the mechanics of Vets4Vets, it is important to present the set of assumptions which underlie our work. Indeed, this basic information, essentially a set of assumptions—may be the most important part of V4V. Like everything else in V4V, these assumptions are derived from the long tradition of peer support. While not every such community relies on exactly the same assumptions, there have many things in common. Like many other peer support communities, we repeat the basics of these assumptions in every meeting of V4V. Indeed, if every veteran coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan could hear about and accept these assumptions, our lives would go ever so much more smoothly.
It is important to repeat these understandings, no matter how innocent and commonsensical they appear. People do make different assumptions about how human beings behave. Indeed, human beings have gone to war for thousands of years, at least in part about these different beliefs about how the world works. We do not want these disagreements to creep into Vets4Vets. Therefore we take time at each of our workshops to present a basic set of assumptions which we ask every participant in V4V to accept and act on—at least while they are in a V4V setting or interacting with another member of V4V.
These are not terribly controversial assumptions and thousands of us have adopted them for our V4Vwork and found them useful in those settings, and for many of us beyond our meetings as well. Very similar assumptions have been accepted by many thousands in similar peer support communities around the world. We invite you to consider these assumptions; but we do not want to spend time in V4V gatherings arguing about them. They are drawn from the large body of experience with peer support communities although they are not approved by any one of them. They are what we have found useful. We are not trying to become psychotherapists or philosophers. However, we find that if we do not state our assumptions, then all kinds of difficulties arise later.
Indeed, one of our key advisers has pointed out that part of the reason so many foundations were skeptical about funding us at first was because they did not understand the extent to which we go to establish a strict structure of positive norms for our Vets4Vets meetings. By emphasizing these assumptions at every V4V gathering—and enforcing them, we create a space of safety, sobriety and support. We want a veteran to know what to expect when entering any V4V activity.
Here are the assumptions that we make:
1. WE ASSUME THAT VETS ARE GOOD. The first V4V assumption is simple –that each veteran, and indeed, every human being is inherently good, on all the dimensions we can think of, to an extent well beyond our current conceptions. We are loving, intelligent, powerful, decisive, cooperative, creative, etc. No matter what we might have done in the heat of combat, we are still good people at our core, deserving of treatment and respect as such. One aspect of that natural goodness is the ability to process literally billions of bits of information at every moment—all the details around us the sights, the sounds and the smells. Based on that information, we are capable of choosing a flexible, new response that is most appropriate to each new situation.
2. WE ASSUME THAT VETS GOT HURT. The only reason we—or any other human–do not function on that high level as extraordinarily good and intelligent people at all times is because of ways we have been hurt. In order to train us, our drill sergeants had to be harsh. They used language which we now get in trouble for using in civilian life. Military service itself was even harsher; long hours of hard and sometimes dangerous work, even longer hours of boredom. Combat brought its own special damage. Even if we were lucky enough to avoid physical injury or death, we are constantly on edge. Let’s be honest. We were scared! We were often exhausted. When our friends were attacked or killed, we were furious. As many of us phrase it for ourselves, “PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” In order to function under combat conditions, we adopted what the Veterans Administration sometimes calls “battle mind” or “combat appropriate skills.” We listed those impacts of combat identified by the U. S. Army research team at Walter Reed as “battle mind” above.
We had to develop a new set of behaviors or habits like hyper-vigilance and suspicion to survive in combat. These habits are largely counterproductive in most civilian jobs or family life. In the civilian population—something similar happens to almost all of us at some time. Sometimes, we are hurt physically beginning with physical “discipline” in our childhood. More often we were damaged psychologically by criticism and rejection, much of it by people we loved who said it was “for our own good.” Vets4Vets, and most peer support communities, believe that the only reason people ever act badly to one another is because they were first hurt themselves. We are still our lovable selves underneath.
3. WE ASSUME THAT WHEN VETS GET HURT OR DEVELOP THESE HABITS, THEY STOP PROCEESING INFORMATION NORMALLY. The way this process of setting up good vets or anyone else to do inappropriate or bad things works can be thought of quite simply. In tough times in combat or anytime we as human beings are being hurt either physically or psychologically, our usually magnificently functioning brains stop working to a large extent. When we are being hurt physically or psychologically that magnificent mechanism shuts down. Information about that situation comes in and just sits there unanalyzed. All the sights, sounds and other details of the situation sit there in a clump. For us veterans, military service and war is an extreme example of this assumption. It leaves us with many such leftover clumps where our thinking is impaired. Many of us believed some of those awful things our drill sergeants yelled at us. Others have vivid memories of friends killed beside us or the bodies of dead children along with tons of confusion, anger and sadness sitting there waiting to distort our reactions to current situations.
4. WE ASSUME THAT WE SOMETIMES ACT BADLY BASED ON POORLY PROCESSED INFORMATION. When another situation similar enough to the one where we got hurt comes up, that clump of unprocessed information can lead us to choose to behave in one of two unproductive ways. Either we rigidly reenact our role as victim, e.g. acting scared, going passive, or we take on the other role of perpetrator in this new, but familiar situation, and seek to hurt the other person in the way we were hurt. It is probably true that we have some split-second choice in the matter and decide to reenact that old situation in hopes of getting to bring up and deal with the feelings we had back then when we were getting hurt, but our choice happens very quickly and usually feels like no choice at all. For too many of us, we have caused ourselves and our loved ones great harm by reacting to some current situation as if it was the old military/combat memory. We use profane language with our family or snap at them when they do the slightest thing that upsets us. We isolate ourselves with those disturbing memories—or we do anything we can to avoid them. We sometimes even become violent with the people we love. Far too many of us have ended up in violent “accidents’ or confrontations with law enforcement officials.
5. WE ASSUME THAT WE CAN REPROCESS THAT INFORMATION—IF SOMEONE WILL LISTEN. The good news is that we can regain our ability to function well, even in situations similar to the ones where we have been hurt in the past. All we have to do is find someone who will listen to us while we tell the story of how we got hurt, and tell it over and over again. During the process, when the emotions come up, we simply express them in the safe environment and good things start to happen. Just as our physical body has a tendency toward health, so does our emotional “body.” Not that we don’t ever need medical help; sometimes we do. But our minds (like our physical bodies) “want” to be healthy. All we need to do usually is create a situation conducive for that healing to take place. One of the great misconceptions by our families and friends is that we will always act the way we do the first year we come back from combat. That is simply not true. For almost all of us, almost all of the damage done to our values, attitudes and beliefs is temporary. We will not always react profanely—or violently—at the slightest provocation. We will not always carry this “battle mind.” The key to getting our “civilian-appropriate” skills back is almost always finding someone who is willing to listen to us as we go back and tell those stories of what happened to us, of what we did. Unfortunately, many of the details of those stories are hard for non-veterans to listen to. Full-color descriptions of a burned and rotting corpse are just not that appealing. Our families and friends may not be up to the long hours it may take to reprocess those stories and file them away as simple, potentially useful information which we may use in future situations. For some of us, a good psychotherapist—whatever else he or she may do in addition in terms of analysis, insight and training—can play that basic role of listening to us. Many of us would prefer that the other person be a veteran who has gone through similar experiences—ideally in the same places and times that we have. No offense, but better an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran for other veterans of that era than a Vietnam veteran.
6. WE ASSUME THAT EXPRESSING OUR FEELINGS IS KEY TO REPROCESSING.
Our Advisory Committee Member and psychiatrists, Dr. Charles Hoge in his important book refers to the need to identify the primary emotions we are feeling and process them fully. In the peer support world, we have noted that this processing often involves visible, external, physiological processes such as crying, laughing, trembling, perspiring, blushing, etc.. In the peer support world, we do not think that it is these external processes that are healing, but something deeper in the way the brain functions. The external processes appear to be just markers, probably left over from some evolutionary or divinely creative process (depending on our perspective.) They do, however, help us know when we or someone else is engaged in that deeper healing process. Many insights come after the telling and repeated telling of the story of our hurt, expressing our deepest feelings about them and after these physiological processes have been expressed. It is probably simpler just to say, “It’s OK to cry.” In the language of other schools of thought and everyday life, if you take the time to “process your feelings” with another person who doesn’t interrupt, and doesn’t get in the way of your expressing your feelings (indeed, even encourages you), you will think more clearly afterward and be able to make decisions more easily and productively.
7. FOR OUR PUPOSES, WE ASSUME THERE ARE ONLY 3 MAJOR FEELINGS.
It is helpful for us to have a simple model of what is going on in as we listen to each other and for that model to be consistent from one Vets4Vets meeting to the other. That way we can always know what to expect when we come to a meeting. Of course in the professional world, there are many, many different types of feelings which are identified in different schools of psychology. Indeed, some psychologists would argue that there is a feeling or an attitude associated with every possible thought or behavior. Others think there is only one or two dimensions of personality. The model we have found most useful identifies the following three major as a guide to understanding what is going on with a peer.
GRIEF. The feeling associated with loss, typically expressed by crying.
FEAR. The feeling associated with a future injury or loss. Typically expressed by laughter for light fear and trembling with cold perspiration for heavier fears.
ANGER. The feeling associated with an injury or a loss caused by another, typically expressed by raging with violent motions, a flushed face and warm perspiration.
In addition to these three, there are two more conditions to keep in mind.
BOREDOM. The feeling associated with lack of stimulation expressed by non-repetitive talking.
PHYSICAL INJURY. Typically, people are not able to express all the feelings associated with an injury. After small injuries, we are told to “pull ourselves together,” in combat we had to. Severe injuries often involve loss of consciousness or strong medication. We have found that people talking about past injuries, in addition to expressing the other feelings listed above will often yawn or stretch. Sometimes this yawning or stretching happens at other times as well, but we think it is related to these old injuries.
We were pleased to note the substantial agreement between these first three useful categories developed in the peer support world and the “primary emotions” identified by Dr. Charles Hoge from our Advisory Committee in his comprehensive analysis of the impacts of combat, Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior (2010.)
For us veterans, the expression of feelings was not (to put it mildly) encouraged during our military service. Every veteran we know who has been in combat has been terrified—or is lying. However, it did not make sense to stop in the middle of an ambush and take turns telling each other how scared we were. We had to shoot and move! Most of us cried when our friends were killed or badly wounded, but there was often not much time available to deal with that loss. Sometimes not even a proper memorial service. Indeed, despite the obvious, nearly universal presence of strong feelings in the military and in combat, there is a pretty strong culture of not expressing ones feelings. Some of the harshest criticisms from our drill instructors were reserved for recruits who showed these feelings. Anger is the biggest exception to that culture as we were encouraged to develop and express strong anger in general and specifically towards the enemy we were about to fight.
7. WE ASSUME THAT TAKING TURNS SHARING OUR STORIES AND LISTENING TO OTHER’S STORIES REALLY HELPS. The trick is to set up situations where people can tell their stories while somebody else pays attention. In almost every situation in almost every society, that does not happen very often. “Fluid” conversational norms almost always require that a person interrupt whoever is speaking, with a story of their own—just to show “empathy.” While some one is talking, the other person is typically thinking about what they will say in response or getting ready to launch into as an alternative topic. “Why, your story about an IED going off reminds me of the time I saw my friend die.” Almost no one ever gets to tell their whole story all the way through—certainly not to the point of expressing deep feelings. The obvious exception we have all experienced is when the person supposedly listening to us has checked out and has pretty much stopped paying us any attention at all–lost in their own thoughts. It is hard to keep talking when that happens and it doesn’t help very much in this healing process.
As far as the expression of feelings is concerned, the general situation in society is even worse. The suppression of emotional expression usually starts with little children. When babies start to cry, most people will do almost anything to stop them—feed them snacks, jiggle them up and down, make ridiculous faces to distract them, and all too often, end up in frustration, threatening to hurt (or actually hurting) them again if they do not stop. The pressure on boys not to cry is particularly intense. One veteran describes how his father reacted to his crying. His father held a knife to his throat and said, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to really cry about.” He didn’t cry again–for years! The process continues for adults to this day—especially in the military. If you tell someone (just imagine your First Sergeant or Executive Officer) how badly you really feel about yourself (in some ways, on some days) and begin to cry deeply (as we believe you someday must to deal with some of the feelings stirred up by losses in combat), most adults will try to stop you from crying, even from making “nervous” gestures. They will urge you to “suck it up” or hand you a beer. At the extreme, you may find yourself dealing with some restrictive institution, either law enforcement or mental health. The great trick in most of these peer-support communities is to get people to “take turns.” For two minutes, five minutes, a half hour, an hour each. In Vets4Vets, we do it in pairs, small local support groups, or in large workshops. Any social setting can be immediately altered to allow for taking turns. By doing that, you can allow everyone to get a chance to deal with the residue of any past difficulties which are getting in the way of what they need to do right now–the fear about an upcoming interview, or date, the confusion about how to decide on a job, or the outrage at the latest problem in the larger society.
8. WE ASSUME THAT “SAFETY” QUESTIONS CAN HELP. The basic foundation of V4V is based simply on two or more Iraq-Afghanistan era vets taking turns listening to each other as they talk about the ways in which they have been hurt—many of them related to the war and their military service–and the ways these hurts have left them feeling, thinking and behaving in rigid, irrational, often harmful ways. That’s it; one vet talking to another. This alone is enough. It is at least 90% of what we do for each other in these listening sessions. However, some of the other peer-support networks have identified some simple steps the vet doing the listening can follow to increase their effectiveness as a listener. The simplest guideline is to provide a perspective of safety contradicting the hurtful situation the Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran is describing. The essence of this insight is to let the Iraq-Afghanistan era vet who is talking know that the situation in which he or she was being hurt is not happening now. This can be done by any Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran as he or she is listening to a peer. There are four questions which have been developed to help provide that safety. In general, these questions can help the veteran express the feelings left over from hurts in the war and the military. In practice, it may only consist of telling the vet that it is safe to tell the story now or directing them back to an obviously damaging incident that the vet mentions briefly and then moves on. As the veteran expresses those feelings, as they get a chance to cry, laugh, tremble, rage and yawn, this will allow the veteran to live free of that old burden, to do amazing new things, to feel happy and delighted (although it make take a while for the feelings to catch up with the improved thinking and acting.)
SIDEBAR: “4 SAFETY QUESTIONS”
Here are four questions that can always be your guide when you are in the role of “listener” with another vet. These will help you encourage a person to tell their story and express their feelings:
- What do you like about the person telling their story? Just keeping eye contact with a look of understanding and compassion on your face is a good start. It is a good idea to list the actual things you like about the person in your mind as a way to get in touch with this positive feeling, e.g. responsible, creative, loving parent, etc. Lean forward in your chair. Be an “active listener.” This listening is 90% of the process.
- What is the nature of the pain underlying the story? Using our assumptions (which are as good as any) there are really only a few basic types of pain—grief, fear, anger, boredom and actual physical injury. It helps to make your best guess as to what the vet is describing and label it for yourself along with the specific situation in which it occurred.
- What are a number of ways to let the story teller know that the old painful incident is not currently happening, i.e. that it is now safe to talk about it? For example, if they were alone, you might say something to remind them that you are really here and listening, sometimes touching their shoulder or hand makes the point better that anything you can say. If they were in danger, you might remind them that there is no present danger. You might tell them you will help them if anything comes up.
- What happens when you try one of these ideas and attempt to encourage them in one or more of these ways? If your guesses were right about what they are talking about and the kind of statement or gesture you might make to let them know the current situation is different and safer, then the story teller will express more of their feelings. If they do not express any more feelings, just return to listening and reconsider your answers to the first questions. Maybe you didn’t really identify the pain the person is feeling or maybe the thing you chose to say or do did not get interpreted the way you had hoped and you need to try one of your other ideas. For example, a man putting his hand on a woman’s hand may be interpreted romantically rather than sympathetically. Just go back to listening, continually coming back to question #1 periodically in your mind. Your unconditional positive regard for this person will show through. Listening is enough!
When these “safety” questions work, you will observe it concretely and immediately. You are offering an opposite view to the unsafe experience they are describing. When you do, they laugh, or cry or tremble… Their face moves. There is something about the safety such an opposite view provides—or the evidence that you are working with them on their problem. You do not need a microscope or a PhD. They cry. You see the tears. They laugh. They rage and their face flushes. Two veteran peers can help each other. What is nice about this insight from other peer support communities is its simplicity and its effectiveness. You really don’t need a PhD to increase the value of your listening to another vet. Therefore, the session typically consists of long periods with one vet talking or expressing feelings with only infrequent interjections by the listening vet which may or may not deepen those expressions of feelings. It is important to remember that your principal job is to listen. It’s always best when you keep your interjections to a minimum.
End of Sidebar
In pretty much every country on the planet these days, there are people regularly engaged in some of these peer-support practices—and we are doing everything in our power to make Vets4Vets just as widely available. However, that means that in the meantime, if there is not a V4V group in your community yet, there are almost certainly groups from pee-existing networks near you where you can practice the basics of Vets4Vets. The American Self-help Group Clearinghouse and the New Jersey Self-help Groups Clearinghouse (www.selfhelpgroups.org) share an excellent web page listing the full range of peer support communities which are currently available nationally, as does Support Groups in Kansas (www.SupportGroupsInKansas.org). Your local newspaper or social services information referral hot line will usually have a similar listing. More information about the two peer-support communities which specifically inspired V4V can be found at www.rc.org for co-counseling and www.oa.org for Overeaters Anonymous and www.aa.org for Alcoholics Anonymous. More importantly, with this book, you will have all you need to teach one of your fellow Ira-Afghanistan era veterans to take turns with you. You ask them to listen to you for ten minutes while you talk about something that is bothering you and express your feelings about it, then offer to do the same for her or him. This approach is simple, cheap and non-hierarchical. You don’t need to be an expert; all you need is a fellow Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran.
9. WE ASSUME THAT SOMETIMES YOU NEED HELP FOCUING ON PRESENT TIME. In general, there are two types of approaches which we have encountered from psychological professionals for those of us who have to deal with more serious consequences of combat such as PTSD. They can be thought of as “traumatic” and “present time” approaches. Some encourage us to go back and re-live the painful memories as a way of getting over their negative effects. Present time approaches teach us cognitive skills to avoid the painful memories in present time. They teach us to recognize the situations which trigger our memories and coping skills to avoid those triggers or to get away from the memory when they occur. Some approaches combine some of both.
The peer-support world has come to similar conclusions. While we do not pretend to be therapists and recommend that you get professional help if you need it, we do emphasize both approaches. In V4V, we commit to paying attention to the trauma when we have another veteran who has agreed to listen to us and stay with us while we experience the feelings associated with the memory. However, when we do not have such a committed listener with us and cannot get to one on the telephone, we use a set of common sense techniques to direct our attention away from the painful memories and onto interesting concern sin present time (See Sidebar).
SEPARATE SIDEBAR: Present Time Techniques (following paragraphs go in a sidebar box.)
As veterans, it is easiest for us to think of our mind as a weapon. We can point it anywhere we please. During V4V Listening Turns, we point it back on the old, awful experiences so we can tell the story in detail and process the feelings we did not have time to process at the time. At any other time, we learn to point our mind, our attention, away from those old memories onto interesting things around us or in the future. We use these present time techniques at the end of a V4V session, especially if we have been feeling some heavy feelings, to get ready to listen to our partner or to go back to everyday life. For some of us, the emotional pain has been so bad that we keep thinking about it 24/7. That is how we think of “flashbacks,” “nightmares”, “intrusive thoughts” and many more serious “mental problems.” Our attention is just stuck back on those old experiences, thinking about them and telling others about them in hopes of having someone listen long enough while we got emotional enough to be free of their negative effects. When one of us has our attention “stuck” like that, pointed at the wrong target, so to speak, we do NOT recommend putting any more attention on the hurtful experiences. Instead, we will spend our entire listening turns doing Present Time techniques so we can function more effectively afterward. Only later will we point our attention back on those experiences and only when we have another Iraq-Afghanistan era vet who has agreed to listen.
So in the meantime, we use some present time techniques to help the veteran who has been having a hard time being stuck on the past trauma to focus his or her attention on the now. We may say something like, “What are you looking forward to in your life right now?” Or “If you were tasked with redecorating this room, what would be the first thing you’d throw out?” (Humor is a good tool.) Or, “Can you talk a little about something that it new and good in your life.” Be creative and use your own imagination. When your efforts come from your own caring for this fellow vet and it is “personalized” by you, they tend to hit the mark.
End of sidebar
10. WE ASSUME THAT VETS4VETS IS NOT ENOUGH FOR EVERY VET AT EVERY MOMENT.
It may well be that if any Iraq-Afghanistan era vet had enough other vets around him or her committed to providing peer support he or she could get through any crisis. That might mean dozens of vets providing round the clock attention for months. Clearly, such resources are not available. Many Iraq-Afghanistan era vets will need professional help from a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist. Some will need in-patient treatment. Some of us think of it as a substitute for those “dozens of vets, 24/7”. Vets4Vets is committed to making every Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran aware of as many of the other resources which are available as possible.
The most important sources of support are the 200 plus (with more being built every day) Vet Centers located all over the country. Administration, they are located conveniently in the community away from the main VA facilities to minimize the stigma of waking in and to maximize their convenience. Crucially, they are staffed by professionals who are also combat veterans. If you have one near you and you are in crisis, you can generally walk in and see a professional immediately. We emphasize the importance of Vet Centers to every Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran who contacts V4V. The locations and contact information is on line at www.vetcenter.va.gov. As we mentioned before, the other key element of support is the VA medical facilities. They provide first rate inpatient and outpatient support for Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. Any Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran is welcome. At each hospital, there is an OEF-OIF Program Manager with a staff charged with helping us. You have six years after your date of discharge during which you are automatically provided medical treatment. You can always get treatment for anything related to your service in combat. One of the tragedies of every generation of veterans is that we do not take advantage of the services which are available to us. Originally, fully two thirds of us who have finished our service in this era did not even register with the VA to see if we have suffered a disability from our service which deserves treatment and/or compensation. Fortunately, that is up over half as we write. There are Vietnam era veterans just filing their claims today for injuries suffered during that war.
V4V encourages every Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran to go to the VA and file a claim for the services you deserve. However, given the complexities of the claims process, we strongly recommend getting the guidance of a Veterans Service Officer to help you through the process. Many veterans or organizations provide such VSOs: the Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, etc.
However, if you are in crisis and need immediate support, forget about the caution and go to the Vet Center or the VA immediately. You can get advice on filing your claim later.
The risks are simply too great.
As a group, we are already killing ourselves with alarming frequency. We do abuse our spouses too often.
When it comes to suicide, as veterans, we are highly effective. When we decide to do it, we get the job done. Unfortunately, the impulse to commit suicide is just that, an impulse. All too often that impulse is intensified by drinking alcohol which as we all know—reduces our ability to control our impulses!
If you consider suicide—and many of us do—please consider the following tips from www.helpguide.org.
Level of Suicide Risk
Low – Some suicidal thoughts. No suicide plan. Says he or she won’t commit suicide.
Moderate – Suicidal thoughts. Vague plan that isn’t very lethal. Says he or she won’t commit suicide.
High – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she won’t commit suicide.
Severe – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she will commit suicide.
The following questions can help you assess the immediate risk for suicide:
- Do you have a suicide plan? (PLAN)
- Do you have what you need to carry out your plan (pills, gun, etc.)? (MEANS)
- Do you know when you would do it? (TIME SET)
- Do you intend to commit suicide? (INTENTION)
If a suicide attempt seems imminent, call a local crisis center, dial 911, or take the person to an emergency room. Remove guns, drugs, knives, and other potentially lethal objects from the vicinity but do not, under any circumstances, leave a suicidal person alone.
If you or your V4V buddy gets beyond the occasional feeling that life isn’t worth living (which almost every combat vet has at some time), if you still feel that way after your listening turn, if you start making specific plans—I’ll do it tonight—or toy with actual means at your disposal—picking up that gun of yours—call the VA’s National Suicide Hot line IMMEDIATELY! 1-800-273-TALK (8255) The National Veterans’ Foundation also has an excellent hot line. (888-777-4443, M-F, 9a.m.-9p.m.) Besides the VA and the Vets Centers, there is, of course, the entire mental health system available for use when we feel the need. In every state, in most communities there is a community mental health agency which provides both out-patient and in-patient services. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services which connects all of these agencies in a national network has demonstrated a particular interest in Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans like us (http://www.samhsa.gov.)They have been strong supporters of V4V. You can locate your nearest community mental health agency by going to www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/state_orgs.htm. Of course, the Department of Defense has its own network of professionals in every branch and every unit to provide excellent mental health support for those of us still on active duty. For those of us still on active duty or retired from the military, we can also access mental health support through our Military One Source (www.militaryonesource.com ) They will provide individual or group therapy, inpatient and outpatient services through their network of providers. In addition to these community agencies, many individual therapists have agreed to volunteer their services to help Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. Two websites will connect you with such a provider in many communities all across the nation are www.GiveAnHour.org and www.TheSoldiersProject.org. It is important for every Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran to know about these support services. A once a week or once a month peer support group is not mental health treatment, not even if your peer is sometimes available for listening turns. If you think you need more, or if you think your peer needs more, V4V encourages you to reach out for the professional help you need.
- WE ASSUME THAT PSYCHOACTIVE DRUGS ARE SOMETIMES A NECESSARY PART OF YOUR TREATMENT. In times of crisis, a professional will often prescribe medication to help you. Frankly, they will often prescribe them when you are not in crisis. V4V urges you to follow the treatment suggestions of your caregiver. However, in the spirit of self-help, we urge you to ask your caregiver only to give you these medications along with a long-term strategy for getting off any psychoactive drugs. In the end, we side with that part of the mental health community which believes that ultimately we need to go through the pain we have experienced in order to get over it. Psychoactive drugs may mask the pain when you cannot deal with it. Ultimately, you will need to deal with it. Therefore, in particular, we urge you to ask that your caregiver not prescribe drugs which inhibit the expression of your feelings or if needed, only for a while. If you do decide to stop using psychoactive drugs, it is important to have the advice and support of a competent medical professional. Sometimes the symptoms of withdrawal are similar to those for which you took the medication to begin with and it is important to have competent professional medical advice. One guideline from two psychiatrists who advocate peer support is that you should never reduce your dosage by more than 10% a month, certainly not “cold turkey” (Peter Breggin and David Cohen, 2007.) Of course, many of us disregard this and other good advice and have survived. Whatever approach you use, you would do well to have the supervision of a medical professional.
12. WE ASSUME THAT SOME “NON-MENTAL HEALTH” APPROACHES CAN ALSO BE HELPFUL. In addition to Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans listening to each other in V4V settings and in addition to the mental health profession, there are a variety of other tools which peer support communities have found helpful. The list below is heavily influenced by the “tools” of Overeaters Anonymous. At each workshop we brainstorm together about what some of these are, adding to an ever-growing list. Here are just a few of them:
a. Journaling. Many peer-support communities recommend journaling to deal with stress—especially when you cannot immediately contact another member of the peer-support network. Iraq-Afghanistan era vets have also found it very helpful and have sometimes used it in our V4V weekend workshops. Just taking a notebook and writing down your thoughts is all that it takes. Your brain will give you what you need to write about: the stress you are experiencing; the feelings. One exercise you might try is to write with your non-dominant hand—using our left hand if we are right handed, writing with your right hand if you are left handed. While the writing will be hard to read, the value is often great. Some believe this is a way for our subconscious to communicate with us. The journal is for your eyes only so put it someplace safe. That way you can write what you want in it without worrying that someone will read it. Many of us have found journaling each day helpful. Something else you might try in your journal is to write in present tense, describing the sights and sounds of the situation. Instead of writing, “Today I went to a baseball game…” write “I am sitting in the stadium at the baseball game. The crowd is excited and loud. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn is in the air.” It takes discipline to be faithful to journaling but if you can keep it up for a couple of weeks, the habit is formed. Some of us have found it useful to use the same egg timer just like we use in listening turns for our journaling. Try committing to write for ten minutes first thing in the morning for two weeks and see what happens!
b. Quiet Time. Almost all peer support communities recommend setting aside twenty minutes or so, once or twice a day to clear your mind from stress. There are many forms of meditation which serve this purpose. For those of us who are religious, prayer serves this function as well as all its other spiritual purposes. Study after study has shown the positive effects of meditation on both physical and mental health. Meditation is routinely recommended for the treatment of PTSD at the VA. Don’t let the term “meditation” scare you off. There are many, many different kinds of practices that fall into this broad category and it need not have any religious ramifications at all. Simply sitting quietly in a comfortable chair on a regular basis, focusing on some saying or just your breath going in and out, some pleasant scene or listening to relaxing music will provide wonderful benefits.
c. Exercise. Most every self-improvement program includes exercise as an important component. Getting the blood pumping and breaking a sweat can do wonders for our moods. Check with your doctor to make sure you’re okay to start an exercise program if you haven’t been working out recently. The first thing a lot of us do when we get out of the military is stop doing PT. If we’re having any kind of emotional challenges at all, one thing’s for sure: having an unhealthy body can always make it worse. Remember that it might take a while to get in the habit again but the benefits are great if you do. Also remember that anything that helps us to feel better immediately can sometimes become addictive so don’t overdo it. There are exercise addicts! Moderation and balance are not usually part of the military lifestyle but there’s no reason we can’t develop them now.
d. Diet; Drink Lots of Water. In the same way that keeping your body fit through exercise can help to keep the head clear, so can eating right. There’s almost nothing that can compound negative feelings more that eating unhealthy foods. Of course junk food has an immediate appeal to help us feel “better” (usually “number”). The bad thing is, the “backlash” is horrible. The simplest approach is to eat three moderately-sized, balanced meals each day with some protein and fresh vegetables at each meal along with lots of water each day. It is amazing how much better many of us have felt after cleaning up our diet.
e. Family time. Almost every time we make this list at a V4V workshop, someone mentions “spending time with family” as a way to reduce stress. Of course sometimes being around family can be stressful to, so here, as in all of the things on this list, moderation and balance are key words. Someone once said, “Your family knows best how to push your buttons because they installed them!” All that being said, being around those who love you and whom you love is a great way to keep a positive outlook on things. Some of us prefer to spend time with close friends. Either way, sometimes we veterans have a tendency toward isolation. A great way to remedy this, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at first is family time…whether with our biological family or our “family of choice.”
f. Creativity and Play. Many of us were brought up to be fighters, not artists. That denied us the value of many creative pastimes—from painting, to playing music, singing, dancing, etc. At our V4V workshops we have a “creativity table” with modeling clay, crayon, and other arts and crafts. Not only do they provide a break when the workshop feels heavy, they let us learn some new ways to relax. Besides the table, we break up our workshops with silly games. The current favorite is ‘Move Your Butt,” a takeoff on Musical Chairs. Whoever is “it” stands in the middle of a group sitting in chairs. The vet in the middle asks a question like, how many of you have ever jumped out of an airplane and everyone who answers yes has to get up and move to another chair. There is something about moving around and answering silly questions which contradicts the telling of our painful stories. You don’t have to be an artist to get a lot out of creative endeavors. That’s not the point of it. Go out and buy yourself a coloring book. You’ll be amazed.
g. Other physical activities. Yoga is a technique, thousands of years old that has been helping returning warriors for centuries. Tai Chi is a slow-moving martial art tradition that centers the mind and body. Many cities and towns have drum circles where people either bring their drum or dance to the music. There are many physical activities outside the health club environment, many with a “spiritual” feel. Give one or two a try. Getting into action with something new usually provides a boost all its own.
h. Avoid self-medication. For far too many of us, our personal treatment is two six packs and a video game. Alcohol abuse is rampant among us and a major factor is suicides. We don’t just stick to legal forms of self-medication either. Unfortunately, self-medication just makes our problems worse. For that reason, we have dedicated a whole chapter to that topic later in this book.
Now that we have reviewed the basic assumptions underlying V4V, let us turn to the mechanics. What do we actually do in V4V?
Listening Turns: The Most Basic Form of Peer Support
Let us introduce you to the Vets4Vets process of peer support from the beginning. Please remember that the origin of this work in peer support in general and V4V in particular was noticing the convergence between the key practices of peer support in co-counseling and in 12 step recovery, specifically Overeaters Anonymous. In both traditions, participants take timed, uninterrupted, confidential turns listening to each other with encouragement to express their feelings, even strong one.
We will start from the smallest gathering, two or three people taking timed uninterrupted turns in a Listening Turns of up to an hour each way, then describe larger “Support Groups” of an hour or two which typically have no more than eight members, and finally “Workshops” which have between 15 and 50 people together for as much as a weekend.
The last chapter on assumptions provides much of the background for this chapter. Basically, we are giving human beings, i.e. veterans, the opportunity to heal themselves by talking to one another. V4V sets up pretty rigid structures to enable that healing to take place. We use timers to provide the uninterrupted opportunity to talk that is so important. We don’t interrupt at all in the beginning and later only following strict directions of the Four Safety Questions to follow the lead of the person talking. We usually set up formal appointments. We don’t mix alcohol or other recreational drugs with our Listening Turns.
Before going further, I would like to suggest a debt of both these traditions to the practices of indigenous people. In talking circles here in this part of the planet, indigenous people take turns speaking while everyone else listens and waits their turn. Often a “talking stick”, feather or other object is used by the speaker. Indeed, Jim observed such a “talking stick” group for veterans at the Native American Center in Tucson. The quality of attention people pay and comprehension in such structures is very high. I have also taken part in many Native American “sweat lodges.” Without wanting to disrespect the spiritual basis of the seat lodge and the general power of ritual, from a materialistic perspective, people go into the sweat lodge, pour water on hot rocks and take turns talking and expressing deep and strong feelings.
While I doubt the founders, “inventors” or “discoverers” of these two traditions stole these ideas from Native people, it does seem likely that the basic truths about human beings had been noticed and preserved by Native people long before either of these two 20th century communities were founded. In the case of OA, we simply adopted the practices of AA. Nowhere in the AA literature does it talk about the importance of uninterrupted listening, yet in AA meetings, in the “sharing” portion of the meetings, usually the last half of so, people do take turns telling their stories and sharing. In OA, perhaps because it is primarily composed of females, these “shares” or “pitches” are timed, typically for three minutes before members are allowed to share again. I do not know how this practice evolved in the 12 step world. However, this key practice is precisely the same as in co-counseling, the taking of timed turns of varying lengths, up to an hour or so. The founder of RC, Harvey Jackins had some Native blood although he never to our knowledge acknowledged drawing from any Native traditions in the development of co-counseling. Rather than calling out these two traditions for not acknowledging the possibility of influence form indigenous people, I want to point out the long heritage and recognized value and power of these peer support practices. In some sense, it is in all our blood.
In V4V, we call this basic building block of peer support a ”Listening Turn.”
These can be as short as a minute or so each way; or as longs as an hour each way. We use both short and long forms extensively in our workshops. To start each major workshop session, we ask all the participants to pair up and do short two or three minute each way listening turns to help them get rid of whatever distractions they may be carrying.
On Saturday afternoon of our workshops we form into pairs and take 45 minutes to an hour each way listening turns. This long listening turn gives the opportunity to go deeply into some of the incidents and feeling which we may have begun to discuss in our support groups. Interestingly, it took us several workshops before we had the courage to ask people new to this process to take such long turns. These veterans took to it immediately.
An important question is how many of these Listening Turns should a veteran do?
In co-counseling, many of us do two or more such long session EACH WEEK. We feel that we are that much more effective in the rest of our lives that is work this time investment.
In co-counseling, many of our leaders pay a stipend to go to our headquarters in Seattle and be listened to for twenty hours in one week. Some of us arrange shorter 3-4 or 5 hour one way listening “intensives” in our home communities.
In 12 Step programs, many members attend three or more Meetings a week with each one lasting at least an hour. Oftentimes, a new member is encouraged to do “90 in 90” that is 90 meetings in 90 days. In addition, many members also speak to their
Sponsors each day. In those calls, the Sponsor typically spends a lot of time just listening.
The 12 Steps include “a searching and fearless moral inventory” which is shared in a long session with a Sponsor or other trusted person.
There is no “right answer” to the question of how much time a veteran needs to spend in Listening Turns. Someone just back from heavy combat may need a lot. Someone experiencing difficulty may need a lot, not matter how long it has been since combat or difficult incidents. In co-counseling and 12 Steps, it all depends on the value we get out of these listening Turns or the Meetings. If we are dealing with some major issue and find ourselves distracted or acting irrationally, then we might well do many such sessions.
Ideally, we do these listening turns in person. We treat our partners with great respect and courtesy befitting the value we assign to this process. We schedule our sessions in advance, usually. We try very hard not to cancel them.
Telephone or Internet
Listening turns can be done over the phone or in one of the internet-based communications programs which support voice as well as video. Peer support has long made use of telephone communications and more recently makes extensive use of the internet. In the 12 step work, there are text-only meetings (chat rooms) held on line as well as voice-based meetings by telephone. In co-counseling, pairs of co counselors frequently use video phone programs. Interestingly, co-counseling does not make much use of text-based systems, other than email for correspondence. Neither makes much use of social networking media for checking in with each other.
The potential power of interpersonal communications would seem to decreases from face to face, to video with sound, to sound only to text. However, some people prefer one modality or another. Of course, there may not be other veterans living close by. In V4V, we made most use of face-to-face Listening Turns in our ongoing One-on-one relationships, Peer Support Groups and Workshops. In V4V, as in the other traditions, we found telephone based Listening Turns more effective after the participants had previous face to face contact. However, the telephone Turns were very useful.
We did not make much use of video calls or text based, “chat room communications.
Here is what a typically face-to-face Listening Turn would look like. You can use this as a guideline/script to help you get started.
Script for a Listening Turn
Hi, great to see you.
What is new and good for you?
And for you?
Take care of any logistics: water, toilet, arrange seating, ideally across from one another to allow easy eye contact.
Decide who goes first and how long the session will last.
Usually we take turns going first over a series of Listening Turns, unless someone has strong reason. Otherwise people’s habits will intrude. Some people like to go first, others last. Probably worth challenging any such rigid habit.
Speaker: begin by talking about any light upsets, for example, something might have gone wrong on the trip over to the Listening Turn or during the day.
After a few minutes, ideally, the Speaker knows what he or she wants to talk about or “work on”, some incident that seems important, some habit or pattern of behaving that is not working for the Speaker, or some general pattern or characteristic which may go back many, many year.
Listener. The Listener listens carefully, keeps eye contact and maintains a relatively pleased expression. The attitude of the Listener should always include (l) approval, (2) delight, (3) respect, (4) confidence in, and for, the veteran speaking, (5) high expectations of the Speaker (this means relaxed high expectations and not anxious pressure), (6) commitment to the Speaker and (7) in the full sense of the word, love to and of the Speaker
In addition to these basic attitudes, as the Speaker is talking, the Listener periodically reflects on mentally repeats the “Four Safety Questions” detailed in the last Chapter to see if there is something he or she can do that might assist the speaker to express their feelings more deeply.
At the end, when the timer goes off, the Listener waits a minute or so until the speaker finishes their thoughts and then asks if this is a good place to stop. Assuming it is, then the Listener asks a Present Time question (as described in the last Chapter).to ease the transition from the expression of sometimes deep feelings to assuming the role of Listener.
Exchange roles for the second half of the Listening Turn. The Speaker becomes the Listener; the Listener takes their turn as the speaker
At the end schedule the next session, thank each other with a smile and a hug if that is okay with both parties.
As described in the previous chapter, everything said in a Listening Turn is confidential. Indeed, we impose as special level of confidentiality. Not only do we require participants not to repeat what they have heard to anyone else, we also apply that rule within the dyad. Just because someone has told you something in Listening Turn, does not mean that they want it brought up for discussion afterward. Therefore, we do not break confidentiality even with the person who told us something. There may be practical reasons to violate this rule. For example, the Speaker may need a ride home. However, before we refer to anything from the Listening Turn, we always ask the Speaker’s permission.
There you have it, perhaps the most powerful innovation in human communication ever—and the simplest. Take turns listening. Don’t interrupt (except by agreement and then sparingly.) Encourage the expression of feelings, even deep ones. Keep everything confidential. Everything in V4V is built on this foundation. All of the larger gatherings are basically scaling up this basic innovation.
The Vets4Vets Support Group
In essence, a V4V Support Group is an opportunity for a number of returning veterans to get a Listening Turn in a single gathering. The difference lies in what has been called “the power of multiplied awareness.” There is something more powerful about having a group of other veterans paying attention to you, respectfully and without interruption, while you tell your story. It is easier to get in touch with the feelings you have about each incident. Ideally, an experienced member of V4V will lead the Support Group, someone who has done enough Listening Turns so that he or she will not be afraid to interrupt if needed to keep the veteran on track and not wander off in side directions when they get to hard spots, someone who can do or say something following the Four Safety Questions to let the veteran know it is safe to open up in this group. In fact, since 90% of the value of a V4V Listening Turn lies in the “listening” rather than these attempts to be helpful, literally anyone can lead a aV4V Support Group, just as anyone can lead a 12 Step Meeting. If the current leader of the 12 Step Group does not show up, any member can pick up the Script and lead the meeting. A similar Script appears at the end of this Chapter. The most important job of the Support Group Leader is like a “ring leader” at the circus. He or she figures out how much time each vet can take and stops them when the timer goes off. That is enough.
The key element in most other peer support communities is a face-to-face group in a local area. The goal of V4V is to have one or more such groups in every city and town in the U.S. and in many locations around the world so that each and every one of us Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran can find a group of other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans to talk with on our return home.
We know the power of such face-to-face groups from the long experience of many other peer support network, as well as the long history documenting the power of small groups in many other settings, from building strong organizations to getting work done.
As you will see in the sample outline in the next Chapter for a V4V weekend workshop, we typically form smaller support groups out of the larger group attending a workshop weekend. The smaller group is sometimes formed based on additional things we have in common. For example, female veterans always have their own support group, even if it is only two. In fact, we do not allow a single woman veteran to come to a V4V workshop without the support of a peer woman veteran. In keeping with other peer support communities, we try not to have “one of” in a subgroup, e.g. an African-heritage or Latino vet, a Navy vet or someone who has seen heavy combat. Sometimes we have had groups for hard combat veterans, Marines, Afghanistan vets, etc. Mostly we assign membership. The “sub-groups” will meet three times during the weekend which gives a chance for psychological safety to build. Having these additional things in common creates additional psychological safety, plus members of these sub-groups are more often apt to keep in touch after the weekend even if they live in different places. Some of the smaller constituencies set up conference call numbers where they hold a telephone Vets4Vets meeting each week. This has proved very effective in keeping the veterans “plugged in” to Vets4Vets as a whole as we continue to try to set up local groups in our home areas. These smaller groups function like a family, allowing the members to trust one another even more deeply and, at the weekend workshops, we progress and thus deal with deeper feelings. It is also as a way to keep track of each other in a relatively large gathering.
However, as noted above, it has been hard for Iraq-Afghanistan era vets to find each other in their home communities on their return and their attempts to set up such support groups in our communities has not been easy. Especially for those having trouble with memories, veterans tend to think they can avoid emotional pain by not dealing with it, by trying to simply “suck it up” or not think about it. Those of us who have committed ourselves to helping our fellow vets through this work have seen first-hand that this is simply not possible. It would be nice if it were, but it is not. Even so, we often tend to go back to our families, our friends, our jobs and our schools—and not to the VA, existing veterans groups or to other places where one can find other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. Avoidance behaviors become an addition of their own! In Chapter 13, we will give advice on how to connect with other Iraq-Afghanistan vets.
So, before we go any further, sit back and pretend you just walked into your first V4V Support Group. A group of you has gathered in the basement of a religious congregation. If there are more than eight of you, you broke up into smaller group. More than eight members makes each veteran’s turn too short. Besides the literature on small groups suggest that 6-8 is powerful on a number of dimensions.
Script for V4V Meeting
Hi, my name is ____________ and I am the leader for this meeting.
This is a meeting of Vets4Vets.
We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to giving Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans, an opportunity to tell our stories to one another. We do not take positions on any issue.
We believe that all veterans are good and that there are lots of good things about our military service.
We also know that we also we were treated harshly in the military and had to do things we would not ordinarily do in civilian life.
This is a place where we can celebrate the good things and complain about the bad. We know that we will function better in society if we have a chance to share these high and low points with other veterans and not carry them around inside us.
A Vets Care List is circulating with the names of other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who are willing to take your calls. If you are willing to take calls, please put down your name, phone number, email and best times to call. The list will circulate twice, once to list your name and once for you to copy down any contacts you are interested in.
Are there any experienced V4V vets present today who would be available to meet with new comers after the meeting?
Just for the record, are there any other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans here today?
(If there are any non-veterans or non-Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans present, ask the Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans if they are willing to let the non- or older veterans stay and participate. If any Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran objects, thank the others for their support and ask them to leave. If there are enough of them, they could have their own separate support group meeting and come back at the end.)
We follow a very simple outline. Anyone can lead one of these meetings just by picking up this Script.
We are not a mental health agency. If you feel you need professional help, we suggest that you contact the Vets Center of the Veterans Administration immediately (provide local contact name and number). We also have a list of agencies and professionals in this community who have volunteered to see Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans without charge (check to see if we have such a list) and we also have a list in the Vets4Vets book (which every meeting should have) of mental health resources which are available to Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans nationally.
We do not take any advocacy position on any issue. We leave our politics at the door. We are open to all Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans regardless of your position on any issue. We do urge you to get involved in the community as part of your healing. We get together in a larger group once in a while to figure out how we can get involved in the larger society and deal with the problems facing us and other veterans. In this area, the next one of these larger Vets4Vets Topic Group Discussion and Action Group to identify problems and form action teams of Iraq-Afghanistan era vets is scheduled for (date, time, and place).
A list of the various local and national groups of Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who are getting involved in the community is available in the V4V book. They speak for themselves and do not represent V4V. We urge you to confine your comments at this meeting to your personal concerns and leave the political issues to these other organizations.
Here are the ground rules for this group.
We will set a timer so that everyone gets an equal time to speak.
We do not interrupt each other or comment on each other’s stories, no matter how important it may seem. However well intended, such interruptions or advice is often hurtful. We also do not refer to each other’s stories, not even to the person who told the story, unless we first ask their permission. What you hear here, whom you see here, let it stay here.
It is okay to have and express strong feelings about these stories, both positive and negative. Many of us have had to keep those feelings to ourselves. Too often, our civilian family and friends are just not able to listen to our stories. A V4V group is a place to express those feelings. This may mean some of us may cry, laugh, tremble or get angry when it is our turn to tell our stories. That is fine. If we get angry, we tear up some paper or pound on the floor. We do not get violent with other vets. We will be able to deal with the things we are talking about better afterward, as a result of telling these stories and expressing our feelings. When each person’s time is up, we simply direct our attention to the next person and stop focusing on our own feelings. We take a moment to notice something pleasant in our surroundings or something we are looking forward to as a way of making this transition.
We always begin our meetings by going around and telling each other our names and what our military service is or was. In these introductions, we always include one thing that is new and good in our lives or that we liked about the military. This helps us focus our attention on the meeting and not on whatever else might be on our mind.
Let’s go around now and introduce ourselves with our name, our military service and something new and good.
(After everyone has introduced themselves to the extent they want to)
Now let’s each take a turn. When it is our turn, we have found that it is always useful to talk for at least a little while about what was good about our military service. Then if we want, we can talk about what was hard about either the military and the war or how the civilian society treats us as veterans.
NOT TO BE READ OUT LOUD: (To the leader: to calculate the time available for each person, divide the number of minutes remaining in the meeting–two hours is best for the whole meeting—by the number of people in the group and set the cooking timer for at least one minute less to allow for transitions—always subtracting five minutes for the closing. For example, if the meeting is for two hours and the introductions and the leader’s comments have taken 20 minutes, just subtract 5 from the 100 minutes remaining. If you have six people, divide 95 by 6 which is close to 16, but take off that one minute for transitions. That would give everyone 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to tell their stories.)
Now let’s begin taking turns. Everyone will have ____ minutes to share their stories (the number of minutes you just calculated).
We pick numbers to decide on a speaking order. It is a good idea for the leader to go first to model the process.
Who would like to go first?
Has everyone picked a number?
After each person’s time runs out, I will say “that is time”, but give you a chance to finish your thought (a minute or so if needed.) Then, if you wish, I will ask you to tell one thing that gets your attention away from your story and back on present time, e.g. what are you looking forward to? What do you like about this room?
(After the last person is finished taking his or her turn, remind people)
Remember everything you hear here is confidential. What you hear here, let it stay here. If someone has asked for help during their turn and you feel you can help, after the meeting, first ask them if it is alright to talk about the subject they mentioned. This makes it much safer for people.
Our next V4V meeting like this is (time, date, and place.)
One last thing. In Vets4Vets, we try and develop everyone to be a leader. Therefore, we always ask each of you to tell me one specific thing you liked about me as the leader of tonight’s group. At the same time, please tell the person on their right (or left) one thing you really like about them. This helps us build a stronger group.
When we are done, will you please help me put the room back in order?
Are there any V4V announcements? (If there are, give the followingV4V ground-rules for discussing business or other topics. Remember not to interrupt each other and to not let everyone else speak twice before everyone has spoken once. It helps to slow down the conversation if everyone will say their name and some aspect of their military service every time they speak, for example, I’m Jim and Marine Corps Iraq vet. We do not announce political activities during these support groups. If you know of a problem you would like to get other vets involved in, then either come to or call for an Empowerment Workshop to share your ideas and see who else might be interested. We hope you will attend those Empowerment Workshops and get involved in the community in whatever way makes sense to you.
Thank you for letting me lead this meeting.
The basic idea of a peer support group has gained popularity in the broader culture especially since the 1950’s, in large part through the 12-step and other programs which provide simple, peer based support group gatherings to help people who had developed similar and unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, e.g. alcohol, drugs, sexualizing, gambling, overeating, etc., for people with something in common, such as divorce or illness, or who simply want to help themselves. Support groups are now widely used in all areas of society by groups of people who share something in common. Indeed, almost half the adults in the U.S. are members of a small, face-to-face group that meets regularly.
Vets4Vets groups simply apply the basic peer-support idea of two Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans taking turns telling their story. We sit in small groups and go around the circle while everyone listens as one veteran at a time takes their turn speaking. At larger workshops, as part of the practice, an individual vet will stand in front on the room along with the workshop leader and tell their story to the whole workshop group which can range from 10 to 40 OEF/OIF veterans. This may sound scary but we have found that there is great power in having that many people listen to you at once. The regular Vets4Vets groups consist of a group of Iraq-Afghanistan era vets taking equal and uninterrupted turns telling their stories with a ground rule, along with some intervention as needed by the peer leader who is temporarily in charge to encourage emotional expression (using the Four Questions from the earlier chapter.) The important incidents in an individual’s life can be told over and over with a very good effect. It is up to the individual veteran what he or she talks about in a Support Group and how deeply to go into their feelings. As mentioned, one of the great insights of the other peer support networks is that anyone can lead a support group—if they have a simple manual to guide them. Structure matters. It keeps the group on track. Following a simple script, he or she describes the ground rules and makes sure each person gets an equal turn. It is useful to have a timer, either a watch or a kitchen timer. Over time, especially after taking part in follow-up workshops, support group leaders may use the Four Questions to encourage participants to express the feelings underlying their stories. This is a skill we all learn from one another in our Listening Turns, Support Groups and in local and national V4V Workshops. All the members of a support group are peers, however there should only be one person who serves as the leader of a particular meeting and in charge of using the Four Questions at any one time. There are no professionals, no experts, whether in the meeting or advising through a trained assistant. We are peers helping each other by taking turns listening to each other’s stories.
As noted above, the actual V4V local support group session where people tell their stories need to be small. It always works well to get a small group of Iraq-Afghanistan era vets together to take turns listening to each other. Each person gets a roughly equal amount of time to talk while the rest of the group listens. When a group gets larger than about eight, it should consider breaking down into two separate groups (even if it is simply by having half the participants go to another part of the same room) so that each person gets enough time to tell their story. Note that this is different from a Workshop where due to time constraints only a few vets are given time to tell their stories to demonstrate the effectiveness of the process. These are sometimes called “demonstrations.”
Often groups are set up around commonalities, for example the women Iraq-Afghanistan era vets may want to meet together. These subgroups can meet separately at the same time and place, split up after introductions and then come together for a closing—women, combat vets, men, Afghanistan vets, Marines, Latinos, , gays etc. Sharing something in common with the group helps people feel safer to talk about things they need to talk about. That is the primary reason for limiting our groups and workshops to Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. A broader veterans group from many areas of service (e.g. Vietnam, Desert Storm) may make sense if there are only one or two Iraq vets in an area. However, as soon as there are three or more Iraq-Afghanistan era vets in an area, they should begin to meet on their own. There are important benefits to support groups which mix veterans from different eras, e.g. the older vets have had more experiences with the VA, life, everything. However, there are also advantages to restricting ourselves to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We are closer in age, went to the same places, know the same songs, and do not have to feel like we are talking with our fathers! We have chosen the latter, but do not speak ill of the mixed groups.
Each support group needs a leader. This is one of the basic insights of peer support networks. Whenever people meet, someone needs to be charge.V4V defines a “listening turn” as two vets’ intelligences ganging up on one vet’s distress. Both vets are in charge of the session, but both have different roles to play. Someone has to stand outside the distress and offer some opposite view or contradiction to help the person who has been losing the struggle to this hurt every day. Therefore, we do not rely on the rigid habits of each vet to decide when they should talk and for how long. If we did, some of us would talk forever and others would never have the urge to speak! The support group leader enforces the taking of equal turns and prohibits cross talk and advice. In V4V, someone is the leader, even if all it means is that he or she came in first and picked up the notebook that holds the agenda followed at every meeting of a particular group.
At every meeting, one person acts as the leader of the group to help the group decide how much time each person will get, who will go first, and so on. The leader can use the Four Safety Questions approach to encourage each person to tell their story and express the feeling they have. When each person has had his or her turn as to speak, the leader can end the group meeting with each person getting a chance to say what he or she liked best about being in the group meeting or something he or she is looking forward to. Local V4V groups can meet as often or as many times as the group members wish. Of course, this same support group model can be applied to any group of friends, co-workers, neighbors, or people with a similar background or interest.
Support groups can and should grow. As you meet new Iraq-Afghanistan era vets and hold your one-on-one meetings, always invite the new vet to the next support group meeting.
Support groups can meet by phone as well as in person. Indeed, there was at least one very successful support group for the wives of veterans of all ages who meet each week on the Internet. Many other peer support networks use telephone support groups to good effect. We have set up such phone support groups in the past at the national level. Please give us a call if you would like to join one.
Although ours is a network based on being Iraq-Afghanistan era vets, it is not necessarily the case that each time we meet, each veteran will talk about the war or even the military. It is her or his turn to talk about what they want or need to talk about. Since you have brought together Iraq-Afghanistan era vets, by definition, whatever they talk about will often have to do with Iraq-Afghanistan era vets and the issues that face them. However, sometimes it is also helpful for the leader to suggest a topic for members of the group to consider telling their own stories about. Each participant remains free to talk about what he or she wants. For example, the vet leading could suggest occasionally that each vet could get a turn sharing what he or she likes about being a veteran, what has been hard about being a veteran, what he or she would like non-veterans to understand about veterans, how he or she would like to see veterans’ lives improve, and what ways he or she would like to reach out to other veterans.
The benefits of V4V support groups are several. Sometimes, Iraq-Afghanistan era vets, like people in general, get more good out of telling their stories in front of more than one person than to just one. As noted, there is something about having more than one person pay attention which makes it easier to tackle hard issues, to persist on such an issue and to reach deeper levels of emotional expression. Indeed, in all of these peer support networks, longer meetings (like our workshops) are regularly held for a day or a weekend where individuals are given various opportunities to tell their stories to larger groups.
As a consequence of these effects, people think more clearly after a support group session and are more likely to take effective action in their lives. It should be noted they also form close relationships with other vets which makes it more likely that they will stay involved in touch over the long haul.
We hope that by reading this book, you will not only find it helpful personally but that it will inspire you to start a local V4V group. We believe that it will make your life go better. While we currently are not operating national V4V Workshops, there are many of us around the country with experience inV4V. Contact information for a few of us is given in Chapter 19 as our “Invitation to You.”
Getting Every Iraq-Afghanistan-era Vet’s Ideas
The primary purpose of peer support is to provide emotional support to participants. That is all that happens in our Listening Turns and our Support Groups. However, based on long experience, peer support communities have identified two other major functions as well: sharing practical advice and taking action (White, B. J. and Madara, E. J., op. cit.) In this Chapter we will deal with the second functionand the next Chapter will deal with the third.
The second general function of peer support is to share practical advice. This may seem like a contraction since one of the basic rules of a long tradition in peer support is “No advice giving.” However, most of these same peer support communities actually do give advice to one another. It is inevitable. Peers by definition are facing the same problems and considering the same solutions, the same potential caregivers. They have to share practical advice. The question is what structures are set up to allow for advice giving without undermining the psychological safety needed for emotional support.
In many of the older peer support traditions, a distinction is made between comments made when someone is taking a turn for emotional support and other interactions dedicated to sharing advice. In some, advice is shared primarily within the confines of a more intense personal, one-on-one relationship, for example between a “Sponsor” and the “Spondee.” As will be seen in Chapter 13 on One-on-one Organizing, we have begun developing a system of more experienced veterans as “Reference People” in a local community for that purpose. In other traditions, it is accepted practice for someone to come up after a meeting where a person has discussed a problem and ask the person if he or she would like the benefit of someone else’s experience—or just plain advice. Indeed, many peer-support communities where there are sponsors are based on one person following as exactly as possible the advice of another more experienced person to deal with a common problem, often an addiction.
The important distinction seems to be keeping the social support sessions free from comment or advice which may interfere with the person doing their best to deal with their problem based on their own thinking and expressing the feelings they need to express, no matter how difficult they may be for another to hear.
This distinction can be preserved in at least two ways: first, by separating the advice from listening in term of time as will be described in this Chapter on special meetings called “Topic Group Discussions” and, second, by confining the advice giving or information sharing to a special relationship which is either ongoing, as in an ongoing Sponsor-Sponsee relationship, or informal, established by someone else asking permission to share advice or information.
We use both these one-on-one approaches in Vets4Vets. As to the first, a vet’s “Reference Person”, to be discussed more extensively in the Chapter on “One-On-One Organizing,” is someone with whom the vet has agreed to discuss practical issues, like heath care, employment, family and education. The second is when a member of a group or workshop who comes up after a vet has shared and asks if he or she is interested in advice or information.
This is after all a very important service peers can provide each other with. There is no reason for every vet to discover how to deal with PTSD symptoms or to rely on trial and error to discover who is a good clinician in the local geographical areas. We are humans; we learn from each other.
Vets4Vets takes this function one step further.
At every workshop, time is set space for what we call a “Topic Group Discussion.” Like everything else in Vets4Vets, we stole this idea from another peer support community, in this case, co-counseling. These “Topic Group Discussions” can also be held locally or by phone or internet as stand-alone meetings. Typically, they are followed by a section of the meeting for continuing into “Action Groups,” as described in the next Chapter.
The purpose of a Topic Group Discussion Session is to systematically identify the issues facing a group and give them the chance, again systematically, to share the information and experience which is held by the group.
These Discussions are part of a larger movement in our society towards participant-driven meetings. No leader arrives with an agenda. The agenda is set by the participants.
We do this after dinner at most of our workshops. It can be done by a local Vets4Vets group or it can be done by Iraq-Afghanistan veterans in some other organization or by phone or internet.
The process consists of four steps:
1. Nomination and Selection of Topics To Be Discussed (typically in smaller, breakout groups, but in a small overall group, to set the agenda for a whole group discussion). We usually begin this step with a short Listening Turn to give people a chance to think about the problems they really want to discuss)
2.Self-assignment to group;
3 Discussion; and
4. Reports back.
First, the Workshop or group leader describes the process and its purpose of sharing the information in the group as effectively and efficiently as possible—on the subjects that concern them. Then the leader asks the members of the workshop or group to nominate topics that they would like to talk about with this group. Suggestions are listed on a pad by a volunteer scribe. Time is taken to give anyone a chance to nominate a topic. Then the list is read and the group is asked if everyone can see a topic they would be interested in. If not, then additional suggestions are taken. It should be noted that this process works best if the topics are listed as they are presented. People will try to combine two or more topics—which usually means they see a similarity that everyone may not agree on. This is best sorted out in the next step. Use the topics as nominated from the group.
Next, the group assigns itself to topics. There are many ways to do this—giving everyone three votes, one vote, etc. At Vets4Vets we give each person one active vote. As the list is read, each person raises a hand for the group they want to join. If their group has only one member, the group does not meet. That gives the person another “active vote” and gets to choose another group. We spend too much of our time talking to ourselves as it is. Groups of two are okay if the two people agree to meet.
For the discussion step, a leader is assigned to each group, usually the person who suggested the topic and a meeting place—often just a corner of the big meeting room– and a time limit which reflects the time available. As part of a larger workshop, we often allowed twenty or thirty minutes. In a special meeting for this purpose, more time can be taken. The leader is asked to appoint a note taker and a reporter. After the smaller groups meet, the Reporters report a summary of the discussion so the whole group has the benefit of its conclusions. Whenever possible, we post the results of these discussions on a website so that the information can be shared with all the vets in the larger, indeed, worldwide community. A set of simple group rules is presented for the leader to encourage in order to facilitate the participation of each member (see Sidebar.)
SIDEBAR: Rules for Participation in a Topic Group
Everybody speaks once before anyone speaks twice.
Nobody speaks four times until everyone has spoken twice.
No one interrupts (unless the Leader needs to limit some speaker who spoke too long, also identified as a member of On-and-on Anonymous.”
END OF SIDEBAR
After the discussions, the whole group is reconvened and the reporters from each group summarize the discussions. Members of each group are asked to add anything which was left out of the reports. The written notes are given to the workshop leader for posting on whatever website is available.
Here is a sample Script for a Topic Group Discussion:
Script for aVets4Vets Topic Group Discussion Session (usually Saturday night at weekend workshops)
Tonight, we are going to get down to sharing practical advice among us—and identify problems that need solving. Traditionally this is the second function of peer support.
First, we break into small groups to discuss the kinds of issues we might address. After we get the results of those discussions then the results will be reported back to the whole group,
The basic principle of Vets4Vets is vets supporting vets. Therefore, we set up all our meetings so that everyone has a chance to speak without interruption and we encourage the expression of feelings as well as ideas. We try and take those practices from our support groups into another important activity—sharing information and practical advice.
For tonight, we want to get an idea of the problems that this group of Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans thinks is important and share information and experience which we have among us and our guests on how to deal with those problems. Pick someone and take three minutes each (or whatever makes sense given the time available for a particular meeting) to think about what issues or problem areas in the community you might want to get involved in. We should at least consider the issues that affect us as Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. We need someone to let us know when the time is up. If there is an odd number of people, we need to have three people get together and talk for two (or other number which totals the same as the pairs) minutes each.
We are now dealing with areas where people will have different values and beliefs. The purpose of a Topic Group Discussion is not to change each other’s minds, but to identify problems we see in common and meet with other people who share our values and perspective and share information. We want to remain continually supportive and respectful of each other, even if our opinions differ. We will continue to meet in our Support Groups with all Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans, regardless of our political opinions.
In general, it is best for a community of veterans to begin with less controversial topics, such as how to get more OEF/OIF vets to use the VA, rather than talking about candidates for the next City Council election. The more disagreements within the group, the less effective their subsequent Support Groups will become. If there are significant areas of disagreement, it will often be useful for separate Support Groups to be held for vets of similar opinions. If necessary, we can go out later in the community and work with people we agree with.
(When time is up for the three minute listening turns) Now we need to get a list of the problems you identified and decide which ones we want to discuss further in small groups. What issues did you talk about? We need someone as a scribe to write these ideas where we can see them (on a flip chart or blackboard).
(After everyone has had a chance to suggest topics) Now we have to decide which topics would you be interested in discussing further? The Scribe should read the list of topics. Then the Leader should ask if everyone sees a topic he or she would like to discuss. If not, ask for additional Topics.
Would each of you please raise your hand for the group you want to join when scribe reads the topic? The Scribe will record the number of people interested in each Topic. Anything with three people should meet; if there are only two people, they may meet if they wish.
You only get one “active” vote. If you vote for a topic and you are the only one voting for it, then the Scribe will cross it out and you can still vote for another topic. (To make the single person more comfortable, the scribe should record how many people in the larger group would be interested in discussion the topic at another time.)
Now we will take some time to discuss these topics in our small groups. You should pick someone to lead the group (usually the person who first suggested the topic) and someone else to take notes and make a brief report when we get back together.
The ground rules for Vets4Vets discussions are that each person in the group gets a chance to speak; no one should speak twice before everyone spoke once and no one would speak four times until everyone had spoken twice. If you need to express your feelings for a couple of minutes rather than talking about the subject, then just make that request. The leader can time your turn or decide to have everyone break into pairs or threes and do the same.
Now let’s break up into separate areas and have our discussions. We will get back together in few minutes (pick a number of minutes with gives the group time for discussion, but leaves enough time for the rest of the meeting.)
(When it is time): Now let’s have the reporters from each group tell us briefly what you discussed.
(After the reports are finished): Thank you for sharing this information. These discussions usually continue long into the night after our formal session has ended. We will post the written reports of these discussions on our website. Please give me your written notes.
If there is time, the same groups can reconvene as “Action Groups” as described in the next Chapter. That moves into the third function of peer support.
The topics discussed vary widely in our workshops. Common themes are building Vets4Vets local groups, VA benefits, filing a claim, the new GI Bill, dealing with PTSD, working with the media, fundraising, but some have included artists and members of outside organizations of I-A vets.
Notice how this process builds on the principles of peer support. There is no expert or boss telling the group what is important. Each person is treated as equally important.
As a result, the group shares practical advice on the topics they feel most important.
The results of the Topic Group discussions have been encouraging. The range of topics has been broad, informative and motivating. The most frequent topic discussed has been, not surprisingly, how to get local V4V groups going or other V4V topics, such as the need for a workshop in a particular area or for a particular group. Much of the growth of V4V has grown out of these Topic Group Discussions at our workshops where Iraq-Afghanistan era vets from many parts of the country and many different backgrounds share their ideas on a topic. Our workshops for women and for the GBLTQ community were largely the result of such Topic Groups discussions, as were the suggestions that we plan workshops for Medical Personnel and others for Officers.
Some of the other topics discussed in empowerment groups are:
PTSD. Different groups have talked about the symptoms, treatments they have found helpful, how to apply for benefits and the need to improve benefits.
Traumatic Brain Injury (which as we all know is a newly recognized injury in this war resulting from our surviving the effects of explosions due to our body armor, but suffering brain damage because our heads are less protected). Probably half of us who have been in combat have had at least mild TBI and we should all go to the VA and be screened for TBI. All too often the symptoms of TBI mimic those of PTSD.
Applying for benefits (all too many of us have not gone to the VA to get our five free years of health care and find out what were the physical and mental effects of our service)
Women’s Issues. (Those of us who are women have often found limited services available at particular VA locations and a reluctance to hear about our experiences).
LGBTQ. At the time of our national Workshops, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy made it difficult for us to seek treatment on our return for combat. If we tell a psychologist what our lives are like, we risked being removed from the military altogether. These issues continue.
Racism. Despite the generally positive view most of us hold of the military on matters of race as compared to the broader society, there are still many examples of racism which need to be corrected.
“Bad paper.” Some of us or our buddies came back from combat and took out our feelings on some young lieutenant or NCO and found ourselves in the brig or with a Bad Conduct Discharge. In a modern version of “Catch 22,” we are then not eligible to get mental health treatment for the effects of the war which made us do the deed which got us discharged. The VA will not see us. Most independent, nonprofit agencies set up to help veterans won’t see us—for fear that the stigma of dealing with us will limit their funding sources or volunteers. Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco is the only multi-service agency we have found so far who will take in veterans with Bad Conduct Discharges (www.Swords-to-Plowshares.org). If you can get yourselves to San Francisco, they will help you. They will get a lawyer anywhere you live to try and get your discharge upgraded so you can get the benefits which most of us think you have earned; a bed to sleep on, food to eat and psychologists and medical doctors to treat you.
Becoming a Veterans’ Service Officer. Some older veterans attending our workshops have urged us to become VSOs (volunteers who help veterans process their claims with the VA) and described both the importance of these volunteers and the ways to become one. Vietnam Veterans of America, the main group which organized veterans of that war has perhaps the easiest way to become a VSO (www.VVOA.org)
What is most exciting is the work that has actually come out of these discussions. The process by which we go from discussion into action is presented in the next chapter*.
Getting Every Iraq-Afghanistan era Vet Involved
The third function, historically, of peer support groups, is to engage its members in action in their own behalf. The American Clearinghouse calls this “advocacy. “However, this term also has a particular meaning in the context of people suffering from some ailment. It includes traditional “advocacy”, i.e. seeking to change social norms and government policies affecting a group (including lobbying), but also what is sometimes referred to as “self-advocacy,” where individuals are trained or encouraged to make their needs known to their service providers and increase their assertiveness in insisting on getting adequate service at the most personal level. Since V4Vhas adopted the general position of some of the best know peer-support communities, we do not engage in or use the term advocacy in its traditional sense including lobbying. However, we do encourage every Iraq and Afghanistan veteran to get involved in organizations which do that form advocacy as well as self-advocacy. If we do not “do” politics, politics will “do” us! It’s a subtle, but important distinction There are many organizations both exiting veterans organizations and new ones which have formed form this generation which excel at advocacy, indeed, which get involved in the actual electoral process supporting candidates. V4V does not do that, but does encourage its participants to get involved with organizations that do and to bring the tools of V4V (listening turns, support groups, workshops, etc.) into these organizations
What we do encourage is “action.” We encourage an innovative approach to deciding on actions which is also drawn from the co-counseling communities. It is based on our general principles of equal participation and the willingness to express feelings which may get in the way of taking effective action.
Most peer support traditions recognize the importance of moving beyond listening to one another to taking action. Indeed, the “twelfth step” is to reach out and carry the message to those who are still suffering. It is not enough to sit around telling your story over and over—although that is probably the single best thing we can do for each other. Most peer support groups and most professionals in this area recognize the need to do something to put our attention outside ourselves and our sad stories, to put our attention on something that is bigger and more important than ourselves and what happened to us.
A large number of peer support networks make this reaching out beyond themselves the key or most important of the steps in their program. One key way they deal with the problem that brings them together is to spend a lot of their time and energy reaching out to others who still suffer from the problem that brought them together in the first place. For us that means building Vets4Vets by reaching out and finding other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans and offering them chance to meet others like ourselves and find a place where they can tell their stories to another Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who is more likely to be able to listen without either getting grossed out or changing the subject.
Many of the groups of Vietnam veterans who got together during and after their war found that taking some actions outside themselves was an important part of their healing. For many of them, that action was political rather than just reaching out to other vets. In Vets4Vets, we have taken both approaches. In some of our workshops, we have encouraged Iraq-Afghanistan era vets to identify problems they cared about regardless of whether they were political or not. In other workshops, we have suggested limiting the range of problems and actions to those related to finding other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans and getting them involved in V4V.
At this point, we believe that the older peer support groups had it right in choosing the second of these two alternative approaches. Indeed, the 12 Step programs specifically prohibit discussions of “outside” issues. They limit the problems they specifically address as a group to issues involved in dealing with their own efforts to deal with the problem that brought them together and reaching out to help others with the same problem. For us, that approach means working on our own issues and helping others do the same and identifying Iraq-Afghanistan-era vets and introducing them to V4V and less controversial problems affecting returning veterans such as using the GI Bill or gaining access to benefits. The potential conflicts and arguments which can develop when we talk politics are too great to handle in our peer support environment, at least so far. Indeed, at one workshop we brought in an outside facilitator from a peer-oriented group that specialized in dealing with “controversial issues.” The consultant asked two vets to volunteer to talk to each other (after much preparatory work), one who opposed the war and another who supported the mission. It did not go well and this was a consultant who routinely got people to dialog about abortion, racism and other controversial issues. At some point, we will figure this out, but for now we do not encourage groups to hold such dialogues. We are here to support each other in dealing with the effects of the war, whatever our political position about the war. We do encourage all Iraq-Afghanistan era vets to get involved in the larger society and believe the both they and the society will be better off for their involvement, especially in areas of veterans’ affairs and foreign and military policy where our skills and experience are particularly relevant, but we no longer try and deal with controversial issues in V4V.
As mentioned above, there are many organizations listed below (such as Veterans For Freedom on the “pro mission” side and Iraq Veterans Against the War on the other) composed exclusively of Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who are getting involved in these issues. We urge our members to join any organization which is closest to their views. Perhaps more importantly, we urge Iraq-Afghanistan era vets in all of those organizations to bring the tools and insights of V4V into these other organizations. Many of us have set up V4V groups or sessions within these issue based organizations. Of course, in those settings, where everyone is in general agreement on the political issues, it is fine to bring them up in our support settings, i.e. Listening Turns, Support Groups and Workshops. Indeed, since our feelings about these issues have been identified as a significant cause of PTSD, it is vital for us to find settings where we can speak freely. For example, for many veterans a feeling of betrayal by higher ranking authority or the government is such a cause. Some of us may feel betrayed because we came to oppose the mission; others may feel that the society did not provide adequate support for the mission. Either way, it is important to find settings to deal with those issues. However, in a general support setting where we do not know the political positions of our peers, we should avoid bringing them up. Over time, we can find others even in our general support settings who share our views and with whom we can express our feelings freely on the political issues of the war. However, for now we recommend that Iraq-Afghanistan era vets keep general V4V settings free of controversial issues, just like the older and more experienced peer support networks on which we are based.
How then do we go about getting Iraq-Afghanistan era vets to get involved in the larger society in our unique purpose—to find other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets , introduce them to V4V, help them take advantage of the service available to them and live as Abel Moreno used to, “big, happy lives.”
This is an age-old problem in human behavior—how do you bring people together to get work done?
We have already answered part of that question in the last chapter on Topic Groups. We believe the first step is to let every individual have a chance to think for themselves, to identify the piece of this outreach effort or common problem facing us that appeals to them and to share their thinking with other who are interested in the same piece of the puzzle. That is what we do in Topic Group Discussions. Such Discussions should be held as part of any V4V Workshop as described in the next Chapter and by the members of any Support Group you set up, typically as a separate meeting.
However, beyond sharing ideas, there is the question of deciding on what actions to take.
There are several classical methods for small groups to follow.
Follow the leader. In most situations, one person is put in charge of the group with the responsibility for deciding what all of the members of the group will do. That is what we are used to in the military. There was a chain of command, a hierarchy. While the lieutenant might ask the squad leaders what they thought before making a decision, it was the lieutenant who told us what to do—unless we were officers in which case a higher ranking officer told us what to do.
That approach doesn’t work too well with us now (which may be the understatement of the year!). For almost everyone who has served in the military, there is a certain resistance to taking orders once we get out. Even suggesting tasks to Iraq-Afghanistan era vets at our workshops—as is done in many peer support networks—has been difficult to get started.
This is unfortunate, because the chain of command is highly efficient.
Majority Vote. As an alternative, many volunteer organizations elect leaders and make all their decisions by a majority vote. The leaders are only in charge of carrying out the group’s decisions. Robert’s Rules of Order is a widely used set of rules for such majority rule. The problem with this majority rule approach is that a lot of people tend to feel left out. A few people become experts on the Rules and then they and the elected leaders—and they are often the same people—effectively make all the decisions. The elected leader functions very much like the officer in charge once the group has met. In any event, these long discussions can wear out lots of us who are just looking for a place to hang out with others like ourselves.
Consensus. Other volunteer groups have given up on elected leaders and majority decisions and moved to what is called consensus decision making. In these groups, individuals are not required to go along with a particular decision just because a majority voted for it. These groups hold even longer discussions until everyone has been heard and a decision is agreed upon which everybody at least accepts, even if they do not completely agree. One person who has a principled opposition to the proposed decision can prevent the whole group from taking action by “vetoing” or “blocking” consensus. This approach has the advantage that most people really do agree with the decision once it is reached and are committed to putting it into action. The downside is very, very, very long meetings. Some have said that decisions that decisions by consensus are made by “those with the thickest calluses on their butts!”
A New Approach—Action Groups. While many other peer support communities use one or the other of these approaches, co-counseling developed a new approach which seems particularly suited to peer-support groups—and especially to groups like us who have had our fill of taking orders.
In this new approach, the purpose is to encourage individual initiative at least loosely coordinated with others concerned about the same issue. In V4V, we call them “Action Groups.” Action Groups consist of a relatively small group of vets concerned with the same issue, typically no more than eight. These Groups meet to let each other know what they have been doing as individuals on a particular issue, to update each other on what others outside their group have been doing and, near the end of the meeting, to announce to each other what they have each decided to do individually after having heard all this information from their peers. They do not meet to decide what the group is going to do as a whole. No one tells anyone else what to do—not even the whole group can tell an individual what to do. These are groups who meet to take action in the individual empowerment tradition of Vets4Vets. Their purpose is to empower individual action. For that reason, as noted, we call them Action Groups.
The purpose of a V4V Action Group is not to agree on common action, it is primarily a mechanism for encouraging individual initiative by all the participants which is informed by knowing what others are doing on an issue and therefore at least loosely coordinated. It insures that each Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran working on a common issue forms personal relationships with others working on the same issue and keeps each other informed of their actions. In concludes with each vet taking a turn being listened to on the subject of potential barriers to the steps each individual (leader) hopes to accomplish. This allows each veteran to get the advantage of identifying any personal emotional barriers to taking action as well as letting their coworkers know about. any objective, logistical help each leader needs. There is no push for consensus or agreement.
After going around to announce these individual decisions, the last step incorporates the specific insight of V4V, namely, that people in general and Iraq-Afghanistan era vets in particular, will think more clearly and behave more effectively AFTER they have been given a chance to talk and be listened to by peers without interruption about a given subject—in this case their decisions–and express any feelings which might get in their way of thinking and acting on this topic.
Experience in the many peer support communities and in our Vets4Vets workshops has shown that more work in total will get done on an issue if people have the opportunity to decide for themselves and are not forced to do something that somebody else, some individual, group or larger organization, decides. There is some loss in reduced coordination, but that is offset by the increase in overall greater activity and its quality.
The background and function of V4V Action Groups will vary. To date, most have formed in V4V weekend workshops after the Topic Group Discussions. After those Discussions and reports back, the Workshop Leader asks the whole workshop if there are specific issues on which people would like to gather and consider taking action. As noted, we now limit these groups to issues having to do with the functioning and growth of the V4V community, either locally, in some specific group or purpose or nationally or in general questions about the well-being of Iraq-Afghanistan veterans or services available to us. As described in the last chapter, if there is a general interest in moving from the Topic Group Discussions into actually taking action, then the Workshop Leader asks the whole group what the topics are where people are willing to consider taking action. Just as at the start of the Topic Group Discussion, a couple of members of the workshop serve as Scribes and write down possible topics for Action Groups as members of the workshop suggest them. Typically, there has been a large overlap between the topics discussed in the Topic Group Discussion and the topics suggested for Action Groups. When there are no more suggestions, the Workshop leader asks whether everyone in the Workshop has an Action Group they are interested in joining. The Workshop Leader then selects a Leader to convene each Action Group and pick a location to meet. The Workshop Leader checks to make sure everyone has a group, and then sets a time for the groups to report back to the larger group. The results of these Workshop Action Groups have been very impressive, leading to the holding of our Women’s and GLBTQ workshops, the formation of an ongoing Veterans’ Artist Collective, the Warrior Writers Project and the holding of a number of national Vets4Vets workshops in particular geographical areas. In the earlier days, a number of Action Groups focused on the work of various veterans’ advocacy groups and advocacy issues such as TBI, depleted uranium, inoculations, increasing veterans’ benefits and establishing new veterans’ organizations. Dozens of groups have met to decide on individual actions with respect to PTSD, the GI Bill and filing claims or appeals with the V.A.
A few local V4V groups have used the Action Group format to plan and coordinate their local work. Eventually, we hope that every local group will use the Action Group format to maximize the amount of local V4V outreach and activity. As with the workshop Action Groups, the local Action Groups would be led by the most experienced V4V leader in the area.
The reason for this emphasis on experience with V4V as a qualification will be clear as we describe the specifics of the Action Group agenda. The more experience the Action Group leader has in V4V, the more effective he or she will be in the fourth step of the agenda when each participant in given a V4V listening turn by the Action Group Leader. If that leader has experience with the Four Safety Questions, he or she can maximize the impact of that listening turn on the effectiveness of the individual’s subsequent attempts to reach out to other Iraq-ear vets.
To prevent patterns of domination from emerging in the group and to allow the advantages of uninterrupted listening and emotional expression, the leader insures (typically once again by asking someone to use a kitchen timer or the countdown alarm function on many wrist watches) that each leader gets an equal turn to speak to the group on the following four subjects. Please note, it is not enough simply to pass around a ‘talking stick” or other object, as is done in many organizations to keep people from interrupting each other. Interruption is only one of the ways in which rigid ways of behaving which play themselves out in a group discussion. Some people, as noted earlier, will just “naturally” talk longer. Their upbringing has convinced them, usually to the point of unawareness, that what they have to say is important and that other people cannot wait to hear what they have to say. Other people with different life experiences form different assumptions and habits of talking—or not talking. They think that what they have to say is not important and that no one cares what they think. Of course, in a group where we are all equal as vets and all seeking to reach out to other vets, there are no veterans’ thoughts which are unimportant. Yet some vets will not talk or not talk much. They will pass the talking stick quickly—often without talking a turn at all. That is why we give people timed turns. Better that some people sit silently for part of their turn and feel uncomfortable and that they have nothing to say. After a few turns they almost always learn that they do!
Pairs or small groups or the whole group may decide to take on the very same action in the next period, such as reaching out on campuses. Such follow up groups can meet again an Action Group to focus on that specific task.
Here are the questions which the assigned leader asks of everyone in an Action Group:
1. What have you been doing lately on this particular issue? For example, someone may already be in touch with the office of some the local or national veterans’ organizations working on this topic or has been giving speeches, etc. Often times there are veterans working for such organizations.
2. What other information do you have on this topic that we should know, either locally or at some broader level? Other ways of asking this question include: What is the current situation about this issue (e.g. reaching out to women Iraq veterans, all Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans in this town, etc.)? What is favorable in the situation, what is difficult, what opportunities are waiting to be seized and what challenges need to me met? This round of contributions is primarily an opportunity for each person to add items not covered in the first go round.
3. What are you going to do personally on this issue in the next period of time? Now that people in the group know what has already been done by the other group members and have information about what others outside the group are doing on this issue, in this round, individuals commit to specific action. This is not a discussion. You may not agree that the other person’s choice of action is most important or even a useful thing that person can do. However, long, painful experience has taught us that more gets done if people are doing what they think is important and what they think needs to be done than if they have reluctantly agreed to someone else’s suggestion or a “consensus.” These individual steps might be literally anything. For example, a woman Iraq-Afghanistan era vet could commit to organizing a one-time meeting just for the women in the local V4V project. A student at the local community college might commit to setting up a table to recruit new Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. Another vet may commit to visiting the local Vet Center Team Leader. You can, of course, offer to work with someone else who has already suggested something you like.
4. “What might get in the way of your doing what you have just said you would do? Finally, the longest amount of time (about half of all the time available for this entire meeting) is given to each potential leader, one at a time, to address this question. This is the fundamental insight of V4V which is neglected by almost all other organizations which assume that people will somehow magically overcome their usual bad habits, after 20 or 40 years, and stop being procrastinators, or nitpickers or know-it-alls, or whatever, on this current opportunity to take action. Short answer: They won’t. The key insight of the V4V Action Group approach is that every time a person says they are going to do something, they should be given the chance to talk about the bad habits that usually get in the way. A little talk and expressing a few feelings can make a big difference on any decision or commitment. Repeated opportunities for this reflection and discharge over many instances can make enormous differences.
So in the four go-rounds of an Action Group, the Leader of Convener should insure that others do not interrupt and in the final go-round (What gets in the way?) he or she can use the “Four Questions” to encourage the expression of each vets’ feelings. These questions let the person know that past experiences which seem to be getting in the way are not currently happening. For example, in the past, a participant might not have done well in school. Now, however, people around that vet and potentially the general public may be eager to hear from him or her. Just being encouraged to talk about the situation while other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans listen often helps clear up these past confusions.
It is widely noted that most organizations spend all their time, especially in the U.S., analyzing a problem and deciding what to do and spend very little on implementation. We would add that typically no time at all is spent on the step after deciding on implementation steps, namely giving people the time to explore the internal barriers to implementing their commitments. Often times, they have strong feelings which they have not discussed. Other times, there are logistical barriers which did not come up until the person actually makes a commitment to action. This fourth question is a time for each person to dig into the consequences of their commitments. Our experience has shown that shifting these balances, from identifying problems and group solutions towards spending time on the barriers to implementation by individuals results in more work being done and more of it being done effectively.
A leader for each Action Group should be selected by the other members. In no case should the Action Group meetings be larger than about eight people to allow all the questions to be answered in an hour and a half or two at the most. Larger Action Groups can be broken into two or more Action Groups
The downside to Action Groups is that some “key” task to be done on the issue may be neglected, at least for a while. Many other peer support groups function this way. If no one wants to fill a particular office, the office is left unfilled, for example in local 12 Step Groups People will take turns leading meetings as Secretary. If there is no Treasurer and no one wants to deal with the money, we won’t collect the money. Eventually, things get done. The rent is due or we may have to meet somewhere else.
As noted above, we have mainly used the Action Group approach in Workshops. Our hope was and is that in building V4V we will get so many people involved in building our local and national communities, doing so much more than in the usual “experts managing from above” approach, that such “key” tasks (and such “key” people) turn out not to be so “key” after all. If dozens of people are reaching out to find new Iraq-Afghanistan era vets, it is less important that one of them might have forgotten a key point or have inadvertently showed up to table at the community college without the V4V flyers. A motivated, face-to-face meeting with another Iraq-Afghanistan era vet—even without the flyer—will get more done than one individual leader’s frantic and round the clock effort to write up and make copies of a flyer. Now that we are functioning without local staff, we will see how far we can go with Action Groups.
Script for a Vets4Vets Action Group
Welcome to this meeting of our Vets4Vets Action Group on the topic of (whatever). My name is (name) and I am your leader for today.
The purpose of this group is to get as many of us to take action on this topic as possible as a way of helping to build Vets4Vets (although this format can be used for people interested in any topic.) Therefore, we do not take votes or try to reach consensus. We have four reasons for meeting, to:
1. Update each other on what we have been doing on this topic;
2. Fill in any other information about this topic which we think other leaders should know, taking care to mention any challenges or opportunities facing this group;
3. After hearing all this information, we tell each other what we are going to do as individuals; and finally,
4. We take a listening turn like in our regular Vets4Vets Support Groups in hopes that, as a consequence, we will be more apt do what we just decided.
Would one of you agree to be our timekeeper? We spend half our meeting on the first three questions and other half of the meeting on the last one because of its importance. Given the time we have tonight, we will spend ___ minutes apiece on each of the first three questions and ___ minutes each on the last question.
First, let’s go around and introduce each other with our name and military service and something that is new and good in our lives to help us get in a good mood for doing some work. As we introduce each other, please put your name and contact information on a sheet of paper as it goes around. This group meets as often as a majority of its members desire. If you want to meet, please call or email me and I will call the rest of you whenever a majority desires.
1. What has each of us done on this topic lately? (Give each veteran an equal, timed turn.) Please remember not to interrupt anyone while they are speaking. If you have information relevant to what the person has said, you can share it in the third round.
2. What other information do you have on this topic that we should know, either locally or at some broader level? (Give each veteran a timed turn.) If no one talks about what other organizations for OEF/OIF vets are doing locally, then this should be reported on or investigated before the next meeting.
3. What are you going to do in the next period about this topic? (Give each veteran a timed turn.)
4. For the remaining half of our meeting, we take a longer turn in the Vets4Vets tradition. What might get in the way of your doing what you just said you would do? (The leader should use the “Four Questions” to help each person explore any feelings underlying these barriers to effective action.”)
Finally, would three of you please tell me something you liked about my leading this meeting? We are always trying to develop and encourage new leaders in Vets4Vets and these appreciations will help me do a better job next time and show someone else what works. I encourage you to ask for this kind of specific, positive feedback every time you lead something in V4V or elsewhere.
If you want this group to meet again to update ourselves on what we are doing and decide on new actions, then please contact me. When a majority thinks it necessary, I will contact all of you and set up another meeting.
Thank you for the privilege of being your leader tonight. I will meet again when a majority of you contact me and make that request.
(End of Action Group Meeting script)
Through the process of an Action Group meeting, the individual veteran is able to continue his or her healing around unpleasant memories in her past. By taking action, we no longer feel like we have been victimized in any way, even by society at large or by any part of our military experience. Of course this healing is a process and doesn’t happen all at once. In addition, being part of an Action Group where we are actually able to help other veterans has proven to be very fulfilling for many of us. Our involvement in Vets4Vets “Listening Turns” allows us to think more clearly and be more effective members of society and also more efficient and effective in working toward achieving the goals which are important to us in life.
As part of our commitment to taking action, we encourage Iraq/Afghanistan-era veterans to pay dues and join other organizations and get involved. We have had members attend our workshops from many of the major organizations specifically founded for Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans, some of them with very definite political positions. Some examples—Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association (www.IAVA.org), Veterans of Modern Warfare (www.VMW.org), Iraq War Veterans Organization (www.IWVO.org), Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.IVAW.org) and Veterans For Freedom (www.VeteransForFreedom.org). Similarly, we have had a few older veterans from other wars as allies at our workshops whose organizations have all taken positions or political issues: such as the American Legion (www.Legion.org). Veterans of Foreign Wars (www.VFW.org), Vietnam Veterans Of America (www.VVOA.org), and Veterans For America (www.VFA.org).
However, as we say in our mission statement, in our manuals and guidelines for workshops and local groups and in all of our gatherings, when it comes to Vets4Vets gatherings, “We leave our politics at the door.” Vets4Vets is not about politics. We leave that to other organizations. As an organization, Vets4Vets does not take positions on any issues, following the lead of other successful peer support networks. We do not even take positions on issues on which we all agree! Vets4Vets is about what we went through. As anyone who has been to one of our workshops can attest, we stress the importance of making Vets4Vets a welcoming place for all Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. There is nothing like politics to make a conversation unsafe!
As a practical matter, in our Workshops, we just ask the Topic Groups who want to keep meeting to meet again as Action Groups. Since the Topic Groups have covered much of the first two questions of the Action Group agenda, we often just ask the Action Groups to do the second two questions: What are you going to do? And, what might get in your way?
On Sunday morning of Weekend Workshops, we use that same abbreviated approach to our Personal Care Plans. After having the vets write down their Plans, we have them break into groups of three and answer the two last Action Plan questions for the other vets to hear: “What are you going to do?” and “What might get in the way?”
Both of these shortened forms have worked well, suggesting the range of situations where we can apply these Action Group agenda to encourage individual initiative.
Now, that we have covered the basic building blocks of peer support in V4V, one-on-one Listening Turns, Support Groups, Topic Groups and Action Groups, let us turn to probably the best-known tool of V4V, namely the weekend workshops where we combine all these tools in a residential weekend.
The scene which opened this book was taken from our first Vets4Vets Weekend Workshop in December, 2005, on Miami Beach. One of the Iraq vets participating described that Workshop as follows:
“All of us who attend that first workshop in Miami in 2005 loved it. We especially enjoyed the opportunity to get together with other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. Here was a group of people who were going through many of the same things that we were. Here was a group that could understand. We liked the simple structure of Vets4Vets—taking turns telling our stories in front of the large group and in smaller groups of people with similar backgrounds. We liked the low pressure environment with a long break on Saturday afternoon when we all got a chance to hang out together on the beach. For many of us, it was magic!
As the result of that first workshop, many of us went home eager to set up local Vets4Vets groups in our home communities. In the next few months, groups met in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, McAllen, Texas, and Colorado Springs. Many of us reached out to our friends with whom we have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—our service buddies—and invited them to come to the next Vets4Vets workshop. Almost all of us stayed in touch with at least a couple of vets whom we had met at that workshop. Clearly, Vets4Vets had discovered a better way to reach out to Iraq-Afghanistan era vets than our original strategy of sending one person out to a local community after a single day of training with a small group of others. There was something special in the large group gathering for the full weekend which both gave us a chance to heal from some of the negative impacts of the war and our military service, but it gave us a new community of Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans for us to lean on as we went forward.”
Inspired by the success of that first workshop, V4V went on to organize 84 more over the next five years!
Between late 2005 and mid-2011, we brought 1,500 individual Iraq-Afghanistan veterans to these workshops to help each other with the tools of peer support. Actually, 2,500 attended in all when you count veterans who attended more than one workshop. Probably the most powerful and best known of the V4V peer support tools was these weekend workshops
In peer support communities, the emphasis is generally on the process, not on the special talents of the individual workshop leader. This is in contrast to so many other personal growth efforts. All too often, this emphasis on one or a few individuals limits the growth of these efforts and leads to dysfunctions around money including high salaries.
In the 12 Step world, the leader of a meeting simply picks up a notebook and reads a script. The power is in the relationships among the participants, not the leader.
This was certainly the case in V4V. Indeed, when I led that first weekend workshop, I had not ever led a weekend workshop anywhere, not in co-counseling, not in OA. Moreover, as soon as we had the funding to hire young Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, I began to train them to lead portions of a workshop and quite quickly the entire weekend. Indeed, about 20 of those 85 workshops were led by the young veterans on staff whom I trained and 5 others were led by volunteer veterans trained by all of us on staff.
The format and content for the weekend workshop was taken mostly from co-counseling where I have had the pleasure of attending hundreds of these workshops over the last thirty two years. In the 12 Step programs, workshops are mostly day-long events where several members tell their stories, often on a theme such as “Abstinence” or “Recovery.”
You too can lead a Vets4Vets workshop. As in our Support Groups, most of what the workshop leader does is serve as a ringmaster, presenting and setting aside time for the various tools we use—short and long Listening Turns, Support Groups, Topic Groups and Action Groups—and presenting the Assumptions. Just below is the detailed script prepared for these younger veterans to use to lead these workshops. (Of course, they all adjusted it especially as various components took longer than expected. They did present the Assumptions pretty carefully). You can use it yourself. Just as with those other peer support meetings presented above, you could just read this script out loud. The power of the workshop is in veterans taking turns talking about their experiences and listening to each other. The script provides important ground rules and guidelines for that sharing.
While this chapter describes a weekend workshop, pieces can be assembled for a one day Workshop or an evening Class or Gather in.
The weekend workshops were the most studied and carefully evaluated of the V4V tools.
Typically, about thirty Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans met for a weekend. We insisted from the beginning that at least ninety per cent of people attending the workshops be veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. At various times, a couple of other types of people attended—family members, psychologists, older veterans or others who have committed to starting a local Vets4Vets group for the Iraq-Afghanistan era vets in their community or help in some other way, Occasionally we allowed the media to cover a workshop.
We would gather in a retreat, camp or conference center, typically in a beautiful, but somewhat isolated setting, away from most distractions, specifically including the nearest bar! We learned this last requirement the hard way after our first few workshops where some of the veterans left the site and went drinking.
These weekend workshops are incredible happenings. The first evening consists of individual introductions, a few ground rules (turn taking, confidentiality, etc.) and meetings in small support groups of 4-6 people each. In these support groups, each Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran take a turn in front of their Support Group talking about whatever he or she wants to share, typically about their time in the military and in theater. Starting Saturday morning, after the Assumptions of V4V have been presented, several vets take a turn telling their story to the entire Workshop of thirty or so. As the weekend builds—and after other meetings of the smaller Support Group and even smaller Listening Turns of two or three at a time, the emotional intensity of these stories typically increases. Many people shed tears, often for the first time as they describe a particularly terrifying firefight, a roadside bombing or automotive accident or, for many the most disturbing, the death of a buddy or a young Iraqi child whom they were helpless to assist or killed. The veterans get to tell their stories more than once in the different settings (Workshop, Support Groups, and Listening Turns.) Sometimes the stories are different. Usually more details emerge—or they get the courage to tell a story on the last day or to a small group that they were afraid to share at the beginning. Almost all report talking about experiences in the military and combat which they have not talked about since coming home.
Almost every veteran who has attended one of these workshops says that meeting with other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans and telling their stories is an enjoyable and useful experience. Many describe specific benefits—a decrease in feelings of isolation and increased energy for seeking a job or returning to school, for others a new commitment to their relationship. Most frequently, it is simply the realization that “I am not crazy!” Other people feel the same way I do. Other people have trouble sleeping and startle whenever there is a loud noise. I am not the only one still sleeping with a gun or a knife under my pillow.
These are the classic benefits of peer support communities everywhere and explain the success which repeated empirical studies of peer support groups have found.
Workshops are pretty much idiot-proof by this time.
In broad terms,
the Workshop Schedule is as follows:
6 pm Dinner
7 pm Welcome, Overview of V4V and the Weekend, Introductions by participants
9 pm Peer Support Groups
8 am Breakfast, Support Group Leaders meet with Workshop Leader
9 am Assumptions of V4V, 2-3 Individual vets tell their stories
11 a.m. Support Groups.
12 p.m. Lunch
1 p.m. Break; Active Recreations (basketball, swimming, etc.)
4 p.m. Long Listening Turns in twos or threes
6 p.m. Dinner
7 p.m. Topic Group Discussion followed by Action Group Meetings
8 a.m. Breakfast; Support Group Leaders meet with Workshop Leader
9 a.m. Personal Action Plans
11 a.m. Support Group Meeting
11:45 a.m. Farewells
12 p.m. Lunch; Departure
To walk you through the schedule, the Workshops begin with every veteran taking a turn to introduce themselves, followed by an overview of V4V and the weekend by the Leader.
Then participants break into smaller (4-6) person support groups which will meet three times during the weekend and become a “home” group where each vet will get to know a few others more intensely. Typically the women vets have their own support group as do any non Iraq-Afghanistan era vets attending. We would not allow a woman veteran to attend alone, unless there were at least two women to support one another.
In the morning of the second day, the Leader reviews the Assumptions of V4V and invites two or three veterans to tell their story in front of the whole group. Then the support groups meet again.
One thing not on the schedule. Frequently during the weekend, the large group will break up for short two-or three-person listening turns of a minute or two each way.
We usually take a long break on the second day both as a relief from the emotional intensity of the weekend, to get some exercise and to enable the vets to form relationships on a more informal basis.
Later in the afternoon, we schedule long listening turns in groups of two or three so that people can each have a longer listening turn.
After dinner, we run a Topic Group Discussion (described earlier which is our empowerment process to encourage the vets to consider getting involved in their communities on their return.) First, they generate their own list of problems to discuss. Those suggested problems issues that ideally have three of more people interested meet for a discussion (two if people are really interested in their Topic.)
After these small Topic Groups report back on their discussion, the group makes a new list of problem areas where people actually want to get involved. Typically, the same Topic Groups just meet again as Action Groups described in the last chapter. None of the potential areas for discussion or action are suggested ahead of time—except for occasional projects directly related to V4V such as how to start a local V4V group.
On Sunday morning, we encourage each veteran to set up their own Personal Care Plan. We talk about how to follow up the weekend—connecting with individuals at the workshop with whom the vets can have ongoing Listening Turns by telephone, setting up a local peer Support Group, connecting with the VA, the local Vets Center and supportive agencies. We suggestion the additional set of Tools take from OA and listed in the Assumptions chapter (journaling, exercise, etc.) and we ask them what else has worked for them.
Of course, the late night informal meetings in groups and pairs among the veterans are a key aspect of this or any residential, weekend format.
After the final Support Group meeting, we end with a closing circle where each vet talks about their highlights for the weekend. Besides being traditional in many meeting settings, this also helps the vet focus on the positive as they return home.
The tone of the workshop changes over the three days, as would be expected. Form a group of 30 Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans most of whom do not know each other, the workshop morphs into a large Support Group where vets who have never shared their stories of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are shedding tears in front of the large group and in smaller settings as they talk about friends who have died, their guilt about leaving and their grief about unintended damage to these countries.
They form bonds that have already lasted for years in some cases. They call each other up and stay in touch after these workshops. They come back to more than one workshop, often bringing a friend with whom they served. They work with us to put on additional workshops. They set up local groups.
Many of them report specific improvements in their lives, from giving up addictions, to improving relationships, going back to school and getting new jobs.
Our various evaluations document the effects of V4V workshops on its participants. However, the anecdotal evidence is consistent with all the other peer support communities who have been evaluated.
In summary, these workshops are a near foolproof way for a bunch of Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans to both receive the benefits of an extended peer support group, but also learn the mechanics of such a group in a short, but intensive period of time. Our organizational goals is to have at least one local support group generated from each of these workshops—sometimes in the geographical area where the workshop was held, sometimes in places from where a few veterans had come as a group to attend a particular workshops.
In the longer term, our goal was always to move in the direction of other peer support communities and have local groups holding their own one-day and weekend Workshop—based on the model of this book—and the detailed Workshop Outline below
After you go to a workshop, you will have 30 new friends who are Iraq-Afghanistan-era veterans and who have some understanding what you went through. You can call them up on the telephone when you have one of those dreams—or when your partner really, really doesn’t get what you are going through. You just follow the same ground rules over the phone as you do in person. Each vet takes an uninterrupted turn talking and expressing their feelings while the other listens. We use timers!
Some workshop participants set up telephone support groups. They can be general and some or for particular subgroups of veterans—women or gay men for example.
This is an unusual, but not unprecedented way to grow a peer-support community. While almost all peer support communities make use of such residential weekend workshops, they are usually a much smaller proportion of the overall community’s activities. A weekend workshop can be a good way to introduce a new person to a particular peer support community and is occasionally used that way by other groups.
Here is a more detailed Outline for an actual workshop complete with the additional suggestions Jim made for others to lead on their own.
Vets4Vets Workshop Outline:
Please Review and Update for Each Workshop.
Remember, this is an outline, use your own language.
Times are approximate.
ATTENDERS: Review the Roster of those coming. Identify and take adequate measures to deal with any vets identified with special needs, for those with special goals because they represent other organizations, health professionals and for any press or media attending part of the workshop. Set up support groups taking into consideration experience with Vets4Vets, era of military service, branch and location of service, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity and any other issues or special requests raised in the applications. In general, we found that diverse groups worked best rather than grouping veterans by branch of service. Women of course met in their own group. We want a positive and appropriate group structure. Make special note of any attendee choosing not to be photographed or to appear in any media. Safety comes for the veteran first.
TO DO: Tasks left to do before workshop, update as completed—
Update and review this Outline
Review per-workshop checklist
Pack bag using inventory, i.e. make sure all materials are on hand
Assign vets to support groups
Set up recreation for Sat afternoon and evening, sometimes this means reserving a bowling alley or amusement center.
Buy snacks, art supplies, water, and rent movies
Print needed materials: e.g. Schedules, Outline, and Evaluation Surveys
ARRIVAL: Leader and Organizer should arrive the day before, unless this is a local workshop.
Explore, and if necessary, modify room assignments, set up workshop location, to include placing the Vets4Vets banner, laying out literature and shirts, art supplies, snacks. Put printed material on seats.
DINNER. Leader and Organizer socialize with participants, check in with local leaders, and get to know as many attendees as possible, including (at a minimum) those with special needs or who are from other organizations.
WELCOME by Leader (L) and Organizer (O). to include:
WHAT I GET OUT OF IT – What have you as the L and O personally gotten out of Vets4Vets, importance of connecting with the VA, Vet Centers and other resources, positive comments only about resources.
THANKS – Thank participants for their dedication and sacrifice, an honor to work with this particular group (Refer to constituency, for example, Corrections officers or other allies as well as Vets, if appropriate.).
BIG DEAL – Big deal that we are here, that you are taking this time for yourselves and to build this network for yourselves and other Iraq/Afghanistan-era vets—ask the participants to take a moment and look around.
IMAGE IN SOCIETY – There is a lot of talk in the press about the bad things that happen in Iraq and Afghanistan—killing civilians, destroying other countries. There is also talk about how veterans are coming back with psychological damage, with the implication that you are damaged and can’t function. Here is the reality:
VETS ARE GOOD – Vets4Vets takes exactly the opposite approach. To begin with, we know there are lots of good things about the military and the people who serve. We know that whatever other reasons we might have had for going in, almost all of us share a willingness to sacrifice personally for the greater good of our society. We know that veterans are good people who have been put in difficult situations and sometimes either have to, or are pushed to, do things they would never do at home. We also believe that all the psychological damage that happens in a war zone or in military service can be overcome.
VETS4VETS HELPS-WE GET TO HAVE WHOLE LIVES BACK – Our goal: to think better and act better in our lives, not just feel better. Most of you here had bad things happen to you in Iraq/Afghanistan, and those experiences can often plug up your minds, making you incapable of thinking well, thereby affecting your life. Maybe you saw a dead baby (or ran over one!) and now you can’t get in a serious relationship where you might have kids. Or you get pissed off at your bosses and can’t keep a job. Or your wife wants to leave you because you are angry, distant, or jumpy. We can get over these things and live the big, happy lives we deserve.
HIGH SUICIDES AFTER VIETNAM, IRAQ/AFGHANISTAN VETS ON THE SAME PATH.
More Vietnam vets died of suicide after they came home than were killed in Vietnam. We have already seen studies showing 30% of Iraq vets have psychological problems and 15% have full-blown PTSD. VA and community health programs are getting cut on per capita basis, calling for peer programs. More of us killed ourselves in this war than were killed by the enemy.
THIS IS A PLACE TO TELL STORIES – We know from decades of experience that the key to recovery is having a place to talk about what happened in the war zone or in the military. We also know that a peer support group with other veterans is one of the best places for that healing to occur.Vets4Vets provides that opportunity at workshops like this one and encourages you to go back and set up the same opportunity for yourself at home, and make it available to other veterans – from your units, for your friends, and for those veterans where you live.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS WEEKEND, OVER FIFTEEN HUNDRED OF YOU HAVE, BUT WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARD IS MORE IMPORTANT. STAY IN TOUCH AND REACH OUT TO NEW VETS – There are two key things to remember after this workshop. Stay in touch and reach out to other vets. First, the most important thing is to develop a good relationship with at least one other vet here this weekend and stay in touch after the workshop, using listening turns as often as possible. We will give you lots of chances to do that. Second, after the workshop, it is important to reach out to bring other vets into Vets4Vets. In the 12-step programs, that is the 12th step. It helps you at least as much as anyone you reach out to.
We want to get over the negative effects of the war and our military service. We want Iraq/Afghanistan-era veterans to have support available to them, we want such a support system of Iraq/Afghanistan-era veterans in every community, and we would like to see more veterans get involved in the larger society as part of their healing process, and to make our country a better place.
LEAVE POLITICS AT THE DOOR – Although many of us are involved in advocacy efforts to advance specific proposals for improved services from the VA, improved funding for the VA and other controversial issues, we leave those politics at the door. We are here as “vets for vets.” We all love our country and sacrificed a lot for her. We want her to do more of the good things she stands for and less of the bad. We will agree on many issues and disagree on some, but for this weekend, we should focus on the things that bring us together as service men and women.
DON’T SELF MEDICATE – Self-medication such as alcohol and other recreational drugs, nicotine, caffeine, sexualizing, overeating, etc., is common among veterans. Consider not self-medicating for this weekend. If you cannot stop, consider cutting down (if you normally have two cups of coffee, have one, if you smoke, skip one smoking break, etc.). It will allow you to get more in touch with your feelings about your military service and heal from any damage that was done.
NO ILLEGAL DRUGS.
NOT INVITED BACK IF ALCOHOL OR DRUGS
NO ROMANTIC/BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS FORMED HERE – We will go into more details about this later. For now, it is a bad idea to start romantic relationships in the workshop setting. To begin with, it makes it unsafe if people, especially women, feel they are being “hit on.” More generally, this is an artificial structure. We teach you to really listen to each other and the tendency is to think that someone who can do that for a while is going to do that 24/7 for life. This is an untrue assumption. You will both be disappointed and heart-broken. What we want is for you to develop a new kind of friendship where you are comfortable and willing to listen to each other. Then you can go set up other relationships more effectively many other people when you go home.
BE ON TIME, COME TO EVERYTHING – Please take this workshop seriously, starting on time, taking good care of yourself during the weekend – hangovers and being high take a lot away from the other participants as well as from yourself.
SO THOSE WERE RULES, MANY VETS NOW HATE RULES AND AUTHORITY – Even if you don’t like them, please follow them if only to help the other vets here.
BUDDIES – LEAVE NO VET BEHIND. THIS IS THE WAR AT HOME, THERE ARE TWO WARS. DONT LOSE MORE HERE THAN WE DID OVER THERE
GET PERSONAL AND MEDIA RELEASES SIGNED. THIS IS NOT PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING.
OVERVIEW OF SCHEDULE: First night, not much, just introductions and short support group meeting. Get a good night’s rest.
INTRODUCTIONS – TWO MINUTES EACH. SHOW YOURSELF – Brief introduction: name, where from, your military service or relationship to Iraq/Afghanistan-era vets, one thing you liked a lot about the military or still do, what are your goals for this weekend. These are timed turns. Just use the rest of the time to tell us other things you would like us to know about you. For example, family, hobbies, etc. Do this for any late arrivals when they get to the workshop.
WHAT IS A SUPPORT GROUP – The same support groups will meet three times during the workshop. These are the type of groups which have met in more than forty cities already and which we hope you will set up on your return. The leaders of most of our groups have experience with Vets4Vets. The basic idea is everyone gets a turn, with no interruptions or advice giving. We encourage you to express your feelings honestly and as deeply as possible. Laughing, crying, trembling with fear and anger are good things to get out. We’ll talk more about why tomorrow. For tonight, a support group is for you personally, so you get to talk about whatever is on your mind. If your trip was difficult or you left some problem at home, this is a good time to talk about it. However, this workshop is an unusual opportunity to talk about the war with people who can understand (especially if this is a constituency workshop for women, LGBTQ, medics, etc., even if it is just mainly made up of vets from a particular part of the country).You can start off by telling your group a little more about you and your military service. It’s a good idea to talk about at least one thing from the war or the military which is hard and which you don’t usually tell people about. If there is something else on your mind, feel free to talk about that as well. It is your time. For family members, include at least one thing that has been hard about dealing with your vet.
LIST GROUPS ON BOARD – WHO IS IN WHAT SUPPORT GROUP, WHERE MEET.
COME BACK HERE AFTER SUPPORT GROUPS
DEBRIEF – We asked you to do two unusual things: (1) talk without somebody asking questions, and (2) listen without being able to ask those questions. This is very different from most conversations. How was it being listened to? listening without interrupting?
MAKE ANNOUNCEMENTS – Breakfast will be in the cafeteria at 8. We will meet as support group leaders at breakfast both Saturday and Sunday. Feel free to call a group during meal times on any subject.
BREAKFAST – SUPPORT GROUPS LEADERS MEETING. Support groups leaders meet with workshop leaders. At support group leaders meeting, give each support group leader a turn, usually at least 5 minutes, to talk about how the workshop is going for them, how their group went, any members who need special attention, etc. Afterward, the Workshop Leader should lay out his or her plan for the day and ask for comments or input. This is your basic Squad/Section Leaders Meeting, allowing the Leader to stay in touch with everyone in the workshop, especially if it is a large one. It is also a chance to develop new leaders.
CLASS – ASSUMPTIONS OF VETS4VETS
BACKGROUND ON VETS4VETS – Vets4Vets had its roots in veterans’ “rap” groups during the Vietnam War. Indeed, the Vet Centers at the VA grew directly out of these original peer support groups. One Vietnam veteran found support from peer co-counseling and 12-step programs. He established Vets4Vets to make this resource more available to our generation of veterans.
WHY ASSUMPTIONS – We want vets to know what to expect whenever and wherever they attend a Vets4Vets meeting, and how they should behave. No surprises! They are pretty harmless assumptions, but we do not argue about them. It is good to have a theory when in a peer support group. The simplest one, and an easy one for a non-professional to use, is the one which inspired Jim D. to found Vets4Vets. Those two are “co-counseling,” often called by its initials “RC” or Reevaluation Counseling, and the various 12-Step programs. Many others are quite similar to these, but these are probably the ones that have best documented the practice of peer support.
VETS ARE GOOD, WAY GOOD – Most peer support communities hold in common the belief that its members are all good and can recover from the problems they are suffering. People are good – way good – intelligent, loving, cooperative.
HOW VETS PROCESS INFORMATION – (First handout, “the Head,” taken from Harvey Jackins, 1965.) Contrast: how information gets processed, normally, versus when getting hurt. Under normal conditions, we process billions of bits of information every second. We compare it to what we know already and file it away. Then, based on all that information, we make the most appropriate, flexible response to fit each new situation.
VETS GET HURT – When we get hurt, however – an IED goes off, someone is wounded, terrified, a drill sergeant shouts at us, we get assaulted sexually, etc. – the information does not get processed properly. It just sits there, in a clump. When something then reminds us of that hurtful situation, we are drawn to repeat it and often do. We feel all the feelings, the sights, the sounds – and we tend to repeat the actions. We jump when we hear loud noises. We don’t trust people we meet, even our loved ones. We isolate ourselves. This is often inappropriate. The VA distinguishes between “combat appropriate” skills — not trusting anyone, being hyper vigilant, etc. and “civilian appropriate” behaviors, being willing to trust others, relaxing, etc. Sometimes we replay the role of victim, sometimes the perpetrator.
EXPRESSING FEELINGS HELPS – Second handout (“the Chart” taken from Harvey Jackins, 1965). Most of our stories have strong feelings associated with them, feelings we could not openly express at the time. We could not stop to grieve a fallen buddy; we had to shoot back and move, to save our lives and others. We were frightened, but we had to keep going. (We may have been assaulted by a superior and not felt safe to complain.) When we tell these stories, and eventually we will, expressing emotion helps – crying, laughing, trembling, etc. When we begin to have these feelings while telling our stories, we need to be listened to without interruption, not stopped, which is what happens in most conversations when someone expresses strong feelings. If it is a vet, somebody probably offers him a drink! Not so different from what we do when babies cry. The truth is that vets need to express these feelings. It is part of the healing process. If they lost someone or something, they need to cry. If they were scared, they need to laugh and eventually tremble and perspire in a cold sweat, just like people often do when they are very scared. If they are frustrated and angry, they need to rage, which usually involves having a flushed face and loud noises associated with it, often warm perspiration. People often yawn when talking about injuries or illness. We don’t know why these physiological effects take place. It is certainly not like the country western song about the “tears washing away the pain in my heart.” However, it does happen pretty reliably. It could be evolution or creation, depending on your perspective. The one thing we know, though, is that it is natural and should be allowed to continue, even encouraged.
Listening is what helps. The more times you tell your story, the more you express feelings, the more you heal. Talking can be enough. How much you express your feelings depends entirely on how safe you feel. In general, being with another vet helps.
We practice basic peer support. We opt to have no professional or clinician. By virtue of there being no professional, or clinician this provides an environment of equality and validity. A long history of and research on peer support tells us that one thing, not the only thing, but one thing that can help people get over the effects of traumatic incidents is to meet in peer support groups with others like ourselves, tell our stories and express the feelings we have while someone else has agreed to listen.
That is what we do in VETS4VETS—this weekend, in local groups, over the phone or in one-on- one meetings. It’s what we assume when in Vets4Vets. Pretty straightforward.
What does all of this mean here today? As Iraq/Afghanistan-era vets, we are all good. Just the way we are. Infinitely good. And we got hurt, both in the military and in the war zone. As a result, we picked up some odd ways of feeling and behaving. Sometimes we do not believe we are good, or that we can never trust anyone. Some of us have anxiety and sadness about things that happened to us in the military. Some of us may have turned to some forms of self-medication or risky behaviors we would like to stop. This is a place for us to work on those things about ourselves that we would like to leave behind, from Iraq or Afghanistan, from the military, from how we have been treated.
PROFESSIONALS ARE IMPORTANT – Vets4Vets is not professional behavioral/mental health therapy. We do not believe that peer support is the answer to every problem. Many of us need additional support from a professional. We urge you to go to the VA or the nearest Vet Center if you feel you need support or you feel your buddy does. GiveAnHour.org is a national group of private psychologists who have agreed to see Iraq and Afghanistan vets for no or low cost. You just go on their website to find one near you. In every community, there is a Community Mental Health Center as well.
THREE TIMES WHEN PROFESSIONALS ARE MOST NEEDED – SUICIDE, TBI, AND CRISIS.
SUICIDE. Recently suicide has been publicized as a fatal outlet for returning vets. We hope to differentiate feelings from actions and allow the openness of this process to remain. If at any time you feel that a person is in need of additional help, please inform those around you and seek the proper preventative measures. It is particularly important if a person talks about specific means of harming themselves, specific times, and has access to those means, i.e., a weapon.
There is a Suicide Tip Sheet in your folder (presented in the chapter on Assumptions.)
The VA has a national suicide hotline you can call if you are worried. It is written on the flip chart and in your folder. (800-273-TALK ) Just identify yourself as a vet and they will put you through to a professional with training dealing with vets. The National Veterans Foundation which is a part of our Coalition also has a hotline where you or your buddy can talk to a counselor 1-888-777-4443.
Your community will have a suicide response team and you should learn about it.
When in doubt, call 911. It is far better to experience some embarrassment for making a call than to lose a vet to suicide.
TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) – New research is finding that some of the symptoms of severe head trauma or concussion due to combat environment or combat interaction are a prominent problem among OIF/OEF veterans. These symptoms of TBI overlap those for PTSD. How many of you have been tested for TBI? At the VA? We encourage all OIF/OEF veterans and Vets4Vets attenders to take advantage their V.A. benefits to seek further treatment or information concerning this issue. You should all go to the VA and be screened for TBI. It is paramount that as veterans we encourage each other to seek healthy life behaviors, self-wellness another fundamental we stand by.
There is a TBI Fact Sheet in your folder. Please take it out. Take a look. You need to read it all, preferably this weekend.
While we are on the subject, how many of you have been diagnosed with PTSD at the VA or by a psychologist or psychiatrist?
DEALING WITH A CRISIS – As a group we want to create and foster the open stage for sharing while insuring the safety and stability of the individual and the group. We also must take the proper precautions if someone threatens or intimidates by use of violence to themselves or others. We’ll talk about tools for re focusing positive initiatives in tomorrow’s schedule entitled “present time.” This kind of crisis has not happened as of yet to any of the fifteen hundred of us who have been through these now 85 workshops. Nor has it happened in hundreds of similar workshops and peer support group meetings our staff has attended in other peer support communities. But preparation is fundamental to the environment of safety and for the veterans as well. Just as in the case with a veteran talking about suicide, you should always know the crisis response system in the community, usually calling 911, but check with the workshop site. (Usually, there is someone attending the workshop from the local Vet Center, VA or community agency.) We will not hesitate to call 911 if there is a need.
CONFIDENTIALITY – Vets4Vets has in place and set by signature agreement of the veteran attending of the guidelines and rules of confidentiality. We also reiterate the “Honor Code” throughout the duration of the workshop. The “Honor Code” this concept of peer support cements the confidentiality to a second level. If two people have a timed session it stays within the confines of that session and cannot be brought up without the consent and permission of the individual involved. We do not mention its content even to the person themselves. If permission is not granted then it becomes a non negotiated issue for discussion. All veterans attending are informed of this standard and are expected to follow it.
RELATIONSHIPS – Like many other support groups Vets4Vets believes in keeping the peer support process strictly platonic. This allows the group dynamic to remain strictly peer and also does not create any emotional or physical infractions that could be detrimental to the future of the veteran or veterans welling to return to a workshop. Once again precaution is a VETS4VETS fundamental.
THE EFFECTS MAY NOT TAKE PLACE IMEDIATLEY. The peer support process is not an immediate cure-all. It is a method of practice. It enables us to think effectively, identify with the key aspects of our distress and with enough practice express our feelings. The validation of veterans coming together and meeting and being able to identify with each other’s distresses causes a healing all on its own. We hope to broaden the emotional scope of understanding within a group of veterans so they may be able to understand themselves.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCES. The spirit of peer support or just like any self-admittance group is based heavily on identification, e.g. “My name is ——- and I am an Alcoholic”. Vets4Vets is based off the same theory, having a common identity and a place to express these incidents and experiences will help to process the experience. We encourage this identification by having veterans speak to the whole group. We would like to do that now.
Tell each vet and let everyone watching know that when telling his or her story in front of the room, you, the Leader, may ask them some questions or make some comment to help them get in touch with the story. However, no one else should do that or interrupt. The most frequent example of a question will be if the vet is talking about a difficult time in combat and then starts talking about sports, you may ask them if they want to return to the story. You may ask them to slow down if they are talking very fast, or make eye contact with the folks in the room, or suggest that they say or do something. The idea is to help each vet express the feelings in the story they are telling. The idea is to help each vet express the feelings in the story they are telling. If any of your suggestions do not make sense to the vet, he or she has no obligation to try them. Just keep listening, which is at least 90% of what we do.
We sometimes call these “safety comments,” like the ones above. These comments are suggested by the four Vets4Vets “Safety Questions.”” They let the vet talking know that this is a safe place to talk, that the bad things that happened to them in the past are not happening now, e.g., there is no need to return fire, and they can just talk. And you let them know that you are interested in hearing their story, not curious, but willing to listen without judging. This has usually not been our experience. Any question or comment you can make to let the vet know this is a safe place will make it easier for the vet to tell his or her story.
TWO OR THREE VETS TELL THEIR STORIES – Give them 10 minutes each. Ask someone to keep time and tell you when the time is up. The tendency to let people talk as long as they want should be avoided.
SHORT LISTENING TURNS AFTER EACH STORY – It is a good idea, especially if the vet has told a heavy story at the front of the room, to have people break into twos or threes and take a short listening turn to talk about any feelings they had while listening to the story. Often the stories will remind the others about similar stories of their own.
Indeed, in some smaller workshops, you can give everyone a turn at the front of the room, followed by short listening turns for everybody.
REMINDER – We are going to do long listening turns later this afternoon. Please be thinking about who you want to stay in touch with after this workshop and ask them if they will do their long listening turn with you.
VETS4VETS SUPPORT GROUPS. Same groups. Locations may vary from the main meeting room for this longer time.
BREAK– RECREATION. Give options for exercise, confidence course with instructors, basketball, hikes, naps, etc., whatever is available at this site. It is good to organize at least one somewhat strenuous group activity – basketball, touch football, or water polo if weather permits. Ask people not to isolate and to do things in groups. Designate a napping room.
Remind them that there are two purposes for this long break. One is to get our attention off of the heavy things we have all been discussing and listening to. The second is to make relationships with other vets whom you can call on after the workshop. In general, young adults need more time for play than older vets.
TWO-PERSON LISTENING TURN WITH LONG-TERM VETS4VETS BUDDY. You will have to have people reconvene in the large group meeting room, because despite your urging, most will not have picked a “buddy.” Remember the purpose of this is to start a long-term Vets4Vets listening relationship where people will agree to take the other’s phone call 24/7–at least a couple of times. Ask people to pair up. Wait until everyone has. At some point, it is helpful to have those who do not have buddies to raise their hands so people know who is available. These turns are as close to 45 minutes each way in length. This is usually cited as the most important part of the workshop.
6 pm DINNER.
SHARING PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE AND GETTING INVOLVED – There are three primary purposes of peer support. The first is social support, which for us is veterans of the same era taking uninterrupted turns listening to each other, including expressing our feelings, especially about the war and the military. That is the primary purpose of Vets4Vets. Tonight, we will shift to the second and third purposes of peer support—sharing information and taking action.
However, before we make that shift, let’s review the different structures in Vets4Vets for social support.
SOCIAL SUPPORT ELEMENTS OF VETS4VETS
LISTENING TURNS – Stay in touch with your Vets4Vets buddy and others you meet here by phone and email. Do Listening Turns regularly or when you hit a tough patch. You can also call us at the national office.
REFERENCE PERSON. Pick a vet in Vets4Vets who has more experience than you do. It will probably be your local leader or a board or staff member. About once a month we would like you to check in with him or her on your Personal Care Plan which you will write tomorrow.
FACEBOOK. We ask people to join our Facebook page at every workshop so that you can stay in touch with this group easily. One caution that you have probably heard about. You should be careful what you put in writing on Facebook. If you commit a crime, this is not a good place to talk about it. If you cheat on your wife, etc. More specifically, you should not confuse Facebook with a Vets4Vets listening turn. This is a place to keep people up-to-date with what is happening in your lives–and to reach out if you need a listening turn. Just say that–don’t start having the turn on line with a whole group, none of whom has agreed to listen to you. When someone responds on Facebook, by email or phone, then you can agree to have a listening turn. We don’t want things in writing which may come back to haunt you years from now. PTSD is such a thing.
LOCAL GROUPS – If there is a Vets4Vets group where you live, start attending. If there is not one, we want you to start one. We want these groups everywhere for the vets who come behind us. It is good for you to reach out to others and to have this resource available to you. If you have come with a buddy or two, pick a time and a place to get together, and then follow the script in the on-line Leaders Manual – everything you need is in that. Everyone here should have one. You can usually get a church or synagogue to let you hold a meeting for free, or go to a veteran’s service organization. We have worked closely with most of them, i.e., the Legion, VFW, and Vietnam Veterans of America. Once you have a place and a few people who have agreed to come, put an announcement in the paper – announcements are usually free, both daily and weekly. Go to the VA, Vet Center, state/county vets’ offices, community college, major employers, unions, places of worship – let them know you are meeting. More details are in the Manual and on our website.
We also have special workshops for leaders of local groups where we share details of what has worked locally.
You can also set up a start-up social event to bring vets together. You can invite vets to get together for pizza. The only ground rule is no alcohol.
TELEPHONE SUPPORT GROUPS – You can always call the national office for a phone support group meeting. We’ll give you the times and call-in numbers of groups that are meeting. If you are interested in attending one of those, please tell me. We are seeking volunteers who will take calls and do listening turns by phone.
NATIONAL WORKSHOPS: YOUR TOWN, UNIT OR SUBGROUP – We would love to help you hold a workshop like this one in your local area or for members of your unit. Air travel is sometimes paid for by one of our Coalition partners, Air Compassion for Veterans. Give examples of upcoming workshops. We have a checklist for you to follow re: finding a place and setting up a workshop.
LEADERSHIP TRAINING– If you are serious about starting a local group, we will be happy to mentor you by phone and internet. Training consists primarily of more of our basic tools – telling your story in one-way listening turns so you can better understand the benefit of the process and learn from working with our experienced staff. We will also teach you what we know about setting up these groups, reaching out to the community and getting media coverage for your local group. Just let us know.
REACHING OUT HELPS YOU – Reaching out helps you. Taking another vet’s call helps you. Setting up a local group or a workshop helps you.
VETS4VETS: NOT AN ORGANIZATION, BUT A PRACTICE – There are two models of organizing: building networks of relationships and empowering individual initiative vs. building a staffed organization. Vets4Vets is not forming another formal, hierarchical, staffed veterans’ organization. We want you to take these ideas and practices into other organizations so there is a peer support group following Vets4Vets guidelines at the local Legion Post or VVOA. Some of our leaders have taken our tools into paid jobs in social service agencies serving other vets. We know that if vets are listened to, they are more likely to get better, become more involved in their community, and be more effective.
7:30 p.m. TOPIC GROUP DISCUSSONS AND THEN ACTION GROUPS
The second purpose of peer support is sharing practical information. What has worked for you – to deal with PTSD, TBI, get jobs, get through college, etc.?
A third purpose for some peer support groups is advocacy, taking action. We do not take any positions on political issues as Vets4Vets. However, we do want you to get involved in all the issues facing our generation of veterans and our larger communities. We know that getting involved is good for our own healing.
Other peer support communities have developed some simple tools for sharing information and encouraging people to get involved with solving problems. That is what we will do tonight.
First, we want to give you a better understanding of what Vets4Vets is and is not (as a background for our discussions).
TOPIC GROUPS: SHARING PRACTICAL INFORMATION – Now that you have the big picture on VETS4VETS, let’s see what the issues are that you want to talk about at this Workshop and the information you want to share.
In Topic Groups, people nominate topics to discuss, and then take a poll to break into smaller groups. The smaller groups meet and reports are taken, and then presented to the larger group.
What Topics would you like to discuss right now? Problems you are dealing with or information you would like to share with other vets here tonight?
Workshop Leader: List the topics as they are generated on a flip chart and then poll the group to see which ones have at least two people interested.
Remember, a participant can only vote for one group, because they can only be in one place at one time.
Some frequent topics raised in our workshops have been: GI Bill, dealing with PTSD, what’s available through the VA, and other government agencies? Vets doing art.
As the Workshop Leader, you should offer a topic group on building Vets4Vets groups locally or other topics which have been brought to your attention during the workshop, such as organizing future workshops and how to reach out to other I/A vets.
Give each person one “active” vote. This means if they vote for a group and are the only one who did so, they get to vote again.
Check at the end to make sure everyone has joined a group.
Also make sure each group has a note taker since we want to get the results of their discussions for our website.
In addition, assign a reporter to report to the whole group after the small group meetings.
Before they break into small groups to discuss their issue, please remind them of some ground rules for Vets4Vets discussions. They not to interrupt each other. Each person should get to speak before anyone speaks twice. No one should speak four times until everyone has spoken twice. Let them pick parts of the large room to meet in and give them at least 15 minutes to meet. Then gather them back for the reports.
ACTION GROUPS: GETTING INVOLVED – After the Topic Groups report back, have them break into small groups again by topic of interest (usually the same ones that just met, with some moving around). If someone wants to call a different group, that’s fine.
This second or Action Group meeting (is a chance for them each to commit to taking some action on the topic they just discussed. The Action Group meeting consists of two timed rounds of uninterrupted turns. (Actually, this is an abbreviated version of a full Action Group Gathering as described on our website.) In the first round (at least a minute each), each person states publicly to the small group what actual action steps they will take on the topic. In the second round, after they make individual commitments to action, the vets should be given a second timed listening turn on “What might get in the way of doing what you just said you would do?” Peer support communities around the world have found that people are more likely to do what they say they will — if they have a chance to discuss what might get in the way. What such loosely-coordinated groups find is that more gets done by the individuals in total after having been listened to than after a long meeting where the group has reached some compromise decision to which few people are deeply committed, even if a majority or consensus supports the decision.
CONNECT WORKSHOPS TO WEBSITE – This is a new step for us. Ask the groups to write up their reports legibly from both the topic and action groups and bring them back to the office for posting on the website so people can see what topics are important to different workshop participants and what people are doing. Our hope is that there will be blog-type discussion groups on building local Vets4Vets groups, reaching out on campuses or in a Corrections Department, using the GI Bill, etc. They will be reasons for folks to visit the website and they will lead to more GWOT vets getting active, as well as better services and lives for all of you.
DEBRIEFING – Ask them how they liked this process. Call attention to the information they have shared and the commitments they have made. Mention some of the accomplishments that have come out of past workshops, such as our work with women veterans and GLBTQ vets.
RECREATION – Describe the activities we have set up: Go Karts, Bowling, Wii, DVD movies, campfires, etc. Encourage folks to participate for the same two reasons as the afternoon, to get their attention off the heavy stuff we discuss and to build relationships with other vets they can call on in the future.
BREAKFAST—SUPPORT GROUP LEADERS MEET with workshop leader; other topic groups meet as desired.
GOING BACK HOME
This morning we are going to change the focus. There are two aspects of the social support we offer in Vets4Vets. First, we encourage you to go back and pay attention to the hard things about the war and your military service. In peer support communities, we have found that it makes sense to tell those stories over and over until they no longer have an emotional hold on us, limiting our lives in so many ways. However, we only recommend that we tell these stories when somebody has agreed to listen to them, usually a buddy or other veteran in Vets4Vets. If someone has not agreed to take listening turns with us, they are likely to find it difficult to listen to our stories, especially the gory parts, and they are not bound by our confidentiality agreements. This means they might bring the story up at other times or misuse it in our relationship. Most importantly, they are likely to ask stupid questions which make us angry–instead of helping us. We all can recall how we have been asked “that question” more than enough times; that is, “How many people did we kill?
The other aspect of Vets4Vets social support–and many other peer support communities around the world– is learning to keep our attention OFF of those painful memories when no one has agreed to listen. And helping each other in this process as well. Indeed, for many of us, the struggle is how NOT to think about Iraq or Afghanistan. When there is a loud noise or you smell something burning, and you think of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are back there again.
There is an important fact to remember at times like these: our mind is like a weapon, we get to decide where to point it!
The first tools we will cover are some simple steps for taking our attention off of those old memories that we, in many peer support communities, call “present time.”
PRESENT TIME TEQHNIQUES. You have already been using this here in the workshop. When people finished telling their stories at the front of the group, I would always ask them questions to get their attention off of the old memories they were talking about. Your support group leader has been doing the same thing after each person finishes. You can always decide where to put your attention. You can decide to focus on the pleasant things around you, such as the flowers outside. It is always a choice. After every listening turn, especially where you have talked about hard things, it is good for the listener to help you to focus on such present-time things.
Some suggested questions are: what are you looking forward to? What is your favorite flower? People often ask elaborate, funny questions. What would you do with three unrelated objects – a watermelon, an umbrella and a trumpet? Simple math questions work for some people. How much is six and seven? Or make a sentence whose words begin with the letters in some word. The answer doesn’t matter – it’s the thinking about it that is different than the memory.
Would someone come up to the front so I can show you what I mean?
Use these questions to direct the vet’s attention to the immediate surroundings and the future rather than Iraq or Afghanistan and the past.
COMMITMENTS – One tool for present time is called a commitment. Sometimes people talk about “affirmations,” positive sayings you repeat when you are upset, things you write on sticky pads and put on your mirror or refrigerator. Well, guess what, they work.
One form used in lots of peer support communities is called a “commitment.” By now, you know some of the patterns you have left over from the war. “I didn’t do enough.” “Because I did x, I am bad.” “I’ll never be happy again.” A commitment takes that pattern and combines it with a tool for present time. For example, “Whenever I feel like I didn’t do enough, I will notice the wonderful opportunities ahead of me now, such as (fill in your favorite).
Would someone come up and we can develop a commitment for you?
You can use these same tools when you get home. You might find some feelings coming up. The best thing is to give your Vets4Vets buddy a call and talk about the memory and the feelings associated with it. However, if you are alone or don’t have a cell with you, then use these same Present Time tricks. What are you looking forward to? What is your favorite hobby? Repeat your commitment. “I sometimes think I didn’t do enough, but everyone at the workshop thinks I did–and what I am going to do now to help other vets is (fill in the blank).
SELF CARE PLAN – The second tool we are going to discuss extends this idea of present time. We are getting feedback that folks would like a little more time to talk about how they are going to follow up after the workshop and some discussion on the need to develop the skill of putting your attention on the positive, present time after you dive into the hard stuff. This is part of the more general question of what are you doing to take care of yourself? Other traditions also put great attention on such “Action Plans.”
We recognize that you may not have a local Vets4Vets community to go home to. In many of these other peer support communities, you can go home to literally dozens of groups meeting every day in your community. AA for example. If you are in peer counseling, you will have classes and support groups meeting every week. It will take some time for us to develop that amount of resource for one another as Iraq and Afghanistan. So, besides calling your Vets4Vets buddy, going to a local group or another workshop, what can you do to keep your attention off these old hurts?
There are many, many ways. You probably know a lot of them.
For example, in one peer support community they refer to their “tools.” Here are some of them:
(These should be listed on a flip chart)
WIDELY-USED TOOLS FOR PERSONAL CARE
EXERCISE REGULARLY – how many do something every day? Even walking helps a lot. There is a positive chemical change which takes place in your mind when you exercise.
DIET – You literally are what you eat. For many of us, that makes us sugar, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. There are such things as vegetables. Many of us put on weight when we come back from the war. It is just another way to self-medicate. Indeed, Dr. Jonathan Shay, a famous psychiatrist who specialized in PTSD at the Boston VA and is now on our Advisory Committee, recommends that every vet worried about PTSD symptoms stop drinking caffeine for several weeks. The effects of caffeine are complicated and combine the symptoms of anxiety (speeding up) and depression (slowing down). He says that you cannot be sure what are symptoms of PTSD and what result from too much caffeine, unless you go a couple of weeks cold turkey. You will probably get a headache for the first few days, but you may find that your symptoms are related to caffeine. Drink a lot of water.
SLEEP–Dr. Shay also says that sleep is the most important thing to help with PTSD. How many of you get 8 hours of sleep a night? There are whole books written on how to get to sleep. Have a routine. Always do it in the same place. Don’t have the TV going. For example, I need to read for 10 minutes or so before I go to sleep. If you are not getting enough sleep, get some help on this. Listening turns do help, especially just before bedtime.
WATER–Drink lots of water.
MEDITATION OR PRAYER– Obviously, if you believe in God or a Higher Power, prayer is very helpful for all of your problems. But whatever you believe, there is a proven positive effect on stress levels and productivity from taking 20 quiet minutes twice a day to sit quietly. If you are praying to a Higher Power, it is a two-fer!
Let me show you how simple it is. We’ll meditate for a few minutes. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, notice your breathing, your breath coming in, your breath going out, if thoughts come, just let them go, if you have a prayer or saying you like, just let it stay in your mind. Notice your breathing. (At the end, just ask them to slowly open their eyes. If you have time, ask them how they liked it.) Even five minutes can help in a stressful situation. If someone cuts you off in traffic, notice your breathing.
JOURNALING/WRITING – Many peer support communities recommend this practice. Make it regular, daily. And if you are upset and can’t get your Vets4Vets buddy on the phone, write about what is happening, what you are feeling. There are whole workshops out there on using journaling. One caution: if you keep a journal, keep it somewhere where no one else can read it. Our journals can be more upsetting to those around us than a teenager’s diary!
GOALS–What do you want to do with your life? What job do you want? What education? What relationship? Just like in the military, if you don’t have a written plan and goals, you are less likely to get where you want to go.
GET A MENTOR – What we call a “Reference Person,” following peer counseling. It is a good idea to get someone to check in with. In 12 steps, it is called a “Sponsor.” It can be someone with more experience in Vets4Vets or a clergy or friend – someone you can tell the truth about yourself, set goals with and measure progress. Talk about your financial plan. Life-plan. Relationship plans and goals for family. It is also very helpful to offer to play this role for another vet, especially one who is just starting out in Vets4Vets. In many peer support communities, we know that it is more helpful to the mentor that it is to the mentee!
TOOLS YOU ALREADY USE
What are some of the other things you do to take care of yourself? Other vets have suggested: listening to music, playing with pets, drawing or painting, and gardening.
Did you know that in Japan, you can pay to pet a cat? There is something very relaxing about animals. Japanese managers are very stressed and use this tool.
Add the suggestions to the list on the flip chart. Don’t put up addictions like drinking or drugs. Some of the things that often come up are: music, pets, e.g., walking a dog, gardening.
Also, don’t forget the tools of Vets4Vets from last night (have these on another flip chart to remind people).
VETS4VETS TOOLS TO CONSIDER FOR YOUR PERSONAL CARE PLAN
ONE-ON-ONES — Call your Vets4Vets buddy, text message or email.
SUPPORT GROUPS – Go to your local group or help start one. Call in to our monthly support group or start one for vets like you. We have had suggestions to get folks together who are officers, medics, Latino and African heritage – besides the groups who meet already.
WORKSHOPS – You are welcome to attend another workshop as they are held. Organize a workshop in your community or for your buddies in the military.
CALL THE NATIONAL OFFICE FOR
NEED FOR A WRITTEN PLAN – What is important is setting a self-care plan for each day. In management consulting, “If you don’t have a plan in writing, it isn’t a plan.” We are going to ask you to write yours down. All these tools work. Just pick the ones that appeal to you.
We are going to use the same Action Group format from last night. Please break into groups of three and get out the two Personal Care Plan pages from your folder.
Like last night, we will take two turns. In the first one, talk about what you are going to do to take care of yourself when you get home. Then when your time is up, write your plan down twice. One page is for you to take home, the other is for your Reference Person. He or she will use this when we call you up to check in after the workshop.
Check ahead of time with a local leader or two or three, ideally from this local area, but always with experience in Vets4Vets, who will serve as a Reference Person to reveal vets.
The second turn, like last night, is to take a listening turn on what might get in the way of your sticking to this Personal Care Plan. We all have habits we know by now. Some of us procrastinate; others set unrealistic goals. We all know our addictions. As I noted then, you are much more likely to stick to this plan if you take time in listening turns, now and later, to talk about what might get in your way.
After timing these turns, take time for each participant to give the plan to the Reference Person of his or her choice.
SUPPORT GROUPS (third meeting)
EVALUATION – Pass out the evaluation post-workshop survey. Be sure and collect them
Afterward. Ask if people have comments they would like to talk about.
PICTURE—Be sure and get a group picture with the banner.
FAREWELLS – What is your name, where are you going back to, what is a highlight from the
CLOSING CHEER: We end with a huddle. Ask vets to put their hands together in the center and repeat the cheer: VETS—4—VETS!
TRANSPORTATION back to the airport or home.
GOALS FOR THE WORKSHOP LEADER TO REVIEW BEFOE THE WORKSHOP.
Learn Vets4Vets philosophy, both understand and experience the value of being
listened to for uninterrupted turns, introducing the Vets4Vets peer support model.
Learn value of expressing feelings, by being allowed the proper and peer environment for peer healing.
Give veterans a chance to share their experiences and express their feelings in front of the workshop allowing the value of peer support (the impact of being listened to by a large group with encouragement to express feelings) and let others see that value.
Give all veterans introduction to and experience with Vets4Vets Support Groups.
Give all veterans a Vets4Vets listening session with an ongoing “Vets4Vets Buddy” who they will stay in touch with after the workshop. This building the “pay it forward” building of a national community. Encourage each veteran to ask someone more experienced in Vets4Vets to serve as their Reference Person,
Motivate vets to continue using this process after workshop and to set up a local workshop, local group or phone group or relationships, including reaching out to unit buddies and friends.
Learn mechanics of all four Vets4Vets components (Listening Turns, Support Groups, Topic Groups, and Action Groups)—the basic theory and structure
Learn and implement the ideal of “Veteran Self Wellness”, exposing the dangers of risk behaviors such as, excessive alcoholic indulgence, substance abuse, self-harm or harm to others, isolation, neglect of service support community e.g. V.A health care system or Vets centers.
Continue to develop Vets4Vets strategy, nationally and for each local area, to build Vets4Vets in local communities.
Encourage veterans to visit VA, Vet Centers, or any other community or nonprofit agency conducive to OIF/ OEF veteran wellness e.g. Give an Hour, The Soldier’s Project, Swords to Plowshares, U.S. VETS, National Veterans Foundation.
Using the Topic Group format, allow vets to identify problems facing members of workshop and resources which have helped.
Using the Action Group format, by empowering veterans to build service support in their communities, motivating them to become involved with helping each other, and get involved in the larger community. Once again, furthering the empowerment process in the Veteran community gives the gift of purpose.
End of Workshop Outline
For background and possible use in your own workshop, here is copy of some of the materials we have used for Workshops: Application form and Workshop Guidelines, Welcome Letter and List of Workshop Jobs
Vets4Vets Workshop Application
For those who served
In theater (Iraq or Afghanistan)
Led by Jim D,
Triangle YMCA Ranch Camp and Retreat Center
In Oracle, near Tucson, Arizona
Friday, April 27, 6 p.m. to Sunday, April 29, 2 p.m.
Vets4Vets (www.NIPSPeerSupport.org) is a non-partisan veterans’ peer support community dedicated to helping Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans feel good about themselves and heal from any negative aspects of service and war. Vets4Vets is a national community of Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who have served post 9/11. In weekend workshops, one-on-ones and local groups, Vets4Vets allows veterans to take equal and uninterrupted turns sharing their experiences and expressing their feelings in a truly confidential setting. Over 2500 Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans have attended one of our eighty-five workshops. Most of them have returned to their home communities after these workshops and reached out to their peers to begin setting up Vets4Vets projects around the country. This workshop is a chance for those who served in theater to tell their stories to other veterans with similar service.
Priority will be given to those OIF/OEF vets who have not yet attended a Vets4Vets workshop and to those who are interested in setting up and leading local Vets4Vets support groups.
Points Of Contact
Vet4Vets Coordinator: Jim Driscoll
Email completed application to: Conference Application/Required Information
1) Nearest Airport:
2) Are you willing to fly from a different airport (please indicate other airport(s)):
3) Best travel times and/or time you must return home (attendance at the whole workshop is strongly encouraged):
4) Phone numbers you can be reached at:
5) Name on Driver’s License or other ID (Airlines require this):
6) Dietary preferences, e.g. vegetarian, or special needs: N/A
7) How did you hear about this workshop?
8) Are you driving your car?
9) Are you carpooling?
**Please be flexible, our objective is to get as many
vets to the workshop as possible. Thank you.
Where did you serve: Iraq __ Afghanistan ___ Other ___
When did you serve? _ With what unit?
Are you currently working to set up a local Vets4Vets project?
Yes ____ No ___
Last Vets4Vets workshop attended:
Refrain from self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs.
Leave your politics (and other controversial opinions) at the door. If someone does not share your views, then you may make the whole workshop unsafe for them. This includes wearing political t-shirts, hats and buttons.
If you feel you need to talk about some political or controversial issue because it is important to your own recovery, please ask the person you are with if he or she would mind listening to it—or find someone who you know shares your view. There are often times in the workshop when you can suggest a topic and bring people with similar views together.
Please do not recruit people to your political group during the workshop.
Attempts to initiate romantic relationships at workshops can also make it unsafe for others. Please don’t! This is not the time or the place to begin romantic or business relationships.
Peer support traditions have actually found that romantic relationships that start under artificial conditions like these workshops don’t work out well when you return to regular life! Nobody can act that way 24/7 and this often results in disappointments and anger.
Instead, we encourage you to form carefully structured V4V relationships where you can count on someone to take turns and listen for a specified time. If you already have an ongoing relationship with someone at the workshop, then V4V is a great tool to add to it.
Please be on time for all portions of the workshop. When you are late or skip a session, it lessens the impact of the sessions for others as well as for yourself.
Welcome letter to Tucson Workshop, April 27-29, 2007
Dear Vets4Vets Workshop Participant,
Welcome to our 10th Vets4Vets (V4V) weekend workshop.
We are proud to provide this space primarily for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (and a few allies) to celebrate the good parts of their military service and heal from the negatives. We hope that this workshop will lead to the formation of ongoing V4V relationships by phone and in person and to local V4V Support Groups
Thanks so much for your commitment to Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans—to helping yourselves and others heal from the wounds of this war and to getting involved in the community in ways that make sense to you and to them.
You are a leader in a movement which will make a difference to thousands of veterans, to our country and the world.
We will start on Friday evening, April 27, at 6 p.m., with introductions over dinner, at the Triangle Y Ranch Camp and Retreat Center in Oracle, Arizona, just outside Tucson (520-884-0987). We will end about 3 p.m. (depending on flight departures) on Sunday.
If you are flying into Tucson, bring your bags to the Arizona Stagecoach Shuttle desk between baggage carousels number 4 and 5. They will have your name as part of a pre-paid group (Vets4Vets) and put you on their next van going to Oracle. You might have to wait awhile for others to come in. We will end by 3 p.m. on Sunday.
A sheet of directions is attached for those driving.
We will meet Friday evening and Saturday morning. Breakfasts will be at 8 a.m. There will be a long break on Saturday afternoon for hiking and recreation, meetings before and after dinner with a movie Saturday night. Sunday we will go from 9 to 3, with a break for lunch.
If you are a vegetarian or have special dietary or other needs, please let us know as soon as possible. For that matter if you have other special needs—e.g. allergies or physical disabilities, please let me know.
Please refrain from self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs. Please let me know if you are taking prescription drugs.
Please leave your politics (and other controversial opinions) at the door.
If someone does not share your views, then you may make the whole workshop unsafe for them. This includes wearing political t-shirts, hats and buttons.
If you feel you need to talk about some issue because it is important to your own recovery, please ask the person you are with if she would mind listening to it—or find someone who you know shares your view.
Do not recruit people to your political group during the workshop.
Seeking to start romantic relationships at workshops can also make it unsafe for others. Please don’t.
Be on time for all portions of the workshop.
People who care about Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans are spending a lot of money to get you here, feed you and put you up in this beautiful setting. When you are late or skip a session, it lessens the impact of the sessions for others as well as for you.
Thanks for taking this weekend for yourself and the other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who will be here.
If there are any problems, please call us at 520-250-0509.
Looking forward to seeing you,
Jim D, Coordinator
Exhibit 4. Workshop Jobs Here is a list of Jobs which long experience has shown will make this or any workshop go more smoothly. It works best if specific people agree to do specific jobs. However, we have found that many Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans do not like to be assigned jobs. Therefore we include this list in the materials which we send out before the workshop. If there is a specific job you would like to do, please let the Workshop Organizer know. We will take some time on the first evening to see how many others we can get taken. Job(s) are specific places where you are in charge of seeing that things go well at this workshop. Please recruit others to help you, especially if you don’t like your job. The more you do your job, the better the workshop will be for everyone. Accessibility/ Special needs This includes making the workshop fully accessible for all participants, but not by taking care of people or accommodating feelings. Check with the organizer about any special needs we already know about. For example, some veterans are hard of hearing and can’t hear the timers go off. You have to tell them. Announce who you are at the beginning of the workshop so that anyone else can more easily ask for assistance. Periodically check in with people to make sure they're being well thought about and getting what they need. Announcements Ask people to give you their announcements in writing. Use your judgment in deciding which ones should be made to the entire group. Speak slowly, clearly, loudly! Beauty and Order Keep an eye on how the meeting room is looking and that things are in order. Reorganize chairs. Throw away any trash and straighten chairs before each class. Encourage people to pick up after themselves and to bus their own tissues. Make sure the room is in good shape when we leave each day. Set up a Lost and Found table and announce it. Recruit others to help. Jobs Coordinator Explain job responsibilities to people with questions. Remind people to do their jobs as needed. If you something that needs to be done, remind the person whose job it is. Site Coordinator All communications with site staff. Be in contact with the kitchen staff about actual needs. Let people know where they can store their own food if they brought some. Literature Get literature and t-shirts from Jim. Organize them by size. Each person gets one. The two RC books are $5 each. The others are just for display. The T-shirts are free. Set up the literature table with signs clearly indicating how much things cost and how to pay. Put it in a central place. Collect the money at night and put it in a safe place. Put out any other materials people bring. Make a couple of announcements about what is on the table.
Overall responsibility for the workshop, monitor the vibes of the workshop. If people seem to be losing their attention or if the workshop leader seems to be out of sorts in anyway, your primary responsibility is to suggest to the workshop leader that this might be good time for everyone to take a listening turn.
Organize and encourage people to participate in physical activities during breaks. There may be specific instructors for a given workshop site helping on certain equipment. Others may want to play basketball or hike. Make it clear that sports are not just for experts, or those who feel comfortable playing. Make sure there are games and activities that everyone can play
Picture taking Get camera. Make sure it is working. Check with others if you don’t take a lot of pictures. Take an individual picture of everyone for use in local media and to help Jim remember who is who. Take one group picture with the V4V banner as a backdrop! Problem Solver/s You are the person folks should go to with any great ideas on how to make the workshop run better, or with problems or complaints. Listen to them complain. This will solve most problems. Help people solve any real problems. Pass on relevant information to the organizer or the appropriate job committee coordinator. Promptness Remind people at meals 10 minutes before group meetings, etc. begin. Help people return on time from breaks or mini-sessions. A key job as we have not always been prompt! Registration and Welcome Greet people warmly at the registration table. Check them in; give them packets, t-shirts, timers and name tags. Point out the person's job on their folder as well as the job descriptions in the folder. Help people get oriented - point out the direction to their room and to the meeting rooms. Roster Post two sheets of paper for changes and updates to the roster in the folder. Scribes and Poster Sheets Be ready to write whenever it's needed in the workshop. Title newsprint sheets for topic groups, caucuses, meal-time tables and roster changes or additions. Keep sheets neat, easy to read and up to date. Move topic-table sheets to lobby for breakfast. Snacks Maintain snack table. See that snacks are set out and replenish them as needed. Keep drinking water, hot water and tea available. Keep the area as clean as possible. Songs /Music Set up boom box and pick CDs to play on breaks, after sessions, as appropriate. Please see if you can get someone to a song before each class. Choose songs that people can sing along with, or teach the group a new one. Organize others to help you lead songs. Timekeeper Keep time for listening turns and anything else requested by the leader. Leader Support Keep track of the workshop leader. Offer him or her listening turns as needed. Cover their back. Creativity Table Get supplies from Organizer or Leader. Get people interested in using the art supplies. Keep table orderly.
Workshops for Women and Vets With Different Sexual Identities
Recognizing the different experiences of women in our society and the greater psychological safety provided by a homogeneous group, both of the peer support communities which inspired Vets4Vets have set up dedicated support groups and workshops for women. In our early workshops, we set up one of the Support Groups for women veterans. After most Workshops some of the women vets would ask us to hold Workshops for women veterans only. Over time, we held three such weekend Workshops which were well received.
The other constituency which early on began asking for their own workshops was vets with different sexual identities. For them, the stress of war was aggravated by the official policy at the time of “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell.” Eventually, one vet organized and led three weekend workshops for veterans of different sexual identities. He also set up a weekly telephone support group for participants in those workshops, a group which met for over a year.
Vets4Vets has a deep commitment to helping all Iraq/Afghanistan era veterans. As we have said before, our organization doesn’t take any stance on politically charged issues
and remains neutral on many things that draw fire politically. We’ve learned from other
peer support groups that becoming involved in “outside issues” is a lethal pill for
organizations made of people who have differing opinions on such issues. The only area
where we walk closer to that line is that we are staunch supporters of minority groups
who have served and make every effort to insure that everyone feels welcome at the
Vets4Vets table. To our way of thinking, this policy is a simple continuation of what we
learned to hold sacred in the military. Yes, the rank structure does establish that some
people are “above” others but the US military policy is that we are all essentially equal.
The Marine Corps puts it this way: “Here, we’re all green.” This is not to say that most
of us have not heard some disturbing comment at one time or other during our military
service that would reflect some kind of prejudice. Different groups of people in America
are still discriminated against even as we move forward as a society. Most of us have gotten to see how, when put into the environment of the military, people can also “come around” in wonderful ways. Who among us has not seen some example where two people of different races who came from racially charged backgrounds, when put into the trenches together, came out as the closest of friends? Of all the good things that military service provides, this is one of the best. It’s a wonderful place where people who come from completely different backgrounds can get to understand someone else’s experiences.
Late at night, sharing a fire watch duty with someone can be a window into an experience
of life that we never knew. We want to continue this tradition in our work with
Vets4Vets. We want to do what we can to keep the bonds between service members tight, no matter what their background may be. In this way, we have made special effort to make sure that people who are part of historically disenfranchised groups feel heard and appreciated in Vets4Vets.
There are many ways with which we make the effort to show people who are part of
some minority that they are wanted and appreciated. One is with money. Isn’t it funny
how in life we will often hear people, groups of people and organizations of one type or
another make statements about how much they appreciate the diversity of their
organizations and how much minority members are valued but when it comes down to it,
“where the metal meets the road,” resources are typically allocated to the same groups
who have been privileged their whole lives. We would hope this is a trend all but dead in
the military. It is a trend that never has or will be part of Vets4Vets. Here’s an example
of the first way we “put our money where our mouth is” on this subject.
Women have long been an important part of our armed forces. Even from the beginning
of our nation’s military, women have valuable roles in keeping us “in the fight.”
Granted, especially in the early days, the view of what women are capable of and what
their role in the efforts of our defense has been different. As women’s roles in the
military have evolved, there has been almost constant controversy surrounding it. From
the early days of when women were integrated on an increasing level into the rank and
file, there have been cries of how it would destroy morale and compromise unit cohesion.
Still, women in our armed forces continued to step up and do their part. Until this current
conflict in the Middle East, in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and our
involvement in Afghanistan, there seemed to be a lot of debate about women in combat.
Committee hearings before Congress where women put on field packs and talked about
their abilities and were shouted down by men who argued their place should be
somewhere other than “the front.” The US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have in some
ways settled that argument. It’s strange how life can often do that. So much has been
said about women’s abilities to do this or that but when the time came and we found
ourselves in the fight, women were right there. Even though the military still has an
official policy against women serving in combat units or holding certain billets in the
military, we male members who have served there know that because in Iraq and
Afghanistan “the front is everywhere,” our fellow service members who are women have
often been shoulder-to-shoulder with us, often doing some of the same “combat oriented” duties we have. Since women service members are required to be present when female Iraqis are searched or questions, those of us who’ve “kicked down doors” have often found ourselves kicking right beside a female service member who was kicking too!
There is still controversy around the nature of women’s roles in the military and likely
will be for as long as women are not absolutely seen as equal in our society. But
Vets4Vets doesn’t take this on as part of our mission. To us, even though many of us
have strong (and sometimes differing) opinions on this subject, it is still an “outside
issue.” Our job is to take care of vets; all vets who have served since 9-11. That includes
females. So in our early attempts to make sure that our movement was making sure to
reach out to groups who had often gotten the short end of the stick in life, we chose to
start with our female members. We first asked them in what ways we could create an
environment that provided help to female veterans specifically. To some of the male
members’ surprise, women often did not want to be singled out, separated or treated any
differently. They especially did not want to have any “special provisions” made for
them. One thing that did seem to be of great need though was for women veterans to be
able to meet in a circle alone and talk about their experience of serving in the military as
a woman. This makes perfect sense when you think about it. Since Vets4Vets in some
ways is modeled after other basic peer support organizations like AA, the idea that people
who have a similar experience and history can get a lot of help simply by sharing their
stories with each other is not new. This is true of alcoholics and it’s true of veterans as well. The simple fact that alcoholics have been to the same “war” as other alcoholics gives them a point on which to relate. Beyond that, still following the example of AA, other twelve step groups and other peer-support communities, sometimes groups are formed for women only. In these groups, sometimes women feel more able to share openly about things they would be uncomfortable if there were men around. After our first few workshops, women veterans began asking us to hold some workshops “for women only.” So Vets4Vets decided to follow the lead of these other peer-support networks and began holding at least one such workshop every year.. Vets4Vets early earned a reputation for providing a safe place for women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,
In addition, at some of our retreats we have had special “break-out groups” where people who had things in common beyond just being vets, met together for the added safety of their similarity. There have been break-out groups of veterans who identify as “Native Heritage”, “People of Color,” “LGBTQ.”
We even once had a group of veterans who identify as “Southerners!” In this group, the
vets were surprised (and happy) to hear that other members of the military who grew up
in the American south had also felt like they were sometimes labeled and identified by a
huge system of stereotypes and how often this had been hurtful to them. One of the early
break-out groups was “Female Veterans.” When they got together and realized how very
much there was to talk about and how much of their experience had been similar, it
became evident that it would be advantageous to this particular group of veterans and to
Vets4Vets as a whole to have a retreat workshop weekend for just Women Vets. It was a
huge success and since that time, Vets4Vets has had at least one retreat annually
specifically for female veterans.
The women veterans are not the only ones to benefit from these women’s retreats. The
organization as a whole has benefited. Anything that makes any of our members
stronger, makes Vets4Vets as a whole stronger. Also, within the context of the retreats
where both men and women are present, we have been able to set up safe situations for
women to be able to talk about ways in which some of them were hurt by some of the
men they served alongside. It is shocking and disturbing to learn how many women in
our armed forces have been the victims of sexual harassment, abuse and assault! Perhaps
the group most impacted by our efforts in this area are the male veterans. Many of them
had no idea how much of a problem this sad phenomenon is. At one particular retreat
where both men and women were present, we set up a panel of women who were willing
to talk about some of their horrific experiences. In some ways it was like a big “listening
turn” for us all. As we’ve said, the nature of the listening turn is that no one is able to
comment on what is shared so we kept true to that tradition. However in this case, the
women veterans did offer to answer questions from the male veterans who were deeply
concerned about this problem and wanted to better understand how they could be allies to
the women veterans. It was a deeply moving experience for all of us and the strength of
the group was doubled (at least.)
At the first women’s weekend long, V4V retreat and the two others that have followed so far, we have learned that sometimes women are more easily able to talk about some of the tougher stuff in a group of women and so we decided to see if we could offer that same benefit to other groups within our larger veterans’ community.
Early on another group of veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan asked for time to have peer support for themselves. Certainly since the Revolutionary War; members of this group, Gay men, Lesbians and Bisexuals, have served in
the ranks of the United States military. A lot has changed in societal attitudes toward this
group of people in that time but it continues to be a passionate subject matter for a lot of
people. From now on in this book we will refer to this constituency as LGBTQs. This
group of initials stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning.
(The Q is sometimes said to stand for “queer,” a word often used in a hateful way but
which has been reclaimed by those working for Civil Rights for this constituency as a
way to claim personal power.) There are also other initials which are sometimes included
like F, for “formerly identified” or U for “unidentified” for people who do not want to be
identified by any label that to them limits who they are to their sexual or gender identity.
All this information is provided here as education since many of us have had little
experience being around or listening to that many people in this group talk about their
experience. In our culture sometimes the notion of being “politically correct” has
become material for comedians and a subject at which people will often roll their eyes.
“What do they want to be called now?” At Vets4Vets we unapologetic ally do all we can
to continually reemphasize that we want to reach out to all OIF/OEF veterans regardless
of all the other “labels” that society puts on us or that we put on ourselves. Our efforts to
be sensitive to the feelings and wishes of veterans who are part of a specific group are
exemplified in our willingness to call them as they wish to be called, even if that might
change. All are welcome here. We do not believe that any veteran should have any less
access to all the help that is available because of the way they identify. You put on the
uniform. That is enough for us. There is only one label that is important to us, that label
is “veteran.” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in the news a good bit those days. It is the classic “hot button” topic. All of us who have served in the recent wars have served closely alongside LGBTQs, whether we knew it or not. Most of us knew it. Still, Vets4Vets does not take a position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” There are veterans who have and continue to play an important role in Vets4Vets who are, in all honesty still very uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. These members are still welcome in Vets4Vets. There are also veterans who now proudly identify as LGBT or Q who have been important and faithful leaders as we have built Vets4Vets to what it is today. These members are still welcome in Vets4Vets. Indeed there were LGBTQ veterans at the very first Vets4Vets retreat in Miami in 2005!
In the same way that we learned that women veterans could benefit from having retreats
where only women veterans were allowed, we also learned that our LGBTQ sisters and
brothers could also benefit by having the opportunity to have a retreat where they could
talk about the special challenges of serving in the military where there was then a policy that requires them to hide their sexuality. At the first LGBTQ retreat and at the two others which were held, these veterans are able to share with each other how painful and frustrating it can be to be living by official codes of conduct that often include honesty while having to be very dishonest with our fellow service members whom we had come to view as our brothers and sisters. In some ways the feelings of being disrespected were almost insurmountable. After all, weren’t we making the same sacrifices and risking as much as those service members who identify as heterosexual and are able to talk freely about their wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, etc.? When the LGBTQs were given the opportunity to meet and say whatever they had been holding back, a wonderful thing
happened: many of us remembered why it was that we joined, about our commitment to
our country and our deep and unqualified love and respect for our fellow service members—even those who don’t understand us, even those who wish we’d just go away. Is there a home in Vets4Vets for veterans whose religious, social or political views lead them to believe that LGBTQ people serving in the military is a bad idea? Absolutely. Is there a home in Vets4Vets for those LGBTQ people who served? Again, absolutely. All we ask is that we treat each other with respect and understanding. When we talk about our war experience, we always find that we have more in common than we think. Vets4Vets has no “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy Sometimes men do not feel comfortable talking about certain things in front of women. Especially when it comes to our war experience and our time in the military in general, sometimes male veterans need to talk about things in a way that they would not be able to when females are present. Some have taken part in things that were very hurtful to women and have come to realize that if they are not able to deal with these issues, they are likely to self-destruct. Somehow being able to share these stories in a group of all men, makes is possible. There is not judgment here. We don’t even want to over analyze why this is true. We just want to honor it and do what we can to provide a space and resources for the male veterans to have this opportunity if they feel they need it. So again following in the footsteps of AA, we have unintentionally had “men’s stag” Vets4Vets retreat workshops and groups. We always want to come together again and a whole Vets4Vets family but we recognize and honor our men’s need for this opportunity.
Racism is a toxic disease that has divided many a nation, ours included. The long-reaching effects of slavery on African-American people and on the society at large are still felt more than a hundred and fifty years later. Privilege and opportunity for white people to the exclusion of others has lasted far beyond the Civil War. We’ve come a long way but we are not done. Since segregation has been used as a tool of racism, we are sensitive to the idea that having African-American people in a separate group, even for this specific purpose, gave many of us pause in the beginning. Therefore it bears repeating that all people are welcome as leaders in Vets4Vets and all are afforded the same opportunities. Sometimes our African-American veterans have benefited from being able to talk about issues specific to race with a group of just other African-American veterans. Sadly, no matter how far we’ve come, racism still exists in the
military and as has been mentioned with regard to other constituencies, it will be present
on some level until it is exercised completely from our culture. Until that time, if you are
an OIF/OEF veteran who is African-American and you believe that you and other veterans who are African-American can benefit from having retreats/meetings for African-American veterans, please step up. We will do all we can to support you in this endeavor. You are most welcome in Vets4Vets.
In Vets4Vets, African-American veterans have asked us to use that term. As with other groups, there are other terms used, “Black” or “African-heritage”, for example. As with other groups, we take our lead from the members of the group itself.
Immigration is another political hot-button in America these days. There is so much hate
speech toward and about people who have come to America from south of the border.
Even if your family has been here for generations, if your name is Martinez, or
Rodriguez, or Lopez, you’ve likely felt some negativity coming your way. We at
Vets4Vets have come to see this as particularly disheartening especially since our brown-
skinned brothers and sisters are sacrificing to a sometimes disproportionate level.
Anyone who doubts it need only look at the daily KIA lists coming from Iraq and
Afghanistan where they’ll find many of the same names we just mentioned. Latino
veterans have similar issues to talk about that sometimes others may not understand. For
this reason we welcome our Latino vets to gather in break-out groups at retreats and also
to plan Vets4Vets retreats for Latino veterans. We will do all we can to support you in
In fact, we make this offer to all sub-groups of veterans who have become a part of the
greater Vets4Vets movement. We realize that there are all sorts of possibilities when it
comes to find additional ways in which we can relate to each other and that there is a
special benefit from being able to make additional ties based on these similar
experiences. We have had retreats restricted to combat veterans only because it became
clear that there were things that combat vets only felt comfortable talking about around
other combat vets. We are organizing workshops for medics. Someday we hope to do the same for officers. The list goes on and on.
Ultimately though, we want to always remember that we are all part of the larger Vets4
Vets family. Our efforts to reach out to all of these other sub-groups of Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans should always been seen as a way to increase our greater unity and never to divide us.
Workshops for Our Spouses and Significant Others
From the first of our Vets4Vts workshops, participating veterans asked if their spouses and significant others could attend our workshops. One of the great tragedies of service in Iraq or Afghanistan and as it has been for veterans of all wars, for many of us, has been the negative effects on our marriages and other significant relationships. Not all of us have had this problem – and in most of our cases, the love and support of our partners sustained us through our deployments and has been the single strongest force easing our adjustment back to civilian life.
The statistics are appalling. Many of our relationships end in divorce or separation. We may be physically abusive in times of great stress. That is certainly not who we want to be with the ones we love. The last thing in the world we wanted to do was to hurt them. Perhaps the hardest fact for us to admit is that many of us were physically abusive.
Many of us have felt that we were not in the best shape emotionally when we got back; that maybe we weren’t able to be a good partner to our significant other. We didn’t want to talk about war to our partners. Sometimes we try, but who wants to hear about death and awfulness? Some of us just want to hang out with our buddies from our deployment. They alone seem to understand what we feel and what we’ve been through. If we have had problems with drinking or drugs, that just makes the problems in our relationships worse. If we lose our job (which is not uncommon among vets who have difficulty readjusting), it just compounds the already present problems in our relationships. The number one thing couples fight about is money. Many of us have injuries or illnesses, which require frequent treatment and may limit the attraction we can pay to our loved ones.
When you think about it, little about our war experiences really makes us better at being in a marriage or relationship. Living in a combat zone, far from the one we love can remind us of how much we loved him or her but the ramifications of war are often a liability that far outweighs the fondness absence brings. We learn not to trust anyone but our closest combat buddies. We become hyper-vigilant, noticing the slightest thing that goes wrong and when it does we react with everything we have. This wouldn’t be an attractive attribute to add to our profile on a dating website! Often the veteran is not the same person he or she was before the war.
Unfortunately, we and our partners tend to assume that these changes will be permanent. Why would anyone think otherwise? But there is hope and although it may take time and vigilance, we can live happy and fulfilling lives again. There is one thing we have learned for sure and that is that absolutely nothing can affect our chances of getting better as much as a willingness to recover. Attitude is 90% of the battle.
It understandable that we and our mates would assume that the damage is permanent. When you feel depressed, frustrated, angry and afraid, it’s kind of natural to assume that things will always be that way.
Those of us who have been to Vets4Vets weekend workshops, or gone to local Vets4Vets groups or taken turns with other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets on the phone know that out attitude changes after we talk about it. We are not so jumpy, so angry, so filled with sadness. Just talking about it with another vet helps. Just learning that we are not the only ones with these reactions helps us and it helps our relationships.
So, we decided to hold our first workshops for returning veterans and their significant others. We built on the experience of the co-counseling community which has held a number workshops for couples. As you can see, we used the same schedule for the workshop as for all out others. The main change we made were to form separate support groups for veterans and their partners based on the concept of peerness. The experiences of the two groups are obviously very different. We also had one couple take time in front of the whole workshops. Each partner took an uninterrupted turn talking about what they liked about their partner. Afterward each couple did the same. Many were in tears.
Here is the Schedule for that Couples’ Workshop. As you can see, we used the same basic out line:
7:00pm Welcome and Overview
Key Points/V4V Guidelines
V4V Support Groups: Purpose, Assignment
8:00pm V4V Support Groups
9:30pm Debrief/Wrap Up
8:00am Breakfast (support group leaders meet)
9:00am Review of Assumptions of V4V, Leaders’ Stories
11:00am V4V Support Groups
1:00pm Recreation—hiking, naps
4:00pm Long listening turns with workshop buddy
7:00pm Topic group discussions and reports (How to build a local V4V Community, Partners support groups, others suggested by participants)
Action group decisions
9:30pm Group Recreation—movie, smores, Wii
8:00am Breakfast (support group leaders meet)
Going home plans/Attention on and off distress
Personal Care Action Groups
11:00am V4V Support Groups
We held the Couples’ Workshop because we knew that some of us will need more support in our relationships with our partners. However, from our Vets4Vets Workshops we also knew that even for those of us who do need support, the prognosis is good. Things don’t change overnight although improvements may be noticed right away. We learn to be patient with ourselves and with our significant others. We have learned that if we vets help one another and diligently work to make our personal relationships work, almost no obstacle is too big to surmount.
Here is the perspective we presented to our fellow veterans and their partners.
Most if not all couples fight from time to time. The couples that last are the couples who learn to fight on the same side… the side of preserving the relationship. If each person fights to push their own point of view, fights to “win,” then the relationship is almost certainly doomed. When two people are constantly trying to understand the other person’s point of view, things tend to work out much better. If you throw in military training and having gone to a war into the mix, it often makes things even more difficult but remember, there are good things about our military training that may help as well. Remember, “We never give up.” Staying together and learning to live in a happy and more fulfilled way can be seen as a “mission” and for most of us at least someone where along the way, not achieving the mission is just not an option.
The first thing our partners need to know is that things can get better and that they will get better if we work towards recovery from the things that hold us back. This will end. No, we may not be exactly the person who left. We know certain things which we will never forget. Just like our partners are not the same people we left. They have changed. Most of them had to take on new responsibilities while we were gone and were affected by the hardships that our service has caused them.
However, the negative leftovers from the war will go away, if we do something about them.
The other perspective which Vets4Vets gives us is that we all have some of these bad habits from long, long ago. Simply switching partners will not make our own habits change.
Having said that, we need to say something about abuse. While no one should stay around one of us who is violent or abusive, and we pledge ourselves to reach out and support our fellow vets who are so damaged by the war that they think hitting someone is the best they can do.
We have had some bad experiences with our own violence. Often overcoming the guilt and shame of these actions is harder than overcoming our memories of war, especially if the person we hit was physically weaker that we are. Although it does not make things immediately “all better,” talking to other veterans who have had similar problems with their behavior and listening to their success stories of how they overcame it, helps us tremendously. We know that in those dark moments, we did not act in the highest and best way and that if we had to do it over again, we would likely make better and clearer choices. That’s what’s possible for our future. The past is the past and all we can do is make amends and try to do better in the future. Even in our darkest moments, we were not “bad people.” As it has been said many times, “only hurt people hurt people” and we were definitely hurt by some of our experiences. Constantly berating ourselves for the mistakes we have made is not the way to get better.
We must be patient and understanding with our partners, spouses and significant others as we work together to get better and we loving ask the same of them.
Often times veterans and their significant others have simply given up and gone their separate ways. It’s amazing that when we go on to new relationships, some of the same “patterns” pop up. People seem to recreate old patterns over and over in a subconscious effort to work through them. Doesn’t it make more sense to dispense with the patterns rather than the partner?
That’s where Vets4Vets come in.
We learn in Vets4Vets that we can change those old habits, if we work on them.
We learn that if there is some habitual behavior we want to change – our distrust of our partner, our irritability, our listlessness – we have to talk about it during a Vets4Vets session and express the feelings we have about it.
The same process can help our relationships – with a few twists.
First, it makes sense for us to tackle the issues about our relationships in our Vets4Vets sessions. We have often found that we think better afterward. Often the requests of our partners seem much more reasonable after we have thought about them in a session and expressed our feelings. It is especially helpful if we ask ourselves or our listening partner asks us what the current problem with our partner reminds us of. All too often we realize that what bothers us about our partner is often a habit or a mannerism that reminds us of someone else in our past with whom we have had much more significant disputes. Sometimes just hearing that other Iraq-Afghanistan era vet couples are having the same problems can be helpful.
Likewise, it is very helpful for our partners to have listening sessions with other partners of vets. Again, besides expressing their feelings without consequences, they also often find that we remind them of someone else in their own past. In addition to learning that other wives, husbands and significant others are having similar problems, it is often a relief to find out that the problems with other vets are most severe on our return and often improve with time.
Both we and our partners often begin to realize that a significant part of our problems may be in ourselves. We may have been overly sensitive to criticism all our lives, or too suspicious. Evading our current relationship will not solve these long-term personal problems. We will only have to deal with them in our next relationship – and the next – until we have dealt with them in our Vets4Vets sessions or some other form of healing. Indeed, since these personal hang-ups tend to seek out the same “type” of partner, one whose own habits give us the chance to feel criticized, or jealous, or whatever, the need for us to do as much as we can to deal with our personal demons in our current relationship become clearer and clearer the more Vets4Vets sessions we did.
Second, we found that Vets4Vets sessions can be used profitably with our partners. Just taking repeated timed turns listening to one another without interruption is a much better way to argue. It is also a tool used in much “professional” marriage counseling. If that doesn’t work, taking turns trying to repeat back our partner’s position until they believe we understand it – even if we don’t agree with it – has solved many a problem.
If these basic uses of the turn-taking perspective don’t work, many of us have found that going back again to a regular Vets4Vets session where we express our feelings about each other can help, if we do it with other people.
Some vets and their partners have found it useful to actually use regular Vets4Vets listening turns with their partners – fully expressing their feelings while the other listens. Indeed, until couples reach this point of being able to listen to their partner’s deepest feelings with respect and without interruption, they will always feel the need to run to a marriage counselor, and will have difficulty dealing with major disagreements.
However, there is an important pre-condition. Before using Vets4Vets to deal with the hardest issues between you and your partner, we recommend using Vets4Vets to strengthen the base of our relationships. Take turns appreciating each other rather than what your problems are. Tell the story about how you fell in love. Build a positive base before tackling some of the difficulties. Some of us have spent ten hours or more, telling our partners what we love about them, and having them do the same about us in uninterrupted Vets4Vets turns. It makes it a whole lot easier to use the Vets4Vets tools to resolve conflict, once that solid base has been established.
Vets4Vets can also be used to establish and clarify expectations in our relationships. All too often our conflicts with our partners result from each of us having different expectations in some area. Rarely do couples take the time to establish expectations. One veteran described sitting down with his bride-to-be and the minister who was to marry them. The minister asked if they were going to have children. They both said, “Yes.” Then he asked who was going to take care of them. “She is,” he said. “No, I’m not,” she replied – as they were both about to graduate from school and start the jobs they had studied for.
In Vets4Vets we recommend – as almost always – that the two partners take turns laying out their expectations for the other. We recommend that each person set no limits on their expectations. If they could have everything perfectly, what would it look like? Who would work? Who would pick up the children from school? How often would we have sex? How would we make love? How often do I get to go out with the boys – or the girls, as the case may be? Put these requests down in writing.
Before you get your hopes too high, it should be obvious that these expectations will rarely coincide.
At this point we recommend that you take turns. For each of your partner’s requests, describe each as either:
1) No problem, we’ll do it that way.
2) Not now, I need to think more about it, but maybe someday.
3) No way, not today, not ever.
We have found that couples who take the time to clarify their expectations have fewer arguments, even if they don’t agree about every request their partner makes. Not only do they clear up a lot of areas where they agree, they also know what the other partner really wants and know what areas exist for them to work towards agreement.
A support group for partners can be very helpful, where the wives or husbands or significant others follow the Vets4Vets format of taking timed turns and expressing feelings.At our Vets4Vets Couples’ workshop the participants reported significant benefits from the process, as did their partner vets afterward!
On Saturday night of the Couples Workshop, we asked the participants what they wanted to talk about in a Topic Group Discussion. We were pleased to see that the groups reflected a lot of what we had been suggesting: “Tools Couples Can Use”, “Using Peer Support With Partners/Family” and “Setting Up Peer Support Where You Work.” Here are the Reports of those Topic Groups:
Reports from Topic Group Discussions at Couples’ Workshop
On Saturday evening, as usual, we let people identify subjects (Topics) they would like to discuss with one another, especially to share information. Workshop participants vote for subjects to determine what groups will meet. Here are the subjects they chose and notes from the reports each group gave to the whole workshop.
TOPIC GROUP 1: TOOLS COUPLES CAN USE
- Talking stick—so don’t interrupt each other
- Keep a Book – Positive & Negative – write down emotions w/o interruptions
- Communication exercise
- Set ground rules
- Set time aside
DEVELOPING A STRATEGY TO SET UP PEER SUPPORT GROUPS IN OUR AGENCY
Get the “OK” blessing at the place we work to push the Vets4vets concept
- How it’s beneficial
- How it works
- Leaflets/flyers/newsletters/go to exec. Staff
Making it available for all staff – essentially doing the same thing, just taking “vet” portion out
Take some of the structures out of the meeting – more fluid & flexible
Avoid this turning into a “political” game where we workwithin the department – ensure the meaning of helping each other. Stay true – genuine.
Comments = C
Obstacles = O
|S||Briefings, flyers, read & sign memo||Time, schedules|
|C||Talk to J, try to push the ideas, briefings||Abby, school, Tony, Work, being tired/exhausted|
|T||Briefings, flyers, contacts, etc., send to administrators, word of mouth||Time schedules, “perceptions”, institutional budget, rejections, my work plate is full|
C – keep in touch w/coworkers in V4V
O – Busy, time priorities
C – leadership training
O – Time
C – Leadership training
O – Time
C – Lead a group with staff help
O – Spread too thin
C – Raise $ for V4V families
O – Spread too thin
HOW TO USE PEER SUPPORT WITH PARTNERS/FAMILY
- Family support groups (FSG)
- Day care
- Mom’s day off
- Couples, too
- Picnics where we work
- Work to create availability
- Use couples as partners to lead – vets have vets; spouses have no one!
- “Key volunteers” – be proactive – are these the same?
- Coping skills for everyone – Don’t forget the significant others
- Afterwards and during deployment
- FSG is critical
- “Men” already do the drill decompression
- If couples lead, the spouses/partners (& parents) need to find their decompression group at the same time
- There’s no support for transition
VETS4VETS TOOLS FOR COUPLES
- Exercise daily
- Journaling (can be both – present time & learn distress)
- Written goals
- Exchange appreciations for 10 hours each
- Summarize other person’s concerns until they agree
- Make sure your partner has V4V support & time for it (buddy, group)
- Exchange expectations & make clear agreements
- Yes, no problem
- Maybe, not now
- No way, no how
- Explore V4V for young ones (www.handinhand.org)
- Make a written plan
4 QUESTIONS TO GUIDE LISTENING TURNS
- What do you like about your buddy?
- What is the distress he/she is talking about (grief, fear, anger, boredom, injury)?
- How can you contradict the distress, i.e., let him/her know the distress is not happening now, it is safe
- Contradict the distress discharge (crying, laughing, yawning, etc. will always follow).
- Local groups – pizza
- Phone conferences
- National office
- Leadership training
- Talking stick (small)
- Book for positives – negatives
- Communications exercises (draw picture while back to back)
- Trust – building exercises (be sure to catch)
- Time alone for couple
- Ground rules:
- Don’t walk away
- No name calling, expletives
- No interruptions
13. Switchies – 5 minute turns, no interruptions
14. Keep person & pattern separate
15. Strong feelings are almost always old
16. Take feelings to a V4V listening turn
17.Make a V4V call
18. Have a V4V buddy you talk to regularly
19. V4V group
20. Work on feelings when they are not up
We’d like to close this chapter by saying that all the solutions to every couple’s problems may not be found in these few paragraphs, but if you will simply remember how much and why you once loved that person and resolve to begin helping yourself, helping them and helping your relationship with these simple tools, your chances of staying together and living happily are much increased. Setting up peer support for yourself and separately for you partner with other partners of vets like you is a crucial first step, whether you do it with a workshop or with the veterans you know. We want to be there to help!
Peer Support to Benefit Our Children and Extended Families
Children play a special role in the effects of combat on veterans. The children of others are sometimes the unintended victim of our actions in combat. Our own children are sometimes the unintended victims of those “civilian inappropriate” behaviors and beliefs we picked up in combat. And finally, there is no one more important to use when we return than our children.
We included this chapter because of our concern for our families, especially our children. Back when we were setting up national weekend workshops, we had set up one specifically to include our children. We knew from the co-counseling the benefits to children from having specific time set aside for our young ones to be listened to as we do in Vets4Vets. We knew that that listening went best if the parents and allies who provided it had some experience dealing with their feelings in peer support. Young ones can do things that bring up our feelings! We know that young ones do not just explain how they are feeling and shed a few tears. As everyone knows, they can throw full on tantrums about things that are obviously not the cause of such feelings. We know that it is useful for them to express those feelings, but that those feelings can be confusing to the parents and allies who have to deal with them. Therefore, we also know that it is important to provide the parents and allies such peer support in the same workshop as they are paying attention to the children, just before and just after their timed turns listening and playing with the young ones. However, Mother Nature intervened with a hurricane that cancelled our only workshop for veterans and their young ones. We were greatly disappointed because those of us who had used these Listening Turns as part of our childrearing had had excellent results. We hope to get such peer support BY parents FOR their young ones going as we rebuild Vets4Vets. Let us offer some of what we had prepared for that workshop before we move on.
Many hundred veterans have sat down together in Vets4Vets meetings and at Vets4Vets retreats and talked about children. We know from listening to each other’s stories that when kids are involved, some of the most painful stuff comes up. With regard to our memories of the war, it is the thoughts of the suffering of children that is often hardest to bear.
So many times in a Vets4Vets meeting, someone has shared a memory of seeing a child hurt or killed. Sometimes we were responsible. Often when the veteran has shared this in a meeting, it is the first time he or she has talked about it. Our Vets4Vets assumptions encourage such sharing. We assume that veterans are good people. We sometimes have found ourselves in situations where we did things we would love to have to opportunity to do differently. We could not stop a convoy for a child in the road; especially when children have been used for decoys to stop previous convoys for an ambush. One thing is for sure, in Vets4Vets you will find other veterans who will love and support you through dealing with these memories and who have similar memories of their own. When it comes to the suffering of children, the burden is hard to deal with.
In the same way, when those other people in our lives suffer because of our military experience, it is often hardest to deal with the way it has affected the children in our lives. In some cases the children are our own. In others, it is the other children in our lives such as nieces and nephews, friends’ children, and others. Sometimes children have seen us at our worst and sometimes we have caused or increased the suffering of children. This was the last thing we wanted to do. Just like when we were deployed, seeing children suffer is the last thing a sane person wants.
As military personnel, no matter what our specific job was, we were all trained how to kill. Violence is definitely an option in the military. Sometimes in situations when we were confused or frightened we may have reverted automatically to violence as the solution to the situation. In some cases we went on the regret that. After we came home, we may have faced similar situations where confusion, fear and frustration caused us to act in ways we deeply regret. In some cases, children got hurt.
In our groups, we have heard veterans talk about causing suffering for children during deployment and at home. We know that this makes us feel as low as possible. But we also know that we can learn to process through our feelings around those instances and that we can make amends where possible and learn to live differently. Through the simple techniques we use in Vets4Vets, healing is possible. Beyond healing, we are also able to live in a way where we make clearer decisions.
Kids will be kids and sometimes they can cause us to want to pull our hair out. They have not had the experience of living life for as long as we have and they don’t know how to tell when they are pushing “too far.” They lack the emotional maturity we expect from adults and that is for a very good reason- they are not adults!
If you are someone who has struck your child or been emotionally abusive, you should know that you are not alone. We will say this, if you feel that you are a danger to your child and that at present you cannot control your behavior, you should talk to another responsible adult, to someone in Vets4Vets, or another family member. Until you are able to make sure that you are able to control your behavior where children are concerned, you must do the responsible thing and speak up. That is as rough as we will be with each other.
Sometimes violence comes in the form of “spanking.” We have intended to discipline our child but found that our anger was being taken out on the child. This is never good. Male vets are especially prone to fall into this trap when dealing with their male children. It’s what our culture teaches us. Vets4Vets does not wish to engage in debates around physical punishment of children or any other topic that might cause division among us, but even those of us who do believe in punishing children physically do not think they are a good outlet for our anger. One thing is for certain, no matter how much you have beat up on yourself or how you have behaved around children, there are others in Vets4Vets who have similar experiences and can help you deal with what you face.
Physical violence is not the only form of violence visited on children. In some cases when a child is around an adult who is engaging in a full-on “rage attack,” it can be as injurious as physical abuse. Sometimes those wounds stay even longer. How many among us have memories of our youth when an adult was raging around us and we were terrified? This is not to say that adults are never allowed to be angry around children. We don’t want our children to think we are not human. Sometimes the best parents are those who allow their children to see when they are angry or sad and also show them that we can learn to work through these issues. The good parent may not be the one who tries to teach their child to never fall, but the one who teaches the child how to get up when they do fall.
“It takes a village” has become a common phrase in recent years. It means that not only the parents are involved in creating safe environments for children to grow up in. Our communities, our religious communities, our extended families often reach out for help, especially if one is a single parent. Sometimes we vets are asked to help take care of other children in our family or the children of our friends. If we are entrusted with the care of children, they are learning from us whether we like it or not. Little childcare’s ears and eyes are like sponges. We just want to acknowledge that sometimes the children we affect are not our own and this chapter is written to those vets too.
With regard to the issue of the suffering of children during deployment, as with many other things, Iraq-Afghanistan veterans have learned from Vietnam veterans. So many of the latter have made pilgrimages back to Vietnam gotten involved in organizations which help the Vietnamese people. While US forces continue to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, “pilgrimages” per se might not be possible but many Iraq-Afghanistan vets are finding organizations which support humanitarian efforts in areas where they were deployed. Involvement in such organizations can be a very healing experience.
The techniques we learn in Vets4Vets have also helped many of us be better parents! As we consider how our own parents parented us, most of us can see where they did a great job sometimes and sometimes they could have done a lot better job. We learn from the mistakes and from the strengths of our own experience. For those of us who are parents, our deep desire is to do the very best job we can and as we become clearer, emotionally healthier individuals through our listening turns with other veterans, our chances of being the parents we long to be in increased exponentially.
In Vets4Vets, we do not try to become child therapists. We are in the peer support business and there are very few groups in our society who need peer support more than parents. And that is without the added stress of war and military service. Our goal is to remind parents of the same messages we remind each other as returning veterans. We are all good parents. We want to do the best for our children in every circumstance. Sometimes we don’t. We want to work on what makes that happen; but we won’t improve our skills as parents by focusing on how awful we are.
Based on our Vets4Vets assumptions, we are good fathers and mothers. However, we are under extraordinary stress. We pick up some habits during a deployment which are not useful in parenting. We know the litany from our basic Vets4Vets workshops—distrust, hyper-vigilance, aggressiveness. We have learned to work on these “combat appropriate” skills in our Vets 4Vets sessions. We can apply those Vets4Vets tools to parenting. As suggested in the last Chapter, we can form into support groups—either for parents or separate ones for veterans and their partners. The latter structure of separate groups let us complain about the one group without the others having to listen.
We definitely need to have such Support Groups for Veterans and their Significant Others Who Are Parents. Hand In Hand Parenting (www.HandInHandParenting.org) uses this peer support perspective to set up such groups and has an excellent website summarizing their approach. In such a veterans’ parenting community, we would do long listening turns with each other to talk about the things that are hardest for us as parents. We can brag about our children and develop our plans for doing better on our return. This happened in our Couples Workshop and to some extent happens in our general Workshops when veterans who are parents take their turns. As always, the most important outcome of Workshops for parents, as with all of us, would be what happens after the workshop. We could set up ongoing buddy relationships with other parents. We could form agreements with our “parent buddies” to call each other when we fell we are in danger of “losing it” with our children. We could pick a “Reference Person,” another vet who will call us every month or so and check in on our progress with our “Parenting Plans” as well as the rest of our Personal Care Plan. Indeed, many of us in our general Workshops included steps in our parenting as part of our Personal Care Plans. Ideally, we would set up ongoing local, telephone and internet support groups with other parents who are returning veterans like ourselves. Nobody else can understand like we can. Our partners do the same.
If you are finding difficulty in finding other veterans who are parents, we recommend that you get in touch with “Hand In Hand” directly. They are based on the same assumptions as Vets4Vets. At a minimum, their pamphlets on parenting are an excellent guide for parenting based on the ideas in this book.
With regard to our relationships with our extended families, our work with Vets4Vets is advantageous as well. Often times, members of our extended families (especially given all the press around how veterans have sometimes been treated poorly) will want to help. Because we have been involved in the basic peer support groups, we are now more able to ask for what we need, to graciously accept help when it is appropriate and to also sometimes draw boundaries where it is healthy to do so. Even non-veterans have challenges in life and some of us who have been involved in this form of basic peer counseling for a while now, are able to talk a little bit about how it works and how it has helped us with other members of our extended families. We by no means have a “corner on the market” for peer support. If someone in our family is curious about how we have gotten help around our veterans’ issues, we may share with them a little about how Vets4Vets works and suggest that they reach out to others who have experiences similar to theirs and put these techniques to work!
We have not yet set up peer support for our extended families, but we hope to. Our parents, our siblings, our grown children (for those of us of a certain age!) can all benefit from this basic form of peer support. Parents of returning veterans need to be able to talk to other parents of returning veterans. Likewise with our grown children. Someday, we will have this set up. It will look very much like the workshops, buddy and reference person relationships, face-to-face and electronic groups we just described for us as parents.
At least part of why we joined the military had something to do with helping others so in these cases, it feels good to share what we have learned with those who might also find it useful. Especially in times where we may be suffering, to help others is usually a really great way to start feeling better. The road to personal peace may be long but luckily we don’t have to go it alone. Our fellow veterans are there to help and so are others. It is wonderful when we can share with those who have intentions to help us, the things which we have learned in Vets4Vets
How to Build a Local Peer Support Community:
One Vet At A Time
The most important thing to a returning (or any) veteran’s survival and prospering is to have a local peer support community around him or her. That is the clear lesson from the peer support communities which inspired us. You can find dozens of 12 Step meetings on any given day in any large community in the U.S. And increasingly around the world. There are hundreds of thousands of meetings. Again and again, these meetings repeat the importance to their participants’ survival of growing and preserving these communities. Indeed, the “12th Step” in the 12 Steps is reaching out to attract new participants. Co-counseling is much smaller, but most committed co-counselors will meet for “Listening Turns” for an hour each way at least one or two times a week. In addition, they belong to one or more Support Groups that meet once a month, most based on some identity like gender, race or a topic like eliminating white racism. Most members will go to one or more weekend workshops every year.
How do we build such a local support community for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans?
Well, as will be discussed in more detail below, the first thing is NOT to “get together for a couple of drinks.” If telling each other our stories over alcohol (and now marijuana) were going to solve the problems of veterans’ suicides, unemployment, divorce, homelessness and the like, the thousands of veterans “posts” with their local bars (and typically their local problem drinkers) would have solved them by now!
Both of the peer support communities which inspired us and most serious social change is based on building personal, one-on-one relationships (J. Ruben, 2014.) One veteran at a time! That was our goal in V4V. To build strong personal relationships with other veterans based on peer support, taking uninterrupted turns listening to each other with encouragement to express our feelings, even strong ones.
The backbone of both those peer support communities which inspired us is a second, special, one-on-one relationship between a new recruit and a more experienced member, variously called a “sponsor” in 12 Steps and a “reference person” in co-counseling.
Let’s discuss these two one-on-one relationships in order, beginning with one-on-one outreach.
The basic building block of the whole V4V Peer Support Community is two Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans taking turns listening to each other talk without interruption and expressing their feelings about their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever they served. It’s about one veteran reaching out to another. It’s really as simple as that.
Peer support builds on something that is fundamental to all veterans and certainly to Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. You always have a “battle buddy” in your squad, section (or whatever your branch of the military called its smallest units), someone you keep track of and who keeps track of you. There is no more basic rule in combat than that you do not leave your buddies behind. V4V simply asks veterans to extend this rule to civilian life. Do not let your fellow veterans down.
So in that sense, V4V is a one-on-one program. As discussed, the basic unit of activity is a “Vets4Vets listening turn.” One Iraq-Afghanistan era vet meets with another in person in their home community, at a workshop or by telephone for a few minutes or for an hour to two-hour meeting, often every week. During the meeting or Listening Turn, the two veterans take turns. Each one speaks without interruption for half the time; then the other one does the same. Ideally these become regular peer support relationships lasting from a few months to many years. In these relationships, you learn more about the other person’s life and struggles than just about anyone else in their lives. During their turns, each vet can sometimes get deeply emotional, crying, trembling, and raging, as they talk about the things in their present and past which disturb them.
So how do you set up such a one-on-one listening relationship with another Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran? While V4V as a formal organization no longer exists, it is worth reviewing how it functioned at its peak to provide suggestions for us now. When our formal organization was functioning, the easiest way for you to find another Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran who is interested in setting up a peer support relationship was to contact us at Vets4Vets. If there’s not already a local V4V group in your area, we would fly you, all expenses paid, to one of our national Vets4Vets Weekend Workshops. There you would have gotten a chance to meet and hang out with other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans for a weekend and listen to each other’s stories. You would almost certainly get to know someone you would want to stay in touch with after the workshop. Our evaluations suggest that a large majority of those who attend workshops stayed in touch afterward. Listening turns by telephone are a highly effective way to benefit from peer support, especially if you have already met the other vet in person at one of our workshops and done one or more listening turns with him or her. The same is true, but perhaps to a lesser extent, for email. While the internet may feel like too impersonal a form of communications, it is much more personal and effective if you have already formed a relationship in person at one of our workshops. It is preferable to not talking to another vet at all!
Even before you attended a workshop, Vets4Vets provided regular ways to do listening turns with other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. We had a list of Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans on our website who had already gone through at least two of our weekend workshops (many have attended more than one workshop). They were leading their own local groups and had volunteered to talk with other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who were new to the program. They were be happy to talk with you and show you how the “listening turn” thing works. You’d even have a clearer idea after you’ve been to one of our retreat workshops.
As in many other peer-support programs, Vets4Vets emphasized this ongoing service of listening to another Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran, not just to help the new vet, but to help ourselves as well. There is nothing more satisfying than helping another Iraq or Afghanistan vet go through some of the things you have already experienced yourself. Indeed, many peer-support programs believe that this service to others is the most important part of each person’s own development and recovery. We repeat: Reaching out to a peer is the “Twelfth Step” in all 12-Step programs.
At the workshops, we would sometimes also match you up with another Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran who is as close to you in experience as possible; Marines with Marines, Airborne with Airborne, limited combat with limited combat, officer with officer, women with women. It made a difference.
Besides these one-on-one connections which Vets4Vets can facilitate, you could sometimes also join into one of our peer support groups who meet by telephone. One such telephone group met weekly for a year.
The question now is how to re-establish such a community of veterans in ongoing Listening Turn relationships, support groups and workshops in as many local communities as possible.
So how do we start without that formal organization and the pre-existing local and constituency-based (at least in the case of women and LGBTQ) communities? In general, most successful outreach to other human beings is done by one relationship at a time and it begins with those other people—in this case Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans–with whom you already have a relationship. You are much more likely to listen to a new idea—in this case Vets4Vets peer support—if it is presented by someone you already know and trust. You should start with other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans whom you already know. They may, in fact, be your battle buddy from Iraq or Afghanistan—or other friends from your current or former squad or other small military unit. One of the most successful things V4V did was to bring these “battle-buddies” together from across the country for a weekend. The response was very good. Veterans would come to a workshop if they were invited by a friend and they are much more likely to take part in a V4V listening relationship after they have experienced a weekend of peer support with other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets.
Beyond those who served with you in your unit (or are now in your Reserve unit), there are also people in your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, people you worship with every week—who are also Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. There is a myth that we do not want to talk about the war. We are generally quite eager to talk about it—if someone is willing to listen and not zone out and change the subject or ask about their favorite fascination: “How many people did you kill over there?” That question is asked of us by far too many civilians, even our loved ones. Typically, the people most likely to listen and least likely to change the subject or become insulting (either intentionally or not) are other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans, other veterans—or their families. Go to the leaders of the various organizations you belong to—your workplace, your place of worship, your union—and ask them if they know other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. Often they will be the children of older service members.
Besides the advantages of reaching out one-on-one in terms of the likelihood of the other Iraq-vet listening and doing something about it, one-on-one relationship building has the potential advantage of enormous growth. If each veteran reading this book could develop a V4V relationship with one other Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran this month and both of you developed a V4V relationship with another, different Iraq-Afghanistan era vet in the next month, and that process continued, each Iraq-Afghanistan era vet reaching out successfully to only one new Iraq-Afghanistan era vets each month, we would have contacted everyone who has served in the U.S. military since 9/11 within two years! Just by finding one other vet a month!
This focus on people you already know may seem odd—and especially difficult. That may be so, but take it from us; the really difficult task is finding each other once we get out of the service. There is no publicly-available list of us. You can’t just send a blanket email to Iraq-Afghanistan era vets in your town. One of the great disconnects in U.S. society is the gulf between Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans and the non-profit organizations like Vets4Vets who would like to help Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. Those organizations cannot call returning vets or send us a letter or email. They spend a great deal of their money and time trying to find us. Even the government agencies like the VA and the state Veterans Services Departments have this problem. If you don’t know any other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans personally, for example, if the phone numbers and emails for all your old buddies don’t work anymore, then you can join us in the more difficult task of finding other vets like us near where you live.
The next form of outreach is “institutional”, using the existing institutions in your community to help us find each other. The social world around you is already organized. You do not have to reinvent the wheel. Get in touch with those organizations which are likely to have Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in them. The leadership or central office will have names and phone numbers. You can visit their office or go to their meetings.
The best institutions to reach out to are other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans’ organizations. For example,
Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.IAVA.org)
Student Veterans of America (www.StudentVeterans.org)
Veterans of Modern Warfare (www.vmw.org)
Veterans for Common Sense (www.veteransforcommonsense.org.)
Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans Against the War (www.IVAW.org)
Veterans For Freedom (www.VeteransForFreedom.org)
They are listed here, but we want to err on the side of caution and to be very careful to maintain our non-political status. Some of those Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans’ organizations are very political, even some of the ones that claim not to be. We have nothing against these organizations. In fact, some Vets4Vets members were also very active in other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans’ organizations. You may find these organizations by putting “Iraq Veterans Organizations” in the search engine of your computer. Feel free to reach out to the ones that appeal to you. Remember when telling them about Vets4Vets, to stress that we are a non-political, non-partisan effort. But because these organizations do use mass media to reach out to vets, by connecting with them, you connect to the vets they’ve reached out to.
Another great development has been the Ad Council advertising campaign funded by IADIF (Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund), the group who helps to fund us. They have spent millions conducting just such a mass media campaign to build up one of those Iraq-Afghanistan veterans’ organizations, the Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America. IAVA is fairly middle-of-the-road politically and have the largest number of us on the mailing list. If you join, you can get in touch with their members in your area. IAVA has recently begun to organize local “Vet-Togethers” which are a great way to meet other returning vets. IAVA has also formed an online community of veterans which allows you to contact other vets with whom you have something in common. Over the years, V4V had productive relationships with IAVA and especially with some of its local leaders. However, you can always introduce another vet whom you meet at any of these organization’s meetings to the notion of Listening Turns and Support Groups.
In some communities, the older veterans’ organizations have made successful efforts to reach out to returning veterans, such as Vietnam Veterans of America (which founded Veterans of Modern Warfare), the American Legion, VFW, etc. There contact information appears in the next Chapter. It is worth a visit to their local posts to check out their commitment to younger vets—and make contact with any they have identified.
Your next stop should be institutions of higher education (where you probably ought to be considering enrolling in any event, just in case you have not.) Colleges and universities are the place where many of us can be found at one time. In the past, V4V worked closely with Student Veterans of America and other student groups. Check their website to see if there is already a chapter in your community. If there isn’t, help start one! It’s the easiest way we have found to contact a group of us locally. At most colleges, the administrator in charge of “veterans’ benefits” or “student life” or student organizations can also be a great contact. Indeed, the campuses have been the place we have found most new vets. The administrator of financial benefits for our veterans’ benefits may not be able or choose not to help you find other veterans given the restrictions of confidentiality. Some of these veterans’ counselors have been extremely helpful in putting us in touch with one another—encouraging us to start up veterans clubs and sponsoring days of activities for us and for others to learn about us. Others have been uninterested (beyond collecting our checks!) It just depends on who you happen to ask. The best way is to cast a broad net and see who is most interested in helping vets.
If there is a Veterans Administration Hospital in your area or a Vets Center, you should meet key members of their staffs. A top priority should the Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans on their staffs involved in outreach to Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans, who used to be designated in the VA as the “Global War on Terrorism” or “GWOT.” Just go to your nearest Vet Center and ask for the GWOT. The Team Leader and Team Members of the Vets Center are key, even if the Center is far from your community. At the VA Hospital, there is an OIF/OEF Program Manager and sometimes a staff of caseworkers in addition. Meet with them and any Transition Patient Advocates on staff who are from our era. There are a hundred of them on staff nationally. The Local Recovery Manager at each VA medical center is charged with encouraging peer support among other “client-centered” activities. There are hundreds of “peer support specialists” on the staff of the VA now. We will have more to say about these roles in a moment.
It is important to emphasize to such agencies that we encourage our members to use their services. Otherwise they may feel jealous. We know that peer support is not enough for some of us and probably not for all of us at least some of the times. We want our members to use the Vet Centers, to go to the VA and use their benefits and connect with the key nonprofits in the area.
Indeed, the local VA Hospital, Clinic or Vet Center may already have a “peer support group” meeting for I-A vets. The quotations reflect the relative hierarchical nature of these groups. Typically, a paid staff member leads the group, either a psychologist or a returning veteran (often one of those “peer-support specialists) who reports back to the psychologist. This is more of a “mental health service” than a horizontal peer support group. Ideally, they are run using the “pure” model we advocate (timed, uninterrupted turns for every participant, including any such staff member.) We know some groups are run that way because some of our workshop graduates hold these jobs and lead these groups. And as just mentioned, there are times when some of us will need such professional services. However, the horizontal power of peerness in terms of safety and identification are missing in these groups—and sometimes confidentiality since anyone employed at the VA has to report back certain types of comments, such as threats of violence to self or other (which unfortunately are pretty standard forms of emotional expression for most combat vets.)
In addition to the VA, the federal government has programs in the Department of Labor reaching out to help returning vets. You should visit them and their state, county and local counterparts.
SAMHSA (U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, www.SAMHSA.gov) mentioned alreadly was particularly helpful to V4V in doing outreach. They are the national agency networking with local community mental health agencies. You should visit your own local agency and tell them about SAMSHA’s support. Many local clinicians around the country practitioners have agreed to see us on a free or low-cost basis. Many of these generous and committed professionals belong to a national organization and can be reached through a national website, www.GiveAnHour.org. They can let other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets know about your efforts.
Most states and counties have a department of veterans services who have a staff composed of veterans whose job it is to help us get the benefits we are entitled to (www.nasdva.com). You should make contact with those offices near you since many Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans will visit them—and increasingly some of us are on their staffs.
Go to nearby military establishments, Guard and Reserve units. Eventually, ideally your local V4V support group will be included in the transitional/reentry programs of each branch of the service and every Reserve unit. In the meantime, many key active duty officers and non-commissioned officers will help you contact members of their units. In many places, Vets4Vets was one of the participants in the PDHRAs (Post Deployment Health Assessments) and Yellow Ribbon programs when returning Guard and Reserve units are debriefed. See if you can get invited to the one in your area. At one point, these debriefings were turning into multiple briefings at 30-60-90 days for these units. Who knows how much better it has gotten over the last several years. You remember why they were problematical. You didn’t want to listen to anyone when you first came home. There were things you had been thinking about for months that were on your mind.
One last way we will mention here is talking large employers, labor unions and religious denominations. They have also been helpful. They have members who are Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans and members who have us as family members. In Tucson, where the Vets4Vets main office was, we set up a coalition of these organizations to help put Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans in touch with the services available to us. Many local communities have now set up such local “veterans’ councils” or “veterans’ coalitions.” You may draw on them as a resource and should also consider doing something like it on a local level once you get your group going.
That brings us to the other two (distinctly more expensive and much less effective than one-on-one outreach) ways of finding other vets like ourselves—mass media and institutional outreach.
Mass-media means some form of mass communications to contact many (hundreds, thousands, millions) of people at one time. The most obvious mass based approach are obvious—television, radio, Internet, newspaper and other periodicals.
Paid media is too expensive for most Iraq-Afghanistan era vets to attempt on our own—not just because of the high cost of one TV or newspaper ad (creating and running the ad), for example at about $150,000 for one full-page ad in magazines often read by our peers, but because the most effective use of mass media requires not one, but repeated placement of the ad. It was great that IAVA was able to put together the resources to do a lot of this work.
Another strategy for using the mass media to find other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans where you live is what is often called “earned” media. If you call your local newspaper or TV station and tell them you are holding a support group for Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans, they will almost always cover it. We know because they have done so both in Tucson and around the country. We are an interesting phenomenon to the mass media. They cover these wars every day in the same old way—how many of us (or the enemy or civilians) were killed in the last 24 hours. Or they cover a local funeral of one of us. Or they cover the debate in the Congress over the war. Or they cover the same one or two local Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who are politically active either in support of or opposed to the current mission. The media does not want to keep covering the same old story over and over again. They are interested in Iraq-Afghanistan era vets in general and especially in Iraq-Afghanistan era vets from the local area. They are especially interested in Iraq-Afghanistan era vets like us who are not trying to make a political point, but simply to help one another.
All you have to do is find a place to meet—a library, neighborhood center, house of worship or veterans’ service organization
Pick an interesting time (often called a “hook” in public relations): Christmas, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, the Fourth of July or just after some major event in Iraq or Afghanistan or in Congress. In past years we coordinated contact with the national media on some of these major holidays. The national media was much more interested in the fact that 25 groups of us are meeting at the same time around the country. However your local media will be very interested in you, even if it is only your group.
Then send out a press release announcing your meeting. If you cover the 5 “W’s” you are probably okay—Who, What, When, Where and Why—and include your name and phone number. It’s as simple as that. The use of earned media strategies by non-profits organizations like ours is a well-studied and well-analyzed field. If you are going to go this route, you might like to talk to some other nonprofit groups locally to see what works.
In addition, nearly every newspaper has an “Announcements” section where the meeting times and places of local nonprofit groups like V4V are listed. They will be happy to run your listing once you have a time and a place. One minor drawback is that they usually require significant lead times—two weeks to a month or more. You cannot decide to have a meeting today and expect the local paper to run it in their announcement section tomorrow.
It does make sense to list yourself and your local group on as many Facebook and other social networking websites as possible. So many vets of our era have pages on them and it doesn’t take long before you are connecting with them. Let them know about your local group. We used to form a Facebook group for those of us who attend each workshop to stay in touch. Start a Twitter account and begin tweeting. Put your picture on Instagram. Post a You Tube about your local efforts.
Buy aVets4Vets t-shirt. Your local print shop will create it for little money. Especially if you’re going to a concert or a ball game or anywhere there will be a lot of people. Invariably someone will comment on the shirt or ask you what Vets4Vets is. If they are not our era vets themselves, chances are they will know one or know someone who does. It’s a great way to network and connect to potential members.
Use word processing and some blank paper to create some “business slips” as we call them. Just repeat your contact information and the time and date of your group meeting if you have one multiple times in a document. We get about 20 to a page. You don’t have to pay the $25 for business cards. Leave them with local churches, at the VA, with health care professionals in town, at the police station, anywhere you think they might come in contact with our era vets. Some places will not let you leave such contact info. Don’t take it personally. Just go on to the next place. If you already have a couple of vets interested in helping you start a local group, it’s a great thing to do together. If asking someone if you can leave information is difficult for you, remember you are trying to help your fellow veterans. That’s a noble thing you are doing. It’s not like you’re trying to sell them anything.
Let’s take a little break from talking about outreach to revisit and review some of the techniques involved in the “one-on-one” Vets4Vets relationship. Whether you meet another vet at a campus, at the VA or on the job, you are still beginning a potential V4V peer support relationship which may involve doing listening turns, setting up a support group together or even a workshop.
There is a lot to learn from the one-on-one, “relational” organization building used by social change movements. This approach has been applied most widely by the Faith-Based Community Organizing groups like the Industrial Areas Foundation (www.IndustrialAreasFoundation.org.) Professor Marshall Ganz at Harvard’s Kennedy School is probably the best known expert on this approach having worked for IAF for years (http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k2139).
Basically, a one-on-one meeting is a something formal. Ideally, you set up a meeting of 30-45 minutes with the other person. However, the elements of this approach can be used for meetings which occur less formally. The first part of a one-on-one, in traditional approaches, the whole first one-on-one meeting, consists of two people taking turns telling each other their life stories with an emphasis on their personal values and why they are passionate about what they do. In this case, the passion is helping other vets get over the effects of war and the military and as we say in V4V, “live big, happy lives.” You can learn more about how to develop your story for use in these meetings at Ganz’ website listed above.
In V4V, we add two other elements to a one-on-one: a short Listening Turn and an invitation to a support group or to hold a longer Listening Turn or join a Support Group. The format for a Listening Turn is given in Chapter 5. In practice, I have found that the only introduction to a Listening Turn necessary in a One-On-One is something like the following:
“So what we do to support one another in V4V is to take turns listening to each other. It seems to help a lot to actually time the turns and not interrupt each other, at least at first. If we have feelings, as most of us do about what we went through, we feel free to express them and everything we say is confidential. What I would like to do is try that out with you. Would you be willing to take turns for five minute just listening to each other? I’ll be happy to go first.”
Almost everyone I ask agrees. I suggest that, “since we are both vets (maybe of the current era), that we take advantage of that fact and talk about what it was like over there.”
The final element is the “ask” (just for transparency I should repeat that traditional one-on-ones there is no ask, it’s just about relationship building.) In V4V, I suggest that you ask the vet to join you in whatever you are doing locally: meet you for a longer Listening Turn (which could become a regular weekly, biweekly or monthly get together) or a Support Group or just going around dropping off your contact info at veterans’ hangouts.
One reminder about how the process works:
Listening is as important as telling your own story! The best thing you can do when you meet with a new Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran to introduce him or her to the Vets4Vets process is to slowly and clearly explain how the process works. Sometimes it is best to begin by telling your own story. When he or she interrupts, as they almost certainly will, gently ask them to let you finish and remind them that you intend to listen to them when you are finished. You may want to give them a longer time to tell their story. Tell them how much time your figure you have to spend together and ask the other vet to listen for a good chunk of it, maybe a third to allow for false starts, but 50-50 is the goal. Then thank them for listening so long without interrupting and ask them to tell their story. Sometimes it will be necessary to begin by listening to the other veteran’s story first. He or she won’t be able to wait. That’s fine, but be sure to ask for the chance to tell your own story—without interruption. It is good for the other veteran to learn the Vets4Vets process as a two-way process from the beginning. It is also very good for them to learn to take their attention off their own story and learn to listen to someone else. It is also good for you to get the chance for you to tell your own story over and over again. You will find yourself talking about new things, having new feelings come up and learning more about yourself. It is the process by which you deal with your military experience (and other things that might be bothering you) in a way that lets you build a better life including that experience. It may not make sense to go deeply into your feelings on these introductory meetings. Just telling your story is helpful to you and your new contact can learn more about the expression of feelings in a workshop, local group or subsequent sessions. The new person will often get emotional in their first turn.
The one-on-one relationship is the backbone of most all peer support groups. You will be tempted to run an ad in the newspaper to find Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. You will want to hand out flyers. You will post them on various walls. Some of it may produce results and certainly being “into action” makes us feel good. but nothing can replace one vet’s reaching out to another. What matters is building relationships one at a time. Unless your ad or your flyer or t-shirt or concert helps you to build a relationship with a specific person, it’s probably not worth it. The massive twelve-step movement and most support group networks rely on “attraction rather than promotion.” As people get to know and like you, they will become interested in Vets4Vets. The easiest vets to contact are those you served with. Invite them to one of our workshops. In particular, you should never hold a meeting alone after passing out a bunch of flyers. It is quite likely no one will come. Go with a buddy—preferably with a handful so you know there will be a meeting. Then you can start using flyers.
You can also build similar one on one relationships with people who are not Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. In addition to the relationships you will build with other Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans who are interested in Vets4Vets and with this process, you may also meet people along the way with whom you can engage in this “listening turn” process. Yes, it is true that with your fellow V4V members the strength of your connection is based on your common experience but with other people you may have other common experiences. For example, some of the women who have benefited from Vets4Vets who were rape survivors have also found it useful to develop these types of one-on-one Listening turn relationships with other women who are rape survivors but who are not veterans. There are many different kinds of experience where people may connect. You may want to save talking about your war experience with others who have had that experience too but also maybe not, if the level of trust with someone else grows to a level where you feel comfortable doing so, trust your gut!
When you meet with people who are not Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans and with whom you have discussed the possibility of building a relationship based on this process, it is still important to begin by getting to know each other. Take ten minutes to exchange life stories. Suggest that you do it in the Vets4Vets way by not interrupting each other. You may find this whole process useful when trying to build other types of community organizations. Most effective approaches to building community organizations are based on building one-on-one relationships and begin by exchanging life stories, seeing where our experiences may connect. V4V is a further step beyond life stories and provides a powerful glue to develop any relationship. However, if you are not dealing with an Iraq vet then the question is whether this is a relationship in which you should invest your limited time. All V4V relationships are purposeful. Either you are reaching out to a vet from our era to establish a listening turn relationship or you are seeking an ally who will help you build our V4V peer support community. To make that determination, you need to tell each other what your interests are. How can you help each other? Also from your perspective as far as outreach for V4V, you want to know how they come in contact with Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. How can they help you reach out to Iraq-Afghanistan era vets? If the person can help you— then this is a relationship that you want to build. The best way to build that relationship is to schedule another one-on-one listening turn. In the course of these meetings, you will identify ways in which they can help build your local V4V program—and have a new friend of a special kind, one who understands the value of listening to one another. It is always necessary to evaluate each new person to decide how much time to invest. Do they have common values to yours? Do they have a passion in this area? Are they able to listen to you? If so, this relationship, even though it is not actually part of your Vets4Vets group, may prove very useful to both you and the person with whom you built the relationship.
Ongoing Vets4Vets relationships are probably the best kind of support an Iraq- era veteran can have. Once you have made contact with another Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran or two, you will want to invite him or her to form a Vets4Vets Support group. Vets whom you have met with in person, shared life stories and taught to take turns listening are much more likely to come to a meeting and stay involved with V4V. Indeed, the purpose of V4V is to establish these personal relationships of support and empowerment among Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans. These relationships should not be limited to the weekly ot monthly support Group Meeting. Indeed, the most effective support you can develop for yourself is another Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran who knows your life story, has listened to you talk about the struggles in your life and is willing to take a phone call from you at any time of the day or night. Every member of Vets4Vets should strive to develop one or more of these relationships—even if it is by phone or email from a great distance. Ideally, you would schedule one or more of these one-on-one sessions where you take turns listening to each other every week, with each session taking from ten minutes to two hours. This may seem like a major investment of time, but long experience with support groups in many areas has shown that individuals do better, especially if they have a major recent experience to process, if they supplement their peer Support Group meeting with these One-On-One Listening Turns. These relationships are not a substitute for a family or other relationship. Indeed, it makes sense to keep these Vets4Vets relationships relatively focused—someone you know from the Vets4Vets program who understands and likes you, but who doesn’t become your business partner, best friend or lover. It is a lot easier to support each other and like each other if all you do is take turns listening to each other. Besides if you form these other relationships with people you meet in V4V, you will probably get disappointed. People cannot listen to you intensely 24-7. The purpose of V4V is to give you a special support network which makes forming those other kinds of relationships outside of V4V easier and more enjoyable—not to be a substitute for new friends, business and life partners.
Hopefully, that (and the references we suggested) are enough to get you going doing your local outreach.
However, there is something else about one-on-one relationships besides outreach, namely the importance of ongoing mentor in, sponsorship or referencing relationships between new and more experience members. Again, let Jeff
“Sponsors” and “Reference People” We can learn from other peer support groups who have been around a while. In twelve step groups there is a more experienced person called a “sponsor” who helps guide the newer person to group meetings where they can get peer support and makes him or herself available to listen in a crisis. We want to learn from those groups’ experience. In co-counseling, we have a “reference person” who knows our lives beyond our sessions and may give us advice. In Vets4Vets we strongly suggest that you develop one or more of these one-on-one relationships with Iraq-Afghanistan era vets experienced in the V4V program. We call them “reference persons.” New members, in particular, should seek out more experienced members. We used to complete a Personal Care Plan at our workshops. We recommend that you do the same with someone who more experienced. As noted above, the Personal Care Plans we developed at our workshops were basically Action Plans for ourselves individually. First the V4V components. Who were we going to do Listening Turns with? When? Were we going to attend (or help start) a Support Group or a Local Workshop? In addition, we would specify the other elements: diet, exercise, education, and reading. We used the guidance of the Overeaters Anonymous list of Tools of Recovery. What the one-on-one perspective reminds us is that if we develop that plan in isolation and try to follow it in isolation, it is likely to fail. We need to share it with our Reference Person and report in on our progress, ideally daily!
We recommend that you give it to your reference person and give him or her the authority to call you at least once a month and inquire (gently) about your progress. More experienced members should make sure that every new member of Vets4Vets has such a relationship with an experienced member of V4V, a mentor. It is part of the script for every V4V meeting. The other support group movements have all found that reaching out to others who need the same kind of help that the group provides is also of great benefit to those who are already members. We know this is true for Vets4Vets too.
Our thinking about reaching out to other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets in your community can be summarized as follows:
Don’t waste your time on mass organizing; build your group one relationship, one Iraq-Afghanistan era vet at a time.
Exchange life stories at the beginning of each new relationship including your military service, how it affects you and how you have benefited from V4V. Express your passion about this work.
Take timed, uninterrupted, listening turns. Remind each other about the value of expressing feelings and demonstrate at least a little of that in your turn.
Use the Four Questions to deepen the expression of feelings, especially in succeeding one-on-ones.
Repeat this turn taking every time you get together with another Iraq-Afghanistan era vet—it’s the single most useful thing we can do for one another. You will stay together as a team and you with think and act better to reach out to other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets.
Identify common interests even beyond the fact that you are both vets. Build a strong basis for you to work together.
The most important thing to remember as you set out to be an active Vets4Vets member who is energetically working to build this network of peer support for our fellow Iraq-Afghanistan era vets is that we must not give up! Sometimes it is discouraging to try and get vets to participate. Sometimes, the last thing in the world a veteran wants to talk about is the war. Often they believe that if they don’t talk about it, it will just go away. If we have learned anything from other veterans it is this simple fact. We owe to ourselves and to each other to keep going. We deserve to have happy and productive lives! If our willingness to serve our country afforded us nothing else, we deserve to be happy and live free of burdens that are too hard to bear alone.
The biggest of the other peer support groups which now has millions of members took 18 months of constant effort to recruit its first 2 new members! We reached over 4,000 in our first six years when we were picking up the tab! It’s time to return to our peer support roots and see how much further we can grow this community. Did we mention, “Don’t give up!” The reaching out helps you even if it is not immediately productive.
Peer Support Bridges the Great Disconnect:
Connecting Us with Resources
As we noted above im out description of Topic Group Discussions in Chapter 7, the second great function of peer support is exchanging practical information and advice. This is hugely important for Iraq-Afghanistan veterans. Ask anybody trying to work with us in a government agency or a nonprofit organization. The biggest problem is finding us! We come back and get out of the military and we “go to ground.” Many of us just want to get back to our family, our friends our neighborhood. Others don’t want to have anything to do with anyone. As a consequence the impressive network of agencies and organizations offer goes wasted.
As Vets4Vets began to reach out to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, we kept running into a major disconnect. Although there are many government agencies and nonprofits seeking to provide services to us, most of us—like our fathers coming home before us from Vietnam—do not take advantage of the services available to us. According to the RAND study of mental health issues (T. Tanielian and L.Jaycox, op. cit.), only about half of us with serious problems get even minimally adequate care. Every time the nonprofits in our Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (www.coalitionforveterans.org) got together over the phone or in person, we complain about the difficulty of getting in touch with our brothers and sisters coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan so we can use these services.
One piece of the problem is our own fault. We were trained to take care of ourselves and not to ask for help. Sick call was not a place where real fighting men and women were supposed to go. Asking to see a psychologist was a sure way to limit a military career. When we come back, most of us try to make it on our own. Too many of us try to do it with the help of our friend “Jack”, i.e. Jack Daniels.
Consider my own personal example. Despite being awarded a disability after my own service in combat, I did not take advantage of VA health care for thirty years until a Board member of a nonprofit he was heading suggested he look into the VA as a way of reducing its budget, i.e. not paying his health insurance anymore! Two advanced degrees didn’t help this veteran figure out the system. But back to the current generation.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this disconnect. The lack of coordination between the Department of Defense and the VA is legendary.
It is true that today’s veterans get briefed on many of the services available to us when we return home and return to civilian life if we are in the Guard or Reserve or when we get off of active duty. Unfortunately, at these times, we are thinking about our families, our girl friends or boyfriends or just our friends back at home. One vet describes our mental state at the time as holding a finger in each ear and saying “La, la, la, la” until the briefing is over.
When last we checked, the Guard and Reserve are doing better, with briefings at 30, 60 and 90 days. At one point, V4V was taking part in many of these. However, our impression is that these presentations by multiple groups in a single day do not result in much better usage of services.
Besides, the military unit briefings being boring and packed into a very short period of time. The Veterans Administration can be very difficult to deal with. As mentioned earlier, unless it is an emergency, we at Vets4Vets do not recommend that you have any contact with the VA until after you have consulted with a trained and well recommended Veterans Service Officer in your area. It is too easy to say something which will inadvertently jeopardize your chances of getting the benefits you deserve.
There is no list of us returning veterans available to nonprofits that would help us. The VA knows the home of record of each of us as we are discharged, but that is not necessarily a great way to find us. Legal concerns about privacy prevent us from being contacted even by a sympathetic nonprofit in our community to offer services.
Vets4Vets turned out to be a great way to get us together and overcome this great disconnect between us and those who would help us. OEF-OIF vets who will not go to a government agency or a nonprofit organization for “help” will come together with other veterans from the same era “just to talk.” Many is the agency or nonprofit who comes to us to find OEF-OIF vets. Of course, we don’t deliver names either! That is up to us. At our workshops and support groups and on our website and Facebook pages we used to share information about what agencies and nonprofits have worked for us. Then it is up to us to seek out the services we desire.
As we have stressed, the great advantage of V4V in connecting us with services is that there is nothing more powerful to one of us than a specific recommendation from another of us. If our “workshop buddy” or “Reference Person” tells us that it looks like we need to consider more than just peer support and has had a good experience with a Vet Center or the new GI Bill, we are much more likely to take that recommendation.
Indeed, this advantage of OEF-OIF vets reaching out to each other, led us to set up local coalitions to speed up the purpose. In several communities, we raised funds to hire an OEF-OIF vet to set up a Community Outreach Coalition to engage more of the larger community in connecting us with services—in addition to setting up our basic Vets4Vets peer support network.
In this regard, we were very much in sync with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Michael Mullen, the former Chairman, describes the potential services and support for returning veterans in any community as “the Sea of Goodwill,” as elaborated in a White Paper co-authored by his assitant in charge of Wounded Warriors and Military Families, Col. David Sutherland (Copeland, J.W. And D.W. Sutheland, undated.) Colonel Sutherland was a strong advocate for Vets4Vets.
We formed our first community coalition in 2007 from our National Office in Tucson. We invited representatives from over 25 local organizations dealing with veterans to the local Air Force Base, working with the Department of Defense, Heroes to Hometowns program. The 80 people who showed up joined working groups and have helped us grow our program in Tucson.
A coalition is a group of organizations who share a common goal or at least a common short-term interest. Almost everyone wants this generation of veterans to be treated better than those of us who served in Vietnam. However, most community leaders do not realize that the “great disconnect” exists. They assume that we are stepping up and asking for the services we need from the VA and getting them. Therefore it is relatively easy to create a coalition of institutions to help “find” us and connect us with services. The advantage of Vets4Vets in convening these coalitions is that we do not compete with other service providers. We do not offer mental health treatment or employment advice or educational courses. We just let vets know what is available locally.
In addition, most such coalitions which have been formed by other groups are limited to the government agencies and nonprofits whose mission it is to serve us: the VA, Vet Centers, state and local veterans’ service agencies, federal employment agencies, community mental health agencies, and nonprofits for the homeless, etc. Guess what? These agencies don’t know where we are either or how to get us to come out of the woodwork. The same problems were faced by our national coalition. And when these groups get together, at least when we started this work, there were usually none of us Iraq-Afghanistan vets in the room! (It is getting a little better over time, in part because we always press for the involvement of returning vets as staff and leaders in these coalitions.) There often were lots of veterans in such service organizations, but usually from the Vietnam era. The Vet Centers are the major exception and you can often count on finding a more recent vet working at many of them as Outreach Specialists (but not yet clinicians) and a couple at most large VA medical centers, often as Patient Transition Advocates. By and large, these dedicated agencies need help in finding us. Of course, the situation improved during our six years as a staffed organization, from 2005-2011 and has improved since.
That is why we also reached out to major community institutions which are not customarily associated with veterans, for example, the large employers in an area (including the government agencies like the city and county), religious congregations of all denominations, colleges (four year and two year since most of us are starting out at the two-years schools), labor unions, fraternal organizations like the Rotary and the Masons and of course the media and political leaders. We ask these institutional leaders to develop programs to reach their own members. Employers who will put an announcement of services in their pay envelopes; religious congregations who will put notices in their weekly bulletins or preach a service about the need to connect veterans with services. Some will ask us to put on workshops for their employees. Corrections and law enforcement have done that. Others will hold community concerts to attract us. The point is to let everyone in the community know about the “great disconnect” and engage more of the community’s resources in finding us and connecting us with the services we earned.
Building a coalition is a known skill. It is done all the time for groups on every side of political and social issues. Like building V4V, the key is meeting one-on-one with the leaders of major community institutions listed above. The higher up you can get the meeting the better. As returning combat vets, we have a lot of access. You sit down with the community leader and describe the problem; your own personal experience will usually work just fine. Then you ask the leader what his institution could do to help find us and connect us with services if they really were committed. They will probably tell you about one or two formal programs which they have—guaranteeing us our old jobs when we return (as required by law) or an apprenticeship program. We need additional efforts! How do we engage all the employees in a firm in a search not just for other employees who are OEF-OIF, but for our fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors to get involved in looking for us and connecting us with services. Most of us don’t work for the big employer in town, but many of us know someone who does.
Can they ask these questions in their hiring interviews? Not just are you a vet (actually, the proper question is “Did you serve in the military?”, since many of the younger generation consider World War II, Korea and Vietnam-era service as “veterans”, not us!), In addition, people should be asked did anyone in your family a serve in the military since 9/11? Or whenever someone comes to Human Resources for any reason, they should get asked the same questions.
So far, our experience has been very positive. Sure it helps to have a paid staff person doing this, but one person can do an awful lot with just a few one-on-ones/ Champions will often step forward! The key point to remember is that we need to really reach out in new ways, with new allies if we are to reach all of us and put us in touch with one another through Vets4Vets and with the many community resources which we need.
For example, in our first effort here in Tucson, the county government agreed to put a list of veterans’ resources and service available to us in every worker’s pay envelop! One large law enforcement agency began a V4V program for its own employees, a large proportion of whom are OEF-OIF vets. We have already done three weekend workshops just for their members, including one for them and their partners. We quickly set up four Support Groups which met regularly there in addition to their ongoing personal relationships. The state government and a large local employer both made generous financial contributions to build peer support in our state. The ways in which these non-traditional agencies can help is virtually limitless.
The key to building a successful coalition is building one-on-one relationships with community leaders, people who had large organizations and can bring other people or money to the coalition. However, it is useful to get these leaders together periodically once you have gotten some internal programs going. You can run such a meeting with our Topic Group and Action Group format to get the leaders talking about problems which interest them and committing to individual actions to solve these problems. The only skills required are a timer and this book. You are not the expert on their organizations, they are!
These coalitions (or Consortiums) as Col. Sutherland might call them are very effective since they are face to face. However the internet provides another powerful tool for finding returning veterans and connecting us with services.
Vets4Vets wants every one of us to get all the support we need and we deserve. It may be help with getting a job, going back to school, paying the rent, health care of mental health.
There is nothing as powerful in getting a veteran to use a service as a personal, face-to-face recommendation from another returning veteran who is going through the same thing. That is true of peer support in general and for us vets in particular. Therefore, during the Topic Group discussions at every weekend workshop, most of the groups focus in on the specific problems (like those just mentioned) being faced by this group of returning veterans. Vets share their experiences. What has worked for them? What agency can be trusted? It happens whenever we get together, but we give it special emphasis at our workshops.
Of course, the VA Medical Centers, Clinics and Vet Centers, state and local veterans agencies work hard to bridge this disconnect, but it is not working very well. There is a tension for these agencies. They want us to use THEIR services. Otherwise, at budget time, they lose money and staff positions. Likewise, every non-profit and every veterans service organization is in competition with every other non-profit for funding from the same foundations and wealthy donors. All of these government agencies and non-profits are in competition with each other to add a tally to their list of “veterans served.” Vets4Vets has experienced both of these competitive resistances, from government agencies and other non-profits.
Peer support communities greatly lessen these pressures. Participating veterans are not getting paid based on referrals. The budget of their employer does not depend on the number of veterans we can get going through the door. Returning veterans participate in V4V to help themselves and to help their fellow veterans. Of course, we would like our peers to participate in V4V, but we are not seeking funding, nor do we have staff to provide them with services. Participants in V4V want their peers—and themselves– to be getting all the services needed.
Frankly, we stumbled onto the potential of V4V to help solve this problem pretty much by accident. Co-counseling workshops usually set aside time for participant-driven, bottoms-up conversations called Topic Group Discussions as described above. From the beginning, we included these Discussions in the spirit of empowering individual veterans. What we found was that most of the Topics suggested and subsequently voted on for discussion included finding and effectively utilizing the various services available to returning veterans. Not surprisingly, many workshop participants did not know about all the services available to them and/or were not using them effectively. The power of peer support is that, since we are all peers in similar situation, there is almost always someone in the group with experience with a particular problem and the services offered as solutions. If they didn’t know the answers, they knew government agencies, veterans’ service organizations and non-profits that could help. Perhaps more importantly, they knew the names of particular people to ask for help and how effective they had been.
It often occurred to us to set up a website like students have at college to rate their professors: Rate Your Service Provider, e.g. veteran’s service organizations vary widely in any location as to the quality of the service they offer. For example, one of us worked with a VSO to file for a disability only to discover months later that the Veteran Service Officer had simply filed the application is his own file cabinet—and never even submitted it to the VA! Local vets know the effectiveness of caregivers at the VA Medical Center Behavioral Health Department relative to the local Vet Center or the local behavioral health agency or the individual caregivers working through Give An Hour or the Soldier Project in LA.
As noted in the Chapter on Topic Group Discussions, frequent topics discussed at many workshops included: the new (early on it was the old) GI Bill and how to use it to go to college, how to apply for a disability and/or appeal and treatments for PTSD. One memorable Topic Group brought women veterans together to discuss getting a divorce! We have seen very similar discussions after 12 Step meetings or in discussions with our sponsors about the value of psychotherapy, weight loss surgery and various recovery centers. The peer support community itself does not endorse these treatments or treatment centers, but individuals often share their own experience, especially on a one-on-one basis.
Therefore, in any local community, it is important to convene occasional Topic Group Discussions to help bridge this gap. The format was given in Chapter 7. The informal referrals and recommendations will also take place after Listening Turns, especially in conversations with one’s more experienced Reference Person and after Support Group meetings. It makes sense to formalize this process to get a sense of what returning veterans in your community are going through and what their experience with local service providers is. We were just beginning to compile this information on line when we stopped operations as a staffed organization. It seems that the more organic sharing of information by peer in local areas is a more reliable and probably more effective strategy. It has long been a hall mark of other peer support communities.
As part of the ongoing V4V effort to bridge this disconnect between us veterans and those seeking to provide us, let us present the services we learned about from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans participating in our weekend workshops—with comments that reflect the experience of us veterans.
The Veterans Administration and Vets Centers
The Veterans Administration, as noted earlier, is the primary source of support for Iraq-ear veterans, as it has been for every generation of veterans since its founding in 1919. It is what our tax dollars are paying for. At every V4V workshop, we talk about the importance of establishing a personal relationship with your nearest Vets Center and VA Medical Facility. There were then 200 Vet Centers, 150 VA Hospitals and 700+ medical clinics spread all over the country (www.VA.gov). We encourage every Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran to the VA and check in—even if you don’t think there is anything wrong with you physically or psychologically. If nothing else, you will be eligible for free medical cares for six years after you get off active duty, which in today’s world of sky-rocketing costs of health insurance is worth a lot.
The VA hospitals were seeing 85% of their first time patients within 30 days when we wrote this chapter in 2011. Vets4Vets is not a substitute for professional psychological counseling and we want you to get every service you deserve.
There is even a brand-new, 24-hour, 7-day a week VA telephone hot line set up with us in mind should you ever consider picking up that gun to end the pain (1.800.273-TALK).. No joke, remember those 58,000 plus Vietnam vets—some say 200,000–who killed themselves—after they got home! Lots of people have the idea cross their minds, but if you start thinking about it, making specific plans, using things you actually have at your disposal—please call right away.
The VA will also evaluate you for medical care and help you assess whether you should file a claim for compensation for any disability, physical or psychological, connected with your military service. This is true whether you were in an active duty unit, the National Guard or the Reserves.
The VA provides an electronic resource directory (www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/nrd.)
HOWEVER, UNLESS IT IS AN EMERGENCY, YOU SHOULD TALK TO A VETERANS SERVICE OFFICER BEFORE FILING YOUR CLAIM WITH THE VA. All of the veterans’ organizations you have heard of (and listed later in this chapter) will help you through your dealings with the VA. Indeed, some of them are officially VSOs (Veterans Support Organizations). You should see a Veterans Service Officer from one of those organizations before you file your claim—indeed, before you talk to the VA about a claim. The VA process is complicated and you can end up with less than you deserve if you try and do it without an advocate. You should never try and do it on your own.
In addition to psychological and medical evaluation and care, the VA will also help you go back to school and get a job. There are a range of services at the VA waiting for you to access them. You may dimly remember hearing about some of them as you were getting your transition briefing before leaving the military (for those of you who have left.) Most of us were not too focused on that briefing however. Our thoughts tend to be on getting home to our family and friends (or local bar.) After we have been home for a while, it is easier to think about these things—like money to go back to school, help writing a job resume or a loan to buy a new house.
We also understand that some of you may have had very negative experiences at the VA. Many of us have as well. There is the old joke “if you don’t have PTSD when you go to the VA, you will when you leave!” There is no doubt that there are many wonderful people working for the Veterans Administration, people who care very much for us. It is also well-known that the VA is badly under-funded and understaffed. You may have had an experience with someone who worked at the VA which made you feel very frustrated or angry. You may have even decided that you will not ever seek help from the VA again. If this is the case, no one at Vets4Vets is going to try to force you. Again, the only requirement of Vets4Vets membership is to have served in the US military some time since 9/11/01. In fact, some of us have been able to express a lot of our frustration around the issues we face with the VA in our V4V meetings and go back to get better care. All that being said, we as veterans are grateful that there are some wonderful people, in and out of the VA system, who care very deeply about what happens to us, who take care of us and are working hard as advocates for our well-being.
The Vet Centers (www.vetcenter.va.gov)will give you a psychological evaluation the day you walk in the door. So if you need immediate help, go to your local Vet Center. They are part of the VA but operated separately. There are over 200 of them located in communities around the country—away from the VA hospitals so you don’t have to worry about the stigma of going to “the hospital.” More importantly to many of us, some staff at all the Vet Centers are combat veterans—so you can talk to someone who understands. The Vets Centers all have female staff as well, so women vets don’t have to make male vets understand. You can get help with everything you need at the Vet Centers, from advice on benefits to counseling. Unlike the rest of the VA, everything you say at a Vet Center is completely confidential and will not be released to anyone without your explicit permission.
It is worth noting that the Vets Centers were created by the Vietnam veterans’ movement. It was not a government decision to create a more accessible source of psychological counseling out in the communities away from the intimidating VA hospitals and staffed, primarily by veterans who had themselves seen combat and could better relate to a veteran’s experiences. It was the pressure put on by Vietnam veterans that led to the reation of this important service. We should use it. Vietnam veterans fought for it.
These storefronts were then given over to the VA.
We have always seen V4V as the next step in a concentric circle of peer support with the VA Medical Center in the middle, the Vet Centers as the next ring out and then V4V as the next ring. Despite support in implementing that model from many Medical Center and Vet Center staff, the VA pretty nastily in some cases rejected our offers of help, most disappointingly by a Vietnam vet high up in the Vet Center administration.
Vietnam vets set up the Vet Centers as peer support centers. When the VA took over they became another source of professional mental health services, not peer support, albeit the professional was now a vet. The power of peer support is in the horizontal relationship between peer helping each other, not in the demographic or experiential characteristics of the care giver. Getting talk therapy from a psychologist who is a vet is not peer support. It is usually better than therapy from a person who has never been in the military at least from the perspective of perceived safety, but it is not peer support. Taking part in a therapy group led by a psychologist who is a vet is not peer support, again, even though it is again usually better than one led by a civilian professional on the trust dimension. This is not peer support even if the veteran psychologist does not talk much and may share some of his or her own experiences. Even if the group is led by a non-professional veteran who is on the staff of the Vet Center or VA hospital and merely reports back to the psychologist in charge if there is a problem, it is not peer support.
As we have already asserted, there is a special power to horizontal, no-authority relationship, no-professional-involved, purely equal peer support that helps many vets, often when all of these alternatives above have been tried.
We see V4V as a next ring out in that concentric circle, reaching many more vets than a paid staff can ever reach, with a form of support that is all that many of us need.
As we said in the assumptions, maybe we could help even our worst cases if we had 25 of us to work full time for a year as peers, listening to a deeply troubled vet. However, we don’t have that resource, so we recommend that people take full advantage of the Vet Centers and the VA hospitals and the nonprofits we are about to discuss which offer professional behavioral health services.
Frankly, so many of us have tried those services and found them wanting, that we do this with some reluctance. Too often, we go to the VA, meet with a psychiatrist and come home with three psychoactive prescriptions. For psychoactive drugs. All prescriptions given to us at the same time. For many of them, the side effects include nausea, loss of sexual appetite and/or suicide. Bad as the service often is, we always tell vets to consider it their back-up. At this point, it is all the society provides us.
While V4V is not is a substitute for professional psychological counseling. it is also true that a peer support group can do things that psychological counseling cannot do. For one thing, there is no stigma attached to going to an occasional meeting with other Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. We meet in some church basement, community center or at someone’s home. Since there is no mental health professional present, there is no reporting requirement. You can say what you want without having to worry about somebody reporting what you say to the police. Non-vets may not appreciate that fact. Some counseling projects which endeavor to help folks with emotional or psychological issues shy away from people who have issues around violence (turned inward or outward.) However, in the military, we were trained to be very good at violence. It is unreasonable to think that we could just “turn that off” when we took off the uniform. Many of us think about violence…a lot! Even if it is just at somebody driving a car that cuts us off in traffic, sometimes that can send us into an intense rage. As far as those suicidal thoughts—war creates an awful lot of those. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Many of us have had them. We have just learned how to live without acting on them.
For many people already receiving professional help, the counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist may recommend a peer support group such as Vets4Vets as a supplement to their care, especially if the professional is not a vet. There is something about talking with other people who have been through the same or similar things which is healing in a way that is different from psychotherapy. Indeed, many psychological treatment programs including the VA rely heavily on the use of professionally-supervised “peer” support groups either for their patients while inside psychological institutions or outside after the patients release. Some of our workshop participants are sent to us by professionals as an adjunct to their ongoing treatment.
A very large percentage of us don’t need long-term, individual psychotherapy. All we need is a place where we can talk about the hard things and the feelings we have about them, so we can go back to our loved ones, our jobs, our schools without feeling like a creature from another planet.
Another consideration is funding. The VA will never have enough funds for and should never have to hire enough psychologists to staff groups for all those of us who only need a peer support group. It would be a waste of resources—and in today’s political and economic climate there are unlikely to be enough resources even for all those people who need the additional resource provided by professional therapy, much less those of us who need something different. In this political climate, the best we can look forward to is a few more psychiatrists and a lot more psychoactive drugs. A peer support group can take some of the burden off the VA and other therapeutic services by providing support for vets who don’t need professional therapy. Of course, each veteran gets to decide which category they choose to take advantage of.
V4V wants to make sure that this basic peer support process is available to every Iraq-Afghanistan era veteran. That is why we work with any organization who wants to help Iraq-Afghanistan era vets. We invite their members to our workshops and we do workshops just for their members. We want as many of them as possible to have V4V groups and meetings and workshops as part of their regular programs. We want V4V to help more and more of us to get involved in these veterans’ organizations—and in the larger society. We know that the world will be better for us and for everyone else if more and more of us get involved.
Groups Outside the VA
STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES. Besides the national VA, there are other federal, state and local government agencies that are being paid to sit there and wait until you come in and ask for help. Actually some of us Iraq-Afghanistan era vets now work for these agencies as outreach specialists. Please consider checking out your State Department of Veterans Affairs. Every state has one and they have offices all over the state. The Directors of these state departments have their own website which will connect you with the agency in your state (www.nasdva.com). Some cities and towns have similar agencies.
NON-PROFITS OFFERING US SERVICES
COALITIONFORVETERANS.ORG. Besides the public agencies, there are thousands of non-profit organizations like V4V trying every way they can to get in touch with you so they can give you services. One good place to find these nonprofits is the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, a group of nonprofit organizations selected for funding by the same Iraq-Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund which funded V4V.(www.CoalitionForVeterans.org).Please visit that website. These non-profits have been carefully evaluated and hold to high standards. You will find all sorts of services there—free stress reduction workshops (www.ComingHome.org), free psychological therapy (www.GiveAnHour.org, www.thesoldiersproject.org), jobs, job training, acupuncture, massage, you name it and there is probably a nonprofit organization out there who will give it to you for free or reduced cost.
One, Warrior Gateway sought to gather all this local information about service availability and centralize it on line, much as we had fantasized about a website that rated caregivers to veterans just the way students rate professors (www.WarriorGateway.org.) We were enthusiastic about this project and one of our staff went to work for them. Unfortunately that website now seems out of date. Also, since this information varies so much by location and changes so frequently over time, veterans in local communities seem like a better source that a centralized data base. Keep your eye open “Rate Your VA Shrink.org” may yet appear.
IAVA. Another key member of our Coalition is “IAVA”, the Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.IAVA.org) the first and largest membership organization of Iraq-Afghanistan vests. It now has a new Rapid Response Program. At present, they have staff in NYC and San Diego to respond to individual inquiries about services. However, they will respond to any returning veteran nationally. Their expertise seems likely to be best in these two local areas. Since IAVA encourages returning veterans to get together locally, in “Vet-Togethers” it would be great if they incorporated some more systematic sharing of local information to supplement the mostly social nature of these gatherings. As noted above, IAVA is a great place to connect with other returning veterans.
Student Veterans of America (www.StudentVeteran.org.) SVA organizes and supports chapters at local colleges to provide peer-to-peer support for returning veterans in getting an education. A former V4V staff member is currently the chief operation officer. While not peer support in the sense defined here, it provides many of the same benefits to its participants as well as expertise in dealing with the new GI bill, in-state tuition and help with the specific programs of each institution.
OTHERS. The National Veterans Foundation (www.nvf.org) has case managers on staff available by phone or internet to help all veterans bridge this disconnect. Perhaps the most impressive local agency in this regard is the convener of our national Coalition, the San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares. Swords-to-Plowshares.org.) Unlike most government agencies and nonprofits, Swords will help veterans with “bad paper,” less than honorable discharges.
Veterans Service Organizations (largest and most recent wars):
Many older Veterans Service Organizations are doing their best to reach out to us. Depending on where you live you may find a lot from them. At a minimum, stop by some of the local Posts:
American Legion (www.legion.org)
Disabled American Veterans (www.dav.org)
Paralyzed Veterans of America (www.pva.org)
National Gulf War Resource Center (www.ngwrc.org)
Veterans of Foreign Wars (www.vfw.org)
Vietnam Veterans of America (www.vvoa.org)
Veterans Organizations Focusing on Iraq-AghanistanVeterans:
Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (www.coalitionforveterans.org)
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.iava.org)
Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.ivaw.org)
Iraq War Veterans Association (www.iraqwarveterans.org)
Student Veterans of America (www.sva.org)
Veterans For America (www.veteransforamerica.org)
Veterans of Modern Warfare (www.vmw.org)
Veterans Administration for all federal benefits (www.va.gov)
Vet Centers for readjustment counseling for returning vets (www.vetcenter.va.org)
VA Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (press 1 as veteran) (www.suicideprefentionlifeline.org)
National PTSD Center (www.va.gov)
Free or inexpensive professional counseling (www.giveanhour.org)
Suicide hotline 1-800-SUICIDE
National Veterans Foundation (www.nvf.org) for a range of services on a hotline staffed by veterans
Website for national association of state veterans service departments: (www.nasdva.com)
In the interest of being more comprehensive, following excellent compilation was put together by PBS for a Frontline documentary,
www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heart/etc/resources.html. Hyperlink connections for each service are available on the website.
· U.S. Military & U.S. Government Services
“Military OneSource” — Comprehensive Military Assistance. ”Military OneSource” was established in June 2004 as a one-stop shop for all service members who need “help to cope with life’s little — and not so little — issues.” The service, which was previously broken down by individual service branch, offers 24- hour help by phone (800-342-9647) or by e-mail. Its web site provides advice on everything from coping with stress to caring for an elderly relative to recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. In addition to online articles, there are booklets, CDs, audiotapes, and interactive tools available, all free. Service members can log on to the main site or go through the original portals specific to each branch. To access advice and help by individual service branch:
• ARMY – “Army OneSource” 800-464-8107
• MARINES – “Marines OneSource” 800-869-0278
• NAVY – “Navy OneSource” 800-540-4123
• AIR FORCE – “Air Force OneSource” 800-707-5784
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The only national suicide intervention hotline (800-273-TALK-8255) funded by the federal government, this number works 24 hours, seven days a week and is comprised of over 100 crisis centers nationwide.
The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Just about everything you might ever want to know about PTSD — from the biology of the disease to its impact on spirituality — is provided on this Web site in the form of fact sheets, medical papers, videos and more. The NCPTSD is a part of the VA that works to advance the clinical care and social welfare of America’s veterans through research, education, and training in the science, diagnosis, and treatment of PTSD and stress-related disorders.
VVA’s PTSD Claims Guide
The purpose of this guide is to assist the veteran, or the veteran’s survivor(s), in presenting a claim for benefits based on exposure to psychologically traumatic events during military service that has resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The difficulty of readjusting to home is addressed here on this Web site, with input from all four branches of the services, the Reserves and the VA.
VA Readjustment Counseling Services
You will be able to locate a Vet Center in your state on this Web site.
Vet Centers are small community organizations managed by the VA and dedicated to providing counseling for combat veterans from combat veterans. The site also links to tele-health services and the National Center for PTSD (see below).
The Courage to Care
A collection of electronic fact sheets, this site covers everything from flu season to “psychological first aid” and features input from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
The Recovery and Employment Assistance Lifelines initiative is a joint project of the
U.S. Department of Labor, the Bethesda Naval Medical Center and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It works to create a seamless, personalized assistance network to ensure that seriously wounded and injured service members who cannot return to active duty are trained for rewarding new careers in the private sector.
The Web site for the official military health plan, TRICARE, explains what services are covered and also offers limited medical advice. One of the interesting links is “Healthy Choices for Life” which presents the results of a major 2002 survey of “health related behaviors” of military personnel.
The official web pages for the medical departments of each service branch that offer
press releases and directives from the top brass.
• Army Medicine
• Navy Medicine
• Air Force Medicine
Non-Governmental Support, General Support, and Advocacy Organizations for Service Members, Veterans and Their Families
National Veterans Foundation
The only nationwide non-governmental national hotline for veterans and their families providing crisis intervention, resource referral, benefits information and emotional support: 800-777-4443. (Monday-Friday, 9 am to 9 pm Pacific Time).
National Gulf War Resource Center
This is an international coalition of organizations that has been advocating for veterans since 1995. The NGWRC is a resource for information, support, referrals and how to file claims. Under “Resources” there is a self-help guide on PTSD, and be sure to explore the “PTSD and Readjustment” bulletin board.
PTSD Alliance was launched in 2000 and works with anyone suffering from Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder, including military veterans. The Alliance is a multidisciplinary group of professional and advocacy organizations that have joined forces to provide educational resources to medical and health care professionals, individuals diagnosed with PTSD and their loved ones, the general public and the media.
Lariam Action USA
Lariam Action is an information and support service for people who have questions about the effects of the anti-malaria drug Lariam© (mefloquine). Lariam recently has become an issue because some U.S. troops in the Iraq war think it is linked to their severe behavioral changes.
Veterans and Families
“Let’s get homecoming for veterans right this time,” says the Web site of Veterans and Families, neatly summing up the organization’s mission. A national non-profit community service and support organization, it is founded and directed by veterans, parents, grandparents, family members, employers, mental health professionals, academics and community leaders. It offers an online support group and links to recommended reading.
The wife of a Vietnam veteran created this site as a clearinghouse for PTSD information after her husband lived with the disease, undiagnosed, for fourteen years. Spouses will find a special section written with them in mind.
Disabled American Veterans
Formed in 1920 and chartered by Congress in 1932, the million-member DAV is the official voice of America’s service-connected disabled veterans — a strong, insistent voice that represents all of America’s 2.1 million disabled veterans, their families and survivors. Its nationwide network of services — free of charge to all veterans and members of their families — is totally supported by membership dues and contributions from the American public. Not a government agency, the DAV’s national organization receives no government funds.
Blinded Veterans Association
If you are a blind or visually impaired veteran, if you are a relative or a friend or if you just want to get involved, the BVA invites you to write, email or give them a call. The BVA is an organization specifically established to promote the welfare of blinded veterans and help them meet the challenges of blindness.
Paralyzed Veterans of America
The PVA Veterans Benefits Department provides assistance and representation before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, without charge, to veterans with spinal cord injury or dysfunction, and their eligible dependents. They also assist clients with applying for health care, as well as other benefits they may be entitled to.
Military Spouse Resource Center
This organization offers a large resource library for military spouse employment, education, relocation information and much more.
National Military Family Association
The NMFA’s mission is to provide timely and useful information to military families. There is much to explore on this organization’s Web site.
Society of Military Widows
The Society of Military Widows (SMW) was founded in8 by Theresa (Tess)
Alexander to serve the interests of women whose husbands died while on active military duty, of a service-connected illness, or during disability or regular retirement from the armed forces. SMW is a nonprofit organization.
TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Inc. (TAPS) is a national non-profit organization made up of, and providing services to, all those who have lost a loved one while serving in any branch of the Armed Forces — Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Reserves, Service Academies or the Coast Guard. The heart of TAPS is a national military survivor peer support network. It also offers grief-counseling referral, case worker assistance and crisis information, all available to help families and military personnel cope and recover. The services are provided 24 hours a day, free of charge.ESGR: Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve
Guardsmen and Reservists have the right to return to their civilian jobs following their service. Those who think their employers have acted unfairly — for instance, if they believe they were fired because of their military service — should contact the ESGR.
Just One Soldier
Iraq veteran Andrew Pogany has launched a national program to recruit mental health professionals in each community who will agree to see one Iraq veteran without charge. He can be reached at 719-351-4515 or email@example.com.
Caution About the Internet and Especially Social Netowrking.
As mostly younger veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans use the Internet in ways older generations of veterans do not understand. Many of us found out about Vets4Vets by searching on key words like ‘Iraq Vets” or “peer support.” Most of us found out about a Workshop or Support Group by looking on-line or getting an email. After a workshop or a local group, we keep in touch with our workshop buddies on Facebook or Twitter or email. We look at pictures of ourselves at workshops on Flicker. Many of us took a chance on Vets4Vets after watching one of the moving testimonials to its value on YouTube.
There is one caution which we would offer about the Internet—and to our knowledge we are the only ones offering it. Here is how we put that caution we have prepared for all of our social networking sites:
Social networking is not peer support!
V4v has strict rules for our “listening turns”
We only talk about our negative experiences in the war or the miilitary—if someone has agreed to give us a “listening turn.” Otherwise, we know it won’t work. We will have to listen to all the comments our stories remind them of.
We agree not to interrupt each other or give advice when it is our “turn.”
We agree to keep everything strictly confidential—not even bringing it up again with the person who talked about it unless he or she agrees to it.
We encourage each other to express our feelings about wht happened to us—and we agree to help each other get our attention off the hard things when our turn is over.
We encouraged veterans to use our website (www.nipspeersupport.org) to help Iraq and Afghanitan vets set up V4V relationships where they can take these listening turns to deal with what happened to them in the war and the military.
At every workshop, we learn the difference between putting our attention on our negative experiences when someone has agreed to give us a “listening turn”. That helps a lot! If we are feeling down, the first thing we do is call up a v4v buddy for a listening turn.
Otherwise, we have learned many tools to get our attention off those negative experiennces: letting the thoughts gently go out of our mind, putting our attention of positive things in our environment, meditation, exercise, journaling, reading positive things we keep around
Social networking is the opposite of Vets4Vets. All too often, people lay out their deepest concerns and strongest feelings in hopes that someone can listen to them. We have found that that just does not work.we know it primarily helps when someone is listening.
We have all heard the horror stories about people who get taken advantage of when they do that.
Therefore, we urge every i-a vet, when using our website, please keep your attention on interesting things in present time. This is not a place to make posts about your bad expereinces—in war or elsewhere–in hopes that someone is listenintg.
You might trigger someone else’s ptsd—and your own disappointment if no one responds to you.
You might give someone exactly the wrong impression about V4V, that we are a bunch of vets who spend all our time complaining about our experiences, rather than the together group we are of i-a vets taking charge of our lives and the world around us.
Your posting might come back to haunty you when you apply for a job. Employers and recruiters routinely scan the internet for anything you have said about your self.
Journaling is one thing. It helps. But you hide your journal.
Vets4Vets is not mental health treatment. If you are feeling bad or suicidat\l, you should call one of the hotlines who provide that support (listed earlier in this book.)
Vets4vets has no position on any outside issue. We do not lobby or support candidates. We encourage each other to do that in other organizations. Therefore nothing on this page or any social networking page associated with v4v, its staff, its leaders or its members should take such positions—even if there are issues that everyl one of us agrees upon.
Please do not our site—or any V4V workshop or gathering—to find friends, romantic partners or business associates.
We want you to have v4 v buddies you can do listening turns with. Someone you connect with through v4v is an unusual “friend” who really knows how to listen. If you form some other relationship based on that expectation, you will be disappointed. Your v4v buddy is only human.
Please find your friends elsewhere.
The primary reason for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to use this site should be to learn about V4V and make contact with another I-A vet for a listening turn in person, over the phone or by skype.
Please come to a workshop, join us and start developing your own network of V4V ”listening buddies.”
There is one more assumption we have mentioned several times so far, but felt it was so important it deserved its own Chapter. We assume that self-medication can definitely keep us from getting better ourselves and also from helping our fellow veterans.
Vets4Vets is not a stop-smoking-drinking-overeating-drugging-spending-raging (or anything else) program….per se. No one at Vets4Vets expects you to live like a puritan. If you find that you’re having problems with some addictive behavior and can’t seem to stop on your own, there are a lot of programs out there to help and we can point you in the right direction. Also, the work we do in Vets4Vets can often relieve some of the need to engage in these behaviors. If facing life without cigarettes (or anything else) right now seems too much for you, don’t worry. No one will require you to “swear off” to be a part of Vets4Vets. Remember, the only requirement for membership is a willingness to talk about your military experience and to listen to other vets while they do the same. All that being said, let’s talk a little about self-medicating behaviors.
The basic usefulness of what we do in our meetings is that instead of avoiding blocked or stuffed feelings, we express them. Some peer support communities call that “discharge.” Don’t worry, it’s an honorable discharge! Most of the time, especially for men in our culture, we are encouraged to do anything we can to not feel these feelings. In the approach we take to healing old wounds, this is counterproductive. Many of us have tried to deal with unpleasant feelings by taking matters into our own hands and engaging in a myriad of behaviors which temporarily make us feel better but ultimately don’t work long term. We found that while we may have been able to “postpone” feeling our feelings, they were really just building up steam outside the door. Therefore when they ultimately do come up, they seem even more ominous than before. Here are some of the many ways humans self-medicate:
Drinking. This one’s been around since humans first learned to crush grapes. Humans drink alcohol basically because they like the effect it produces. That seems overly simplistic and straightforward but when things get complicated around alcohol, sometimes it’s easy to forget why we ever did it in the first place. Alcohol can help us to relax. It’s a social activity that usually suggests fun times hanging out with friends and enjoying ourselves. For anyone who ever had any anxiety around approaching someone we’d like to date or even just feeling at ease at a party, alcohol seemed the right prescription. There’s a reason they call it “liquid courage.” For those of us who have been in the military, we know what a huge part of that culture drinking can be. There is nothing wrong with drinking in and of itself, but when alcohol begins to cause major problems, life can become pretty miserable. For some of us, our drinking life became the only normal one. We drank for every reason under the sun, and sometimes for no reason at all. Sooner or later, for those of us who had become alcoholic, life with alcohol seemed unlivable and life without seemed impossible. Not everyone who has ever drunk to feel better is an “alcoholic.” Only you can give yourself that diagnosis. Alcoholics Anonymous offers a questionnaire to help you see if you have a problem. Visit www.AA.org.
Overeating. Few things make us feel better than shoving foods that we like down the old guzzle. Even from when we are babies, when we cry, Mom or Dad feeds us to make us feel better. Everybody has their own favorite “comfort foods.” We are humans and we have to eat, that’s a “no-brainer.” The problems come when we use food to self-medicate. It seems almost par for the course for veterans to gain a lot of weight when they return from war, especially if they leave the military altogether when their deployment ends. Sometimes habits of overeating start before we leave the military but because of all the physical exercise, we don’t really notice it so much. When our time in the military has ended and we are no longer required to show up for PT, the “evidence” of overeating habits may become more evident. Some experts suggest that putting on extra pounds and inches can be a way to “cushion” ourselves against a sometimes abrasive world. That certainly makes sense for us who deal with difficult memories of wartime. At Vets4Vets retreats we try to have healthier snacks available. Even so, even with healthier food, a great example of how we sometimes use eating to self-medicate is to look at the food table during the first break after someone has been having a lot of emotional discharge. It may be only carrots but you should see how quickly they disappear. Of course there are worse things than eating too many carrots (although one of us ate so many carrots, his skin routinely turned orange!). “Progress not perfection” is a great motto we borrow from AA. A good tip for those of us who might have a tendency to overeat is to ask ourselves before we order the pizza 1) am I physically hungry or emotional hungry and 2) is pizza the best choice for my body and my mind? Again, Vets4Vets is not some cult that tries to make you swear off pizza. We’ve had pizza at lots of Vets4Vets functions! This paragraph is just to provide a little “heads-up” for those of us who would use food to medicate those feelings that are best shared with another Vets4Vets member in a one-on-one phone call or meeting or in a Vets4Vets group meeting or retreat.
Other Issues around Food. Some people have discovered that there can be an incredible emotional release that occurs when we vomit. This may sound absolutely bizarre to you if you have never experienced it but for those of us who have, we know the truth of it. For us who have had a problem with overeating, at first it may have seemed like a solution. “I’ll just eat what I want and then ‘get rid of it.’” You may also think that bulimia is only suffered by women but this is not true at all. Men suffer with bulimia too. Some people will starve themselves for long periods just so that they can binge eat without guilt. The feeling of being full of food sometimes mimics the feeling of being emotionally full, that everything is okay. Some people become anorexic, that is, they routinely eat too little food, simply because it gives them the illusion of control when their life might otherwise feel out of control. Others overeat and then compulsively exercise for hours each day to keep their weight in check. People sometimes make jokes about eating disorders, but for those of us who have had some experience with them—either personally or with someone we love, think that it’s no laughing matter. Especially if you are a veteran who is self-medicating your “war stuff” by overeating, purging or starving yourself, we want you to get the help you deserve. Of course the work we do in Vets4Vets groups will help to address the core issues but if you find yourself powerless over these food issues, help for these symptoms of the real core issue can be found. If you are unable to locate such resources on your own, your fellow vets in Vets4Vets will help you find help. Overeaters Anonymous is a 12 step group like AA but is designed for issues around food. (www.OA.org.) You don’t have to necessarily have to be an “overeater” to attend a meeting. You just need to have the desire to eat rationally. Again, just being honest with your fellow vets is a great first step. You can reach OA at www.OA.org.
Drugs Other Than Alcohol. When the “here and now” doesn’t feel too pleasant, there is a great temptation to do something to take us away from it. Many of us modern veterans have fallen into the trap that has killed so many of the veterans who went before us. Vets4Vets makes absolutely no moral judgments about drugs. If they are a problem for you, we simply want to do what we can to help you get off of them. This can be done by the work that we do in Vets4Vets and by helping you to find other help if you need it. The dangers to our emotional health, our jobs and our families are tremendous, especially if the drugs we are using are illegal or if we are acquiring legal drugs illegally. For some of us who were injured physically, the pain killers we were prescribed became as much about handling emotional pain as they were about addressing the physical pain for which they were prescribed. Not all of us who gather with Vets4Vets have had problems of this type, but you can rest assured that if you have, you will find others with similar experiences in Vets4Vets. The great news is we have learned to face life on life’s terms without using. You can too. We who have faced problems of drug addiction know how frightening it can be, but together we can do what we could not do on our own. You can take comfort in knowing that there is hope. There are many sources of help for those who have a problem with drugs. The 12 Step fellowship associated with drug addiction is Narcotic Anonymous. They can be found on the web at www.NA.org. There are also other 12 Step fellowships associated with the use of a particular drug such as Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous. Information about how to find groups near you is also found on the web.
Issues Around Money. Some of us have found ways to self-medicate through money. Who doesn’t feel better after leaving the store with something we’ve wanted for a while? We all know veterans who spent a good chunk of that combat-zone, tax-free salary on a shiny new car or truck (we may be that veteran ourselves!) When buying becomes addiction though, a bigger problem is created, especially when credit comes into the picture. Before we know it, those credit card bills can be eating us alive. We swore to ourselves over and over that we would pay off the whole balance each month but somehow that promise to ourselves got broken. Buying something for someone we love, especially after we had hurt that person, can’t be wrong, can it? For many veterans who have trouble coping, compulsive spending and debating become a deadly disease. Some may not think, so it can’t kill you like heroin after all, right? Consider this, how many veterans who take their own lives aren’t at least on some level having trouble around finances. This form of addiction is a killer. Speak honestly with your fellow veterans in Vets4Vets if you’re having problems in this area. Trust us, we know about the shame associated with it, especially for men. In our culture, so much of a man’s perceived worth is based on his ability to make money, to provide for himself and his family. But now that women have on an increasing rate, entered the work force in droves, the issues of having our self-worth being attached to our “net worth” is not peculiar to men. Women suffer too. Another way that money can become a problem is through a form of self-deprivation called “compulsive pauperism.” That means depriving yourself (and perhaps your family) of the things you actually need when you have the money to afford it. The illusion of control that comes from being overly frugal with money is akin in many ways to the anorexic who deprives him or herself of food. Not allowing ourselves the things that we really need is also a way to punish ourselves for those of us who believe we have done something for which we should be punished. (Our time spent talking and listening with our fellow Vets4Vets members can help us let go of that erroneous idea as well!)
Having a spending plan that works and sticking to it has given many of us piece of mind. A simple way to create a spending plan is to write down everything we spend in a little notebook, from a package of gum to the electricity bill. After two or three months, you’ll have a good idea about what your expenditures are. Of course there are those unexpected costs that come along. If you wish, you can add that into your spending plan under “unexpected expenses.” If nothing unexpected comes along, you can put that into savings or occasionally spend some of it on a special treat for yourself or a loved one. Speaking of savings, putting a little something aside each month, in addition to just being a good idea, can also offer us piece of mind.
The VA can offer some resources to help us be good stewards of our money. There are also many other organizations who offer free help, especially to veterans. Check for them on the Internet under “financial help for veterans.” Don’t get sucked into more credit schemes though! There are also 12 Step groups which help people who have trouble with debting, compulsive spending and pauperism. Look on the Internet for meetings near you under the names Debtors Anonymous and Underearners Anonymous or Business Owners Debtors Anonymous. (If you work for yourself, you are a business owner.) First and foremost and from our point of view with writing this book, lean on your fellow veterans for the emotional support you need around troubling issues with money. Almost no one among us has not gone through rough patches with money. Together we can make it through it! (www.DebtorsAnonymous.org.)
Sex and relationship issues. Many, many people medicate with sex. In some ways it is completely natural and normal to fall into the arms of the one you love after being out there in the cruel world. In this category, we tread lightly and feel compelled to tell you once again, we do not seek to be the arbitrators of anyone’s morals, sexual or otherwise. If you have, however been using sex in a way that does not feel good to you emotionally, is putting you at risk in any way or is threatening your relationship if you happen to be in one—then it is an issue that could stand looking at. We has humans are naturally sexual beings and sex makes us feel good. There is no shame in that whatsoever. However if you resolve over and over to behave in a certain way around sex and find yourself doing the opposite over and over, you may have a problem with sexual addiction. Pornography can be a big problem for some. If you find yourself surfing the net for porn late at night for hours and hours, especially when thoughts of the war or your military service come up, chances are you are using it to avoid feelings that are best processed with another Vets4Vets member. For many who have used sex as a medication, prostitutes and illicit affairs have become a way of life, even after many a resolve to live in a different way. To some extent, alcoholism and other forms of addiction have lost some of the awful stigma they once had. People used to slip in and out of AA meetings like they were top secret spies. Now, almost no one who is a recovering alcoholic has any reservations about admitting this fact to their friends and coworkers. Unfortunately this is not yet the case with sexual compulsivity and/or addiction. Our culture by and large still stigmatizes those who struggle in this area. Still as far as we are concerned, it is not unlike any other addiction. Of course, if your behaviors are criminal or are affecting other people, the urgency for you to deal with them is great and immediate. Don’t wait to reach out for help. We understand that this may be the most difficult form of self-medicating behavior to admit to. Perhaps finding someone you really trust a lot in the Vets4Vets group, someone with whom you have a lot in common, and admitting your need for help in this area to them first. Baby steps are always a good start and even baby steps are steps in the right direction.
Relationship or romance addiction is related to sexual addiction but not necessarily the same. Sometimes just the obsession over the object of your affection or, if there’s no one in your life at present, the obsession over finding a romantic relationship, can be a way of not focusing on the emotional issues at hand. Typically, because of the gender paradigm in our culture, women have been more susceptible to romance and relationship addiction, but as is the case with money and food issues, the gender stereotypes are not always accurate. Men can self-medicate with obsession over finding “the right one” just as much as women can. Or tying their own feelings to whether or not they can please their partner. The main thing to note is that processing our feelings in a Vets4Vets meeting doesn’t happen as readily if we are constantly thinking about that special someone. It is natural to want to be loved and having someone to love who loves us back is a wonderful thing. We want to be sure you know we know that too. If romantic obsession is keeping you from emotional health though, there is help for that too. Although we may have started to sound like a commercial for 12 Step groups, millions have found help there so we again want to say that Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and other “S groups” (as they are known in recovery circles) can be found on the Internet. Codependents Anonymous (CODA) offers help for those whose lives are tied additively to pleasing (or angering) another. If you have trouble locating help, reach out to Vets4Vets and we’ll help you find help. (www.SA.org.)
This list is not meant to be exhaustive. There are certainly many, many ways that people self-medicate that we have not even touched on. We just wanted to give you an idea of some of the ways that we have tried to make ourselves feel better and how those methods sometimes have turned on us. Also, we have written this chapter with the full understanding that some of these forms of self-medication will be as far from your personal experience as they can be. Each one we cover is mentioned simply because some vet along the way has mentioned it as something they have experienced. If it is completely outside the realm of your understanding, simply take what you can use and leave the rest. We should say also that for the subject of each paragraph, entire books can and have been written. Our intention was just to mention them briefly in hopes that if any of them are causing problems in your life, 1) you can know that you are not alone and that other veterans have faced the same issues and 2) that something can be done about it.
The basic tool of Vets4Vets, which is talking and expressing feelings while others listen and pay attention to you, looses a lot of its effectiveness if the veteran is too busy self-medicating to access and process those emotions. That being said, we above all people have compassion and understanding for veterans. We know firsthand how difficult some of the issues we discuss can be. We do not demand perfection from veterans participating in Vets4Vets. In fact, we discourage perfectionism! If you are having trouble with one or more of the self-medicating behaviors in this chapter, the first thing you should do is to realize that you are not a bad person because of it. You may think you believe this but a good way to find out is to say the words out loud, “I am not a bad person.” If the rebuttal voice comes right back with a sarcastic “yeah right”, you know there is work to be done. People who are recovering from addiction are not bad people trying to get good; they are sick people trying to get well. After all, people who engage in self-medicating behaviors do so because they are hurting! What kind of evil person would demonize a person who is hurting so bad he has to drink (or whatever) to feel okay? Ultimately though, self-medicating behaviors simply do not work over time. The issues that we try to cover up have to be dealt with and usually the longer we wait, the more ominous they become and the longer we use addictive behaviors or substances to deal with them, the worse the wreckage caused by their use will be. We know that facing addiction of any sort can be painful, confusing and fearful. We should also say here that not everyone who has ever used one of these substances or behaviors to self-medicate should necessarily be considered an “addict.” Just because you’ve drunk to kill the pain before, even more than once does not always make you an alcoholic. Only you can really make that diagnosis. Beware though! Denial is one of the main symptoms of addiction. Some forms of addiction require that you “dance with the dragon.” That is to say we have no choice but to eat to live, we live in a world that uses money as a way of doing business and if we are alive, sex is a part of our life in some way. The trick is to learn to live in a responsible way around these issues. For those of us who have had addictive problems, working some form of ongoing program of recovery where we reach out to others seems to be the best recipe for success. With regard to substance abuse, conventional wisdom says that once you have crossed that line into addiction, you can never go back to drinking (or using drugs) rationally. “You can never be a cucumber again once you’ve become a pickle.” This can be a hard row to hoe, but not impossible. With this and all forms of self-medicating behaviors, whether you consider yourself and “addict” or not, don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for help. Vets4Vets is an organization based on one simple principle: one veteran reaching out to another. That’s what we’re here for. You are not alone.
You have certainly noticed that we emphasize other self-help, peer support approaches. We do this because they work, indeed, they are often the best—and they are free. There are many other ways of dealing with each of these approaches to self-medication which can be found at the VA, the Vet Centers, your local community mental health agencies and many of the resources listed in this book.
Building a National Peer Support Community Movement of Returning Veterans
Vets4Vets accomplished an awful lot. We trained a Marine infantry battalion’s worth of returning Iraq-Afghanistan Afghanistan veterans in the skills of peer support—1,500 men and women. In those 85 residential, weekend workshops in more than twenty states, where we trained them, we also helped them. The major evaluation study documented improvements in psychological functioning just from attending that one weekend workshop. They reported fewer symptoms of PTSD, they reported increases in their sense of personal power and they reported increases in their sense of social connectedness. Besides decreasing the bad things—the hypervigilance, the flashbacks, the anxiety—they increased those latter two well-documented traits of psychological resilience. At every workshop, veterans came up to us and thanked us for saving their lives. They told us about telling their peers about events down range about which they have never talked before. We held six of those workshops for two groups of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan generally let down by the military and the VA—women and vets of different sexual identities. Then many of them went home from all those workshops to start their own peer-support groups of returning veterans—in forty different cities. We brought the leaders of those local groups together for their own weekend workshops every six months for years to review our progress and set our strategy. We had a full-time staff of twelve—all but one of us veterans and all but two veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We had six returning veterans work full-time in just the state of Texas because it had so many veterans of this era and because of the generosity of its State Legislature and two major foundations, the San Antonio Foundation and the Dallas Foundation. The young vets were working full-time reaching out their peers and setting up workshops every month, just in Texas. We had full-time staff in Pennsylvania and in Florida. Four of us supported all this from our national office in Jim’s hometown of Tucson, Arizona. We were featured in a long segment of the NBC Nightly News—and in dozens of local stories. TV producers had flown us to NYC and filmed a pilot for a new reality show just about us. We were honored in the Pentagon by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
We were well on our way to building a movement of Iraq-Afghanistan veterans to end the plagues which affect us—the suicides, the violent attacks on others, the domestic abuse, the unemployment, the homelessness and the substance abuse which underlies so many of the others. It generally takes about one percent of a population to launch a social movement. If you can change one person in a hundred, they will change the rest. We had begun to reach that scale and our strategy called for reaching that goal in five years. What an exciting and fulfilling time!
But all that came to a sudden end in 2011. When we couldn’t raise the funding for our national office, rather than shift of headquarters to Texas where the state and local foundations were eager to support our operations, not just locally, but nationally—we argued among ourselves, fired me, cut off our Texas programs and had ceased operations entirely within six months.
In retrospect, we had broken some of the cardinal rules of peer support. Although we aspired to the all-volunteer, altruistic culture of the peer support communities which inspired us, we used money to jump start our program. We hired returning veterans to do the basic work of peer support—reaching out to one another and taking turns listening. The 8th x Tradition of 12 Step programs explicitly forbids this. The work of peer support is not done for money. Indeed, the magic which keeps a member going is the drive and the interest in helping another veteran, not the pay check they might receive. Indeed, one of the tensions that tore us apart at the end was between those volunteer leaders who took calls at all hours of the night and the paid staff who did their work during the day, but were encouraged to turn off their cellphones at night after working hours.
Indeed, the reliance on the “NGO-industrial complex” model of most social change movements has increasingly been blamed for the failure to solve the major social problems facing our society (T. Skocpol, 2003). Whether that be the movement to end poverty or save the environment, it is increasingly clear that relying on big-budget, hierarchical organizations with lots of paid, professional staff will undermine the effort in the end. The pressure on the senior staff to meet the budget distracts them from the mission of the organization. The threat of losing their paid jobs and their salaries makes it difficult for paid staff to change.
Increasingly, the all-volunteer, horizontalist model of the peer support world is being held out as a model for all groups seeking to make changes for the better in our society.
We would urge returning veterans who seek to build on the base established by Vets4Vets to follow that model more closely. Here are some of the lessons we learned from V4V.
In Chapter 12, we emphasized the importance of one-on-one outreach and relationships as the building blocks for any social change movement. In the 12 Steps, we insist on reaching out by “attraction rather than promotion.” In co-counseling, similarly, we say that any flyers, posters, movies, large meetings, and the like are worthless unless they contribute to the building and maintaining of strong, one-on-one relationships. Increasingly, that insight is being recognized by other social movements. Re-read Chapter 12!
However, once you begin to gather a group around you from your one-on-one outreach what do you do?
Following current practices in the non-profit world, the next step is to hire someone! Someone who can put full-time into outreach, doing more one-on-one’s, setting up more support groups, organizing workshops, talking to the media—figuring out how to raise the money to pay their salaries. The entrepreneurial spirit!
By peer support values, that strategy is exactly wrong. You should do those one-on-ones in your free time, not for pay. Otherwise you might find yourself wanting to do one-on-ones with vets who have already need the least help, but can help pay your salary.
Peer support is financially self-supporting. You meet at each other’s homes, a religious congregation or a library. No one is paid to do the basic work of peer support—reaching out one-on-one and taking turns listening to each other.
If your local group grows into several groups and you have enough money to rent a clubhouse, you hire a skilled club house manager, not one of your own members whom you hope will also grow the movement. Please, please notice that this is exactly opposite of the norms of the larger society. We are building something different here. We have to in order to save ourselves and our brother and sister vets.
We do not develop a single leader for our local group. We do not want the funniness that always leads to. It is not Jim’s group or someone else’s group, it is our group.
We rotate the positions. You need a leader for every meeting, but rather than call him or her the Chair or the Executive Director, we call them the “Secretary.” Every six months, we give up our positions. We need someone to collect the money and pay the bills, even if it is only $30 a month to the religious congregation that hosts our meetings. A Treasurer. We need someone to open the room and set up the furniture.
So how do you make decisions in your local group—not depending on a leader, but by consensus? In 12 Steps we think of the truth as a Higher Power whose will is manifest in the consensus. In many social change movements, we think of consensus as getting closer to the truth. In any event, we do not rely on one person. We may fall back on super-majority voting in a pinch, but we do not elect a President For Life.
We have two new forms of decision making to get things done without going through the process of voting. We use Topic Groups Discussions to identify issues that need to be discussed and share information. Then we use Action Groups to encourage our members to take initiative on the issues we have discussed. These forms have worked well those dozens of workshops with hundreds of returning veterans. We urge you to consider them for your local groups. In some 12 Step groups, a piece of paper is passed around and anyone can put down a topic for discussion.
And how do these local groups relate to each other. In the peer support world, each group is autonomous. It makes its own decisions about where and when to meet and whether to socialize afterward etc. In the peer support world, we form an Intergroup to coordinate actions and issues which affected more than one of these groups. Each small group sends a representative to the Intergroup where again decisions are largely made by consensus. However, these local group representatives are “direct representatives” not “indirect” of the kind we have in our form of government. Direct representatives go back to their home group and ask the group how to vote, they do not assume that their own personal positions should be expressed at the Intergroup. In a pinch, they poll their local group to find out what position to present at the intergroup. In some social change movements, this is called a “Spokescouncil” model and the Direct Representatives are “Spokespeople.”
And what about anonymity? Vets4Vets did not practice this and the results contributed to our downfall. The media will attempt to develop one person as the hero of any movement. The successes of the movement will be attributed to that one hero. And when the hero slips, the movement will be criticized. We do not need one or a few vets who represent this movement. The pressure on such a hero to develop special relationships with reporters, funders and government officials is simply too great.
These are our strong recommendations. We will not grow as fast as if we had taken large donations from corporations who want to use our credibility to sell their products; or gotten as much publicity as if we had gone along with their desire to have a single spokesperson for our movement. Frankly, the accomplishments of veterans’ organizations which have followed that model are not impressive. We are still killing ourselves faster than the enemy kills us in battle. The VA still drags its feet in processing our claims.
We are taking a different path. We are taking care of ourselves. The paradigm for such a movement, Alcoholics Anonymous started out with two people in 1934. Within twenty years it had spread across the world. We can do it too!
Dealing With Conflict Among Returning Veterans
We waffled about whether to include this paragraph. For obvious reasons. You no longer can send an email and get whisked away to one of our workshops because we were unable to deal with the conflict created by our inability to fund our national office. In the end, we decided to include the Chapter. We were all combat vets dealing with symptoms most people would call “PTSD.” We didn’t trust each other. We got angry. We all thought we had been attacked. These problems are likely to come up even as you use the time-tested tools of one-on-one outreach to build your community and consensus based Intergroups to manage it. Here is what some peer support communities, primarily based on co-counseling have to say about dealing with conflict.
To one degree or another, all veterans have at some time received bad treatment. It might have been in basic training, at boring or dangerous jobs. Some of that bad treatment may have come after we were discharged. The VA is not always the easiest to deal with. Civilians, even those that mean well, have sometimes hurt us unwittingly. Even though there seems to be a concerted effort to treat our generation of veterans better because of all the press the ill treatment of the Vietnam veterans got, still there are often times when we get abused. We always want to be cautious about becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and we have certainly seen some of our OIF/OEF brothers and sisters fall into that trap. “Oh I’m just a messed up war vet and everyone always treats me badly.” That is certainly a dead-end street and we’ve seen it over and over. It is true however that we have been treated badly at times and we have gotten hurt. In some ways, that sets up to be more defensive. Once we’d been fired on or come across an IED in a certain part of town during our deployment, weren’t we much more apt to have our guards up and to be a little bit more ready to fire back at any threat? The same is true now. Sadly, sometimes the person we find ourselves “firing” at is another veteran. In this chapter we want to talk about conflict between veterans and offer some solutions about how to recognize, and deal with it where nobody gets hurt.
Why should veterans ever turn against each other? Why should we, who have learned literally to love each other like family and are willing to give our lives to protect each other, ever come to a situation where we develop strong dislikes or even hatred for each other. In the news we now often hear the term “unpopular war” to describe Iraq and Afghanistan, much in the same way the term was used to talk about Vietnam. The US military’s invasion and occupation of these two countries has become so wildly controversial in America that families have split over the issue. The pundits on television have made millions for themselves bantering back and forth about why we should or should not have gone there or now that we are there why we should or should not stay. In a culture that is so deeply immersed in the sporting event mentality of “my side versus your side,” the talking heads (or should we call them “shouting heads”) argue back in forth in something that has become more entertainment than news. Those of us who are facing troubling emotional experiences around our time at war are particularly offended that these people are making names for themselves and a whole lot of money arguing about something that they can little understand. Many of us lost friends in Iraq or Afghanistan and we take the issue of the treatment of veterans very seriously. How can these people make a game of it all? In other situations, we find that we meet with other problems, although we may have been promised “your job will be here when you return” or “I would never leave you,” the reality of post-war life has been quite different from what we were promised. Even if loved ones might have been very supportive when we first got back or the boss opened us with open arms, over time, when even small problems arose in the wake of our service, we began to notice a shift. We felt as though we were seen as ticking time bombs and relationships or jobs ended after we were given another excuse for the reason they did. If we are facing even “mild” cases of PTSD, because civilians have heard so much about it, we might feel like we are labeled, singled out, and shunned. There’s no doubt about it, even for those of us who feel like our readjustment has been “easy” compared to others’, life after military service and especially after war can be very difficult.
With all these “slings and arrows” coming at us from all directions, doesn’t it seem odd that we would ever turn on each other? Even if our political opinions or our opinions about social issues may differ, it seems inconceivable that we, who always “had each other’s backs” would ever put our fellow veterans in our cross hairs. But we do. Because tempers flare when discussions of the war or politics or a hundred other subjects come up, we fall into the same traps of viciousness that fill the American airways. There are organizations of OIF/OEF veterans who oppose the wars and those who support it. All say they support the troops. There are groups of veterans who take a particular stance on social and political issues and those who take the opposite point of view. Because these issues are so emotionally charged (and because the flames are fanned by those who make money from it all), we veterans sometimes find ourselves standing toe to toe with those with whom we used to stand shoulder to shoulder. This is truly unfortunate. The reason is, and it has been proven over and over and over; in the end, we are all we have. If veterans do not stand up for, stand with, and stand behind other veterans, we all suffer. Some suffer greatly. So many veterans after having survived war end up taking their own lives. An estimated forty percent of our nation’s homeless are veterans. How can this be? We can all call to mind someone in our unit who we absolutely couldn’t stand. (Yeah, that’s the one.) But even as much as that person drove us crazy, if faced with the situation, we would have risked our lives to protect them. We have to continue on in the same way of thinking when it comes to sticking together as veterans.
We only need look at history to see that this is not a phenomenon peculiar to veterans. In some ways veterans have often become an “oppressed group” so it just seems right to compare us to other groups who have been oppressed by the culture at large. So many times, people who have suffered together will turn on each other and cause even more suffering. How many times have the leaders of a particular demographic who seek to improve the lives of their particular group had to withstand the greatest attacks from within their own people? We Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans are going to disagree on many issues, sometimes vehemently. The true test of our merit as a generation of vets will be to see how we are able to respect our differences of opinions without destroying one another. Our ability to win adequate treatment for our brothers and sisters from the larger society will depend in large part in our ability to work together as a community of returning veterans as much as we can.
Here is one way we propose to keep an eye out for those cracks in our bond which connects us to one another: Listen for things that come up in discussion that start to sound like the constant and exhausting debates over social and political issues. In our firm commitment to keep politics out of Vets4Vets, it will become second nature if we will only continue to remind ourselves of this commitment. When a subject matter which may divide us comes up, we gently and respectfully remind each other that our commitment to Vets4Vets and to the individual veteran is greater than any of our personal opinions. Over time, after we have established long-term, one-on-one listening turn relationships, we will begin to know individual veterans better and so, in that case, you may be able to express more specific feelings and ideas in your listening turns about “hot-button” topics. For instance, a veteran who feels attacked and hated by people who speak out against war may find another veteran who feels similarly and would be able to express those feelings of anger, sadness and betrayal with that other vet. A lesbian vet who thinks that LGBTQ folks are still treated badly in the military may be able to share her feelings with someone she has figured out shares a similar view. The main thing to remember is that the whole practice of “listening turns” is about expressing feelings and not about “picking sides.” True, it’s important for us to sometimes share our feelings about issues that might divide the group at large. Out of respect for the movement at large, we carefully seek the most appropriate outlet for those feelings.
When conflict does arise between veterans, it is always helpful to back off of an emotionally charged situation, perhaps even go for a walk with another veteran and approach the situation with a clearer head. A few deep breaths are usually a great idea. After all, we are trained killers and we’ve often been put in situations where we had to “shoot from the hip.” This is not a good approach to resolving conflict among us. When we come back to the person with whom we have disagreed, we try our very best to imagine what their experience has been in life. No matter how badly we think someone is behaving, most often they are doing the best they can in that moment and acting based on their experience and the information they’ve been given in life. To quote a famous prayer, we “seek to understand rather than to be understood.” Given our commitment to each other when we were in the ranks, most of the time when someone sees that the other person is making a great effort to understand and that the real goal of the situation is to resolve the conflict rather than “win” the argument, amazing instances of reconciliation occur. In some situation we may reach out to another veteran who is truly impartial to help us by guiding us toward the resolution without “taking sides” or entering the disagreement.
Probably the most effective tool to use in a situation of conflict is the listening turn. Many are the professional marriage counselors who have used a kitchen timer just as we do. If one or another of the people in conflict, can just think to suggest taking turns, miracles are likely to happen. Give each other five minutes each. Do not interrupt. Give the other person permission to express their strong feelings during their turn. You would have heard those feelings anyway if the argument had continued. There is something much less bothersome about hearing those feelings in the middle of a timed turn. It is so clear that they are the other person’s feelings and not and attack on you. Moreover, as we have seen again and again in Vets4Vets, after someone has been listened to for an uninterrupted turn and had the opportunity to express their feelings, they think more clearly, they are much less apt to continue an argument.
Sometimes, this taking turns will have to go on for a long period, repeatedly taking turns, for an hour or more. Gradually both veterans get a clearer view of what is making the other person so angry. Often it is not the other vet at all.
When taking turns is not enough, it is useful to formalize the process of understanding the other person’s point of view. Each vet takes a turn expressing the other vet’s point of view! In detail. Until the other vet is satisfied that his or her position has been expressed accurately. Many are the time that a vet who has to summarize the opponent’s point of view has discovered that there is much less real disagreement between the two than first appeared.
Indeed, it is useful for each group of returning veterans to develop their own policy as the basis for discussion with other returning veterans: women veterans, LGBTQ veterans, African-heritage, Afghanistan vets, etc. It is much easier to avoid conflict and resolve differences of opinion when they arise if each group has reached agreement on the issues important to it.
The highest level of conflict resolution in the peer support world is the Controversial Issues Process developed by the National Coalition Building Institute. (www.NCBI.org). You should consult their materials if you want to use this approach or consider hiring one of their consultants if it is a serious issue in an organization. Basically, the process involves letting the two people in disagreement take long turns first to state their position on the issue fully, so that each person is listened to respectfully.
Then the “summarizing the other person’s position is utilized as described above.
Finally, each person gets to address the question, what in your life or background is connected to your position on this issue. A long time is given to this topic for both parties. What usually happens are two things.
First, each person gets to see their opposite as a full human being, seeing the incidents and struggles that led to their position. It is not possible to hear a person tell the story of their life (which this b4eomes) without falling in love with them. We are all really trying our best, from our perspective. There is nothing more interesting to a human being than another human being.
Second, each gets to hear more than just the “fighting words” that headline most positions: pro-life, pro-choice, anti-war, pro-mission, and see the nuances of each other’s position and where it fits into their whole life.
Again and again, we have seen people locked in conflict discover areas for common action where they began as heated adversaries. Working on the GI Bill rather than arguing about the war. Working on adoption instead of arguing about abortion. The list goes on.
Again, Vets4Vets did not invent these tools. However, they were largely developed in peer support communities and rest on the assumptions of Vets4Vets—everyone deserves to be heard, there is not expert, being listened to without interruption helps, expressing feelings helps.
In the end, conflicts may persist. While there may be one truth out there, two people will not always see it the same way. In these situations, it is sometimes useful to pick the interpretation with the most interesting results. Both sides can agree on a policy for the short run and see how it turns out.
What is crucially important is that we OEF-OIF vets put our own unity first to the extent we can. We do not have the numbers our grandfathers had after World War II. We cannot insist on decent treatment for our brothers and sisters and expect the society to simply go along. The more we are able to stick together as OEF-OIF bets, the more influence we can have. Unity is worth struggling for.
Even when we cannot agree on a temporary position, we need to remember our assumptions. Vets are good. We are doing our best. Just because some of us take public positions which others of us oppose, we need to go the extra mile to stay connected to the vets on the other side. There will be other issues, other struggles when we will be on the same side. If we have poisoned the waters between us over a single disagreement, we are consigning us to a limited role in the society. We deserve more than that. We deserve to be listened to. To do that, we have to continue to respect each other.
We must always remember our commitment to each other first. To borrow again from the twelve-steppers: “Our common welfare should come first. Personal recovery depends on… unity.”
Conclusion: “An Invitation from Vets4Vets”
In these pages you have read a little bit about our history, from how we got started to what happened along the way to where we’re at today. We are “learning by doing.” Along the way we have discovered things that work well and things that don’t work so well. May we always be judged by our intention, which is to help our fellow veterans? A movement by Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, that’s what Vets4Vets was and aspires to be again. Recently the last British World War I veteran died. He was 111 years old! Even if some of us are only near that lucky, the need for Vets4Vets will be around into the 22nd century! Our success will depend greatly on what we do now in these early days.
We talked realistically about the situation we faced. We’ve mentioned some very grave statistics and looked to examples of veterans’ stories from previous wars. At times it can be very discouraging but as we learned in the military, attitude does have a bearing on our ability to get through rough situations and we know that holds true today. Even though what we have decided we are going to do here with Vets4Vets is a sometimes-ominous task, it is not an impossible one. We have faced many battles together; together we’ll get through this one.
Remember always to refer back to this book and to other Vets4Vets literature. It’s easy to fall into old habits when it comes to helping one another. It is very unnatural to simply sit and listen to someone who is in pain and not try to “fix” them by giving advice or saying things simply to make them stop feeling the way they happen to be feeling at the time as they tell their stories. Trust us when we say that our experience has taught us, this way works! We will not be so arrogant to say that our way is the only way for veterans to deal with the issues that face us but we can guarantee you that it is a modality that has worked for many before you. Once we start to meet the same veterans over and over, the natural tendency is to form friendships, to go out together and socialize. Building stronger bonds is great but we should always remember to stick close to the format of the meetings and the individual listening turns. To stray from the techniques that so clearly work is to risk reducing their effectiveness. Use Vets4Vets with your friends, don’t use Vets4Vets to find friends. There are lots of organizations which bring us together socially. Get over your shyness in Vets4Vets and then go make lots of new friends, including lots of Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Then teach them about Vets4Vets.
Veterans have long gathered together over drinks as a way of dealing with our war experiences. That is something different from what we propose. While Vets4Vets is not a “teetotaler” group and we don’t preach to our vets about “avoiding the drink at all costs,” we have seen so very many times how the veteran’s attempt to self-medicate has taken him or her so much farther down and in some cases, all the way down. We know for sure that sharing stories and getting emotional while sharing stories does not help as much as if you follow these simple rules against interrupting—and stay sober for at least that conversation. An overwhelming percentage of OIF/OEF veterans who commit suicide have also had problems with substance abuse and many are drunk or high when they make that final and permanent decision. Many of us in Vets4Vets have personal experience with addiction. We know how difficult it can be. If you find that you are having problems with substance or behavior addictions that you can’t handle on your own, please reach out to us. We who have faced similar demons can help.
Remember that the real way to continue to build this movement is one veteran at a time. All of us who have had a long term association with Vets4Vets have done so because at one time or another we sat down with another veteran and heard some version of our own story. The deep and profound ways we connect as a group are based on the deep and profound ways we have connected as individuals. As you endeavor to help us grow, always remember that and share your personal story often with veterans who are new to peer support.
On the one hand, we are sorry that we are no longer holding our free, weekend retreats. They were great while they lasted. However, they probably sent us down a bad path of expecting someone else to take care of us by flying us to a nice retreat center. None of the other peer support communities took that approach. In peer support, we take care of each other. It is a two-way street. To preserver and prosper, we must be financially self-supporting. It doesn’t cost anything to reach out to a returning veteran in your home town or organization and propose a Listening Turn, or to set up a Support Group in someone’s home—or some religious building or to use that same space for an all-day workshop. That is all that local 12 Step groups use. At some point, we may reach a point where we have regional or national meetings, but for now, we need to start where we are. Wherever or however you gather, pick a nice space. Relax! We know that you may be dealing with some heavy stuff. It’s always easier to deal with difficult things when someone is listening to you and being supportive. Also, you should know that you won’t be forced to talk about or work on anything that you’re not ready to work on. We simply want you to check out this approach and to the extent that you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and stories with us, you are most welcome to do so but we approach peer support from a very “at your own pace” way. No one is going to hand you a box of tissues and demand that you cry.
Give us a call at the Institute’s office. We can do over-the-phone Listening Turns or Support Groups and help you get started. We hold a vision that one day, every part of the nation will have a V4V group nearby or another OIF/OEF veteran with whom you can do listening turns in person. Until then, the phone is great tool.
Through our Topic Discussion and Action Groups, veterans have found other veterans who have a desire to help the outside community in similar ways. Great ideas have come up about how best to approach difficult issues that face us as veterans, which face our nation and our world. Veterans are good people. When we put our minds to things, we can get a lot accomplished especially if we are working toward common goals. In Vets4Vets you’ll meet other veterans who share your interests. Relationships will form and good things will happen.
Even those of us who have been around since the beginning continue to learn and grow. Each meeting, each phone call reveals new and better ways to reach out to other veterans. We also continue to learn more about ourselves and how to make better decisions in life. It’s amazing how while we might start talking about some experience we had in Iraq and how it affected us, how we then see how our patterns of decision making and our emotional patterns have been around long before our military service ever began. Through trying to help other veterans and facing our own demons, we have found a better way to face a lot of what life brings our way.
Vets4Vets is a very “what you see is what you get” kind of community. We realize that war veterans are a naturally cautious group of people. When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to ask lots of questions. We are not allied in any way with any political movement or cause, with any religion or philosophy or other institutions. We are completely autonomous. Oddly, people often get nervous when they find out something is free. “Where’s the catch?” There is no catch. Feel free to call us at any time. We’ll answer any questions you might have.
We follow a very different model of leadership in Vets4Vets. There is no rank structure here. We value the wisdom and experience of even our newest members. If you have a mind to be a leader in Vets4Vets and helping other veterans, “step right up!” We’ve been waiting for you. The leaders in Vets4Vets are based simply on two things: their desire to help themselves and other veterans and their willingness to do the work. That’s it. We all have different talents and attributes. Our differences make us strong. In Vets4Vets, no matter where your strengths lie, you’ll find how you can put them to work to help us build a movement.
In the book we’ve talked about our families. So many military marriages end in divorce. We know it is difficult for our spouses and partners as well. Sometimes our children have suffered most when we went through difficult times. They were the absolute last people we ever meant to hurt. It’s often said that the best kind of amends is a living amends, that is to say that saying “I’m sorry” is all well and good, but not making the same mistakes over and over and injuring the ones we love time and again is a much better way. We use the things we learn in Vets4Vets to be better partners and parents and sons/daughters now, and down the road, if further amends need to be made, we are in a better place to make them. It can seem to be an overwhelming process, but it is just that, a “process.” It is not an event. That is to say that dealing with any wreckage of our past and learning to live in right relation to our military and war experience is not something that has to be accomplished overnight. Having our brothers and sisters in Vets4Vets makes the whole process much more manageable and less lonely. We can’t promise you that you’ll never have to face difficult things but we can promise you that you won’t have to face them alone.
No matter what your personal opinions about women’s issues, racism, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or any other matter that affects typically disenfranchised groups in our culture, you are welcome in Vets4Vets. In the same way we do not want to recruit you to any political or social organization, we also don’t want to convert you to any social or political ideology. Vets4Vets has made a commitment to reach out to historically oppressed groups within the OIF/OEF veterans’ community and we will continue to do what we can to affirm and support these constituencies. We simply ask that you adhere to these policies.
We know that in the whole of Vets4Vets, many different points of view on many different issues are represented. Our commitment to helping veterans is paramount and we will continue to be able to function as a whole only as we are able to respect that different opinions exist. We keep our politics and other divisive issues outside of the rooms of Vets4Vets and when conflicts between veterans arise, we always remember that we are fighting on the same side, that is the side of resolving the conflict so we can go back to our real mission: supporting veterans.
By keeping the focus on the vet-to-vet relationship, we always will be able to stay focused on our primary mission. As soon as you start a Vets4Vets meeting locally, you are part of a movement that can literally save thousands of lives. Even though that’s serious business, it’s also a lot of fun. The thing veterans most often talk about at the end of our Listening Turns, Support Groups and Workshops, is how much laughter goes on. You’re a part of Vets4Vets when you say you are. All you need to qualify is to have served in the US military since September 11, 2001. Remember the way to build this movement is by sharing your story with other vets. That’s the base building block of the whole community.
Go to our website currently housed at www.NIPSPeerSupport.org/veterans to get electronic copies of this book and V4V materials and to see pictures from previous meetings.
We hope you’ve found this book interesting and informative. We know that life after deployment can sometimes be rough but you should never have to feel like you’re facing it alone. We’ve said it over and over. We’ll just keep saying it.
What follows are some of our personal stories about our military experience and our experience with Vets4Vets.
We hope you will find things you can relate to. Certain names and details are changed to protect the anonymity of the veterans who wrote them. Remember what you share in Vets4Vets stays in Vets4Vets. We have changed these small details without changing any of the content in these stories so that we can be true to this tradition.
We thank you for your service, for standing by us in battle. We hope that you will come and stand beside us again.
Our Personal Stories
An Marine Veteran of Iraq Speaks Out
I joined the Marine Corps a little later than most folks do. I was 34. I had spent most of my early adult life drinking too much. Finally, when that had nearly killed me, I stopped. Then my life became about doing all those things that my heavy drinking had kept me from. I got my college degree. I started pursuing the career I had always wanted to try. One of things I had always wanted to do was to be a marine, but that, along with most of my other goals had just somehow gotten shoved to the side. After I got sober though, I remembered that dream and decided to do some investigation and find out if it would still be possible. So I called up the marine recruiter and told him I was thinking about joining. When I asked him what the age limit was, I was very disappointed when I heard him say, “Twenty-eight.” He asked me how old I was and when I told him, he said, “Well come on in anyway and let’s talk.” I went into the recruiter’s office and they had me do some pull-ups on the pull-up bar they had in there. I was in pretty good shape actually, probably better shape than I had been when I was the age that most people join. They had me take the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) and I scored pretty high. They told me that if I was really committed to joining, then they could do an “age waiver” for me. I was. Since I had a college degree, I was actually qualified to apply to Officer Candidacy School but something in me just wanted to be an enlisted man. The “worker among worker” part of it really appealed to me for some reason.
As I prepared to go to boot camp, I got in the best shape of my life up to that point. I would run every day and do push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. There were a lot of “ups” in my life at the time. I felt so good about my decision and I was completely committed to becoming the best marine I could be. There was a cathedral near where I lived at the time and I would go there every day and pray and study my “knowledge” to help me get ready for boot camp. I had made index cards with facts that the recruiter had told me I would need to know. I got my hair cut in a “high-and-tight” and shined my motorcycle boots until they looked like mirrors. This may sound silly to some people who might read this but I just want you to know how excited I was that I had joined the Marines. As the day of my departure approached, I got more and more stoked about what was happening in my life. I probably felt more “on purpose” than I ever had.
When I had signed up, the recruiter had told me that there were only two MOS’s (military occupational specialties) available at the time. (Now, knowing what I know about recruiters, I had to laugh at my naiveté.) He told me that I could be a “pencil pusher or a cannon cocker.” For me there was no question. “I take the cannon cocker position, Sir.” “Good choice. Canon cocker it is.” About two weeks before I was supposed to ship to boot camp, the recruiter called. He said that another MOS had become available and asked me if I’d like to learn how to fix and drive LAVs instead. “What’s an LAV?” I asked. When he explained to me that it was a fourteen ton amphibious tank-like vehicle with a twenty-five millimeter chain gun and eight wheels, I said, “Sign me up!” “The only thing is,” he said, “you have to leave tomorrow.” “Tomorrow! But I don’t even have my apartment packed up yet!” This was one of the first instances I got to witness how marines step up and look out for each other. A bunch of the recruiters and some of the “pool-ees” came to my place and packed everything up. They took it to storage where it would stay while I was away at boot camp and MOS school. They even pitched in and paid for it all! It seemed like all the forces of the universe were conspiring together to help me become a marine!
From the time I got to boot camp, I was changed. I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything and hated anything so much at the same time in my life! Every single day, I accomplished something that I would have figured was impossible for me and although I wanted to kill the drill instructors most of the time, I knew that the things they were teaching me might someday save my life or help me to protect the lives of my fellow marines. I may have hated them but I sure as hell respected them. The day that I was first given my Eagle, Globe and Anchor along with the official title “marine,” was one of the best days of my life and I have to say that when that happened, I was changed forever. I was and am proud to be a United States Marine!
After boot camp, I went to Marine Combat Training and right after that, to Maryland to learn all about the LAV. Then I went to Urban Combat Instructor School. I was active duty for training for a little under a year and then I joined a reserve unit at Camp Pendleton.
Later that year, the terrorist attacks of September 11th happened. I, like everyone I knew was devastated. My heart was broken at the incredible loss of life on that horrible day. In addition to being very sad, I was also pissed off! Someone had attacked the country that I’m sworn to defend! As a marine, I was determined to be a part of whatever we were going to do to make sure that something like that didn’t happen again. I went to New York, to “ground zero,” and talked with the firemen there and others working to clean up the wreckage. My commitment to my country and corps were as strong as ever. There were rumors at my unit that they might be compiling a list of volunteers to deploy right away with active duty units if new deployments started happening. I called my First Sergeant and told him that I wanted to be at the top of that list. He told me that my name would have to come behind his. That list never happened but eventually our unit got its own deployment orders.
In March of 2003 my unit deployed to Iraq. The C-5s that were to take us there kept breaking down and orders kept getting changed around so as the initial invasion was happening, we were watching it on TV trying to get there. My buddies and I were afraid we were “missing all the fun.” Eventually, we did get there and my unit’s orders were to go to the Iranian border to patrol it. At the time, we didn’t know what Iran might do.
Compared to what a lot of my fellow veterans saw, my time in Iraq was a cake walk. It seemed like everywhere I went there was calm. The Iraqis I met seemed to understand that I had an intention to help them and they all treated me very kindly. Of course there was gun fire in the distance from time to time but I don’t think that I ever felt like I was about to be shot. As a driver, I always knew that I was a target and knowing that IEDs and RPGs are everywhere, the constant stress was difficult but I always compared my experience to those who had it worse…even when I was there. That increased even more after I got home, which was much sooner than I thought. I was med-evac’d for surgery after a non-combat accident only two months after I got there. The guilt of leaving my brothers (I was in an all-male unit) behind was horrible but we all thought the fighting was over and they assured me that they were right behind me on the way home. As I traveled through the med-evac system on my way to Landstuhl, I started to see very fresh and very serious war injuries. We had thought the war was over. Now I could see how “not over” it was. I started to panic because I would not be there if my buddies got into trouble. Plus, they had always depended on me as kind of an “older brother.” Since I was a little older than most of them and had been kicked around by life a little bit, they often came to me with their problems. Now I had abandoned them, something marines never do!
When I got back to the states, during my recovery from surgery, I basically sat around and felt like dying. The more news I heard about Iraq, the worse it got. I would go on the “faces of the fallen” websites and look for marines I had served with along the way. I also began to have serious doubts about our being sent there in the first place but didn’t know what to do with those feelings. I started to feel very betrayed but at the same time was more committed than ever to the troops we still had over there. I grew up in the south and am very patriotic. To me that means supporting the troops no matter how you feel about the war! I became very depressed. It had been many years since I had had a drink but I actually considered it again. “What’s the use?” was something my head told me a lot. When I thought it through though, I knew that drinking for me would only make things worse so somehow I did not pick up the bottle again. I did do other “self-medicating” behaviors though to try to cope with all my feelings around the war, including my guilt at having not had as rough a time as some. I ate like a pig. I smoked cigarettes and drank coffee almost continuously. I spent my “war wages” and then, with the help of credit, spent money I didn’t have. This only made things worse. I was very sexually promiscuous which, for someone who was already feeling bad about himself, only made things worse. Even though I knew the consequence of these behaviors was that I would end up feeling even worse, I need to feel better in that moment and nothing else seemed to matter. Ultimately, I started thinking about suicide. I just didn’t see how I was going to be able to live as a prisoner to my own thoughts for another forty or fifty years. In the end though, it was actually my belief that I had abandoned my men the first time that kept me from taking my own life. To my way of thinking, I would just be doing it again! I started getting involved in veterans groups and started sharing my feelings about the war by reading my war journals to anyone who asked me about Iraq. About that time, someone invited me to a Vets4Vets retreat. I had no idea what to expect but I said that I would go.
The retreat was held in Miami. There were veterans from every branch, varied political opinions and from all over the United States. One thing we all had in common, we had all served in the nation’s military since 9-11. I have to admit, at first I thought the whole process, how the Vets4Vets meetings were conducted, was a little crazy! People were sitting around shaking or laughing or crying and they didn’t seem to be trying to stop shaking or laughing or crying! When marines have a “let me help you feel better” talk, it usually includes anything (up to and including heavy drinking or punching each other) to avoid these feelings. (Of course a little rageful “venting” was usually welcome…under the right circumstances.) When I first sat down in a Vets4Vets meeting and learned that the point of the meeting was to actually express all those feelings I’d been trying to stuff, when I figure out what the “point” is, you would think I would have been okay with it. I wasn’t. I felt ridiculous and extremely self-conscious. I had worked very hard on developing this hard marine exterior and I wasn’t too excited about letting that go so fast. But, as I said, I did need help. Thoughts of putting a 9 mil in your mouth do not indicate that you are the happiest, healthiest person. Plus, the thought of “doing it for my fellow vets” did appeal to that old Esprit de Corps. The more I was willing to give it a shot, the more it worked for me and now I wouldn’t dream of trying to face all my feelings around the war without getting together (if even on the phone) on a regular basis and “letting it all go” with another vet. Probably the part I like the most about it is that we don’t “there, there” each other. I hate “there, there.” People who don’t understand, don’t understand and no matter how many people tell me I’m a hero, it doesn’t help my feelings of frustration, anger and sadness when they come up. Having another veteran listen to me for a few minutes without interrupting or giving me “advice” works for me. It brings me back to a place where I can feel good about myself again and also to a place where I can continue to be useful to my fellow veterans.
Now I have been to many Vets4Vets retreats and even led a couple myself. I helped to set up a local group in the city where I used to live and now we’re starting one in my new hometown. Vets4Vets has definitely changed my life for the better.
No one goes to war and comes home unchanged. It affects all of us in one way or another. Even if you, like me, didn’t really “see combat.” We too have our feelings…especially about that fact. I have also had a big tendency to diminish the effect Iraq had on me. The truth is, just driving around in a combat zone day after day knowing that you might die at any moment is enough to drive you crazy. Also, even though I’m
out of the military now, I have not forgotten that I took an oath to protect my fellow service members and my involvement in Vets4Vets is a great way to do that…for the long haul!
The Founder’s Story: A Marine Starts Listening At an Early Age
In a way, I had been preparing for V4V my entire life—listening to my Dad and other WWII veterans’ stories of combat when I was in the womb. I was born on a Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia, in 1945. My Dad had won a Silver Star and a battlefield promotion at Guadalcanal as a member of an elite Marine unit, Edson’s Raiders. My Dad always told me that I was the first son born to a member of Edson’s Raiders. Back at Quantico, training other Marines to join him in the land invasion of Japan, he and his buddies spent many late nights drinking and trying to make sense of their combat experiences. My Mother listened to his stories then with me in her belly and later I listened to them in person. I remember at the age of two when, after drinking, my Dad would take me into a dark room and tell them to me. Buddies cut in half by machine gun fire trying to stuff their intestines back inside. Waking up lying beside a dead foxhole buddy. Cutting a Japanese sentry’s throat the correct way, up and down, not across which will gurgle. Every summer, he would return to the Raider Battalion Reunion at Quantico, sometimes bringing me along. Dad drank heavily for 14 years after his War until he sobered up in AA, the best known peer-based recovery program for alcoholics. Probably as a consequence, my Mom took out some of her frustration on me with physical and verbal abuse.I decided I would minimize the abuse by becoming the best little Irish-Catholic boy ever.
I was brought up with high expectations and did well in academics and athletics, co-captain of our high school football team (with another future infantry Marine as my co-captain) and valedictorian. Within a few weeks of learning I would be accepted at Harvard, I began a nine years of blackout binge drinking. I don’t know if it was to take a rest after a dozen years of high performance or fear of Ivy League competition coming from a Catholic high school in a working class, industrial city. Fortunately, Harvard did not take attendance at classes and I was able to cram for exams well enough to graduate (with honors along with 60% of my class) and make All-East (Honorable Mention) as a linebacker on the football team. After graduation, I followed many of my friends on the football team to Harvard Business School, not to make money, but as I wrote on the application I still have “to bring the tools of management to the non-profit sector.” My teammates had gone to graduate school for the most part to avoid the draft. However,draft dodging was not my family tradition. I had just gone along to party.
The Business School required attendance at classes which did not go well with my partying habits. After carousing one night in the winter of 1966, I decided I had had enough of drinking and partying in Cambridge. I decided to drop out. Not surprisingly, during this time when our nation was wracked by disagreement over the war in Vietnam, I gave up my draft deferment for graduate school (a popular “out” in those pre-draft lottery days) and volunteered for the Marines. To those of us of a certain generation, my story may defy understanding. Not only did I give up that deferment, but shortly after enlisting, a football knee injury finally required surgery.The football doctor who took out the cartilage on my left knee asked me afterward whether I wanted him to write a letter saying I was physically unable to serve ( which would have been a second deferment) or a different one certifying me for military service. The first letter would have brought a pretty penny from other Harvard students doing some pretty weird things at the time to avoid the draft. “What’s the truth?” I asked in my best Catholic school tradition. “You can probably do it,” he replied. “Write that one,” I told him, thus giving up the4-F status so urgently sought by so many of my classmates. Indeed, so many of them were avoiding the draft that the Class of 1968 is the youngest class in Harvard Business School history. An early generation of “chicken hawks.”
I volunteered for the infantry (only about 10% of my Basic School platoon actually went infantry) and became an infantry platoon commander for six months and a staff officer in the same infantry battalion for the other seven months in Vietnam in 1968-69. We were west of Danang doing “rocket suppression” patrols and operations to protect the Division HQ by the harbor and the airfield. Although I was fortunate not to have been assigned to the Third Division near the DMZ, I saw my share of action. My best friend, another Ivy League lieutenant was killed in an ambush in the area we called Dodge City. The third day I was in Vietnam we had gone into Dodge City and the platoon in front of us lost eight Marines. Three weeks later, we went back into Dodge City with my platoon in the lead. I started that day with 45 men in my platoon and ended up with 19—three dead, the rest wounded or med-evac’d for heat exhaustion. My platoon sergeant was shot in the chest beside me and an NVA machine gunner almost killed me. I was awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” for combat actions.
I had been a blackout, binge drinker starting midway through my senior year of high school. However, I was able to avoid drinking during my tour in Vietnam, except during my two “R and R”s. Other officers asked me to “have a beer” before heading out on our every-night, overnight, squad-sized, ambush patrols. I replied: “A drink? I don’t know how to have “a” drink. Maybe if we have a week or so.” On my return from combat, I switched addictions to overeating and put on seventy pounds in the first few years, during which, like so many returning veterans throughout history, I also married, divorced and remarried.
I found support for my overeating addiction in a peer-based, recovery program related to the one my Dad relied upon and to which he dedicated much of his last thirty years.
I also turned to a more general peer-based support program, “Reevaluation Counseling” or “co-counseling. I turned to co-counseling when I quit being a college professor to work full time in the peace movement in 1982. I knew that I needed another way to relate to volunteers than my habits as a Marine Officer and college professor, where, incidentally, I may well have had more power over my graduate students than I did over my Marines.
I know that I could not have survived for these three decades without the support of these two peer-support programs, certainly not working full time on social change as I have.
After twenty years of social change projects, the first ten in the peace movement including working for nuclear disarmament and the second on more general projects to build power for poor and working class people (health care, campaign finance reform), I concluded that although I had helped make some significant changes (stopping U.S. nuclear testing and winning full public funding for all state elections in Arizona.), overall things we not getting better. The society was getting more unequal, and the environmental problems were getting worse.
Meanwhile, every week I was watching my peers make dramatic individual gains in both my overeaters program and co-counseling. It began to occur to me that bringing more of the peer support tools from these two programs into work on other social problem areas might lead to more progress.
Fortunately, raising money to follow up my ideas has not been a problem. My own work in the peace and justice movement has often involved raising money. When I first quit being a college professor, I approached the head of the nuclear disarmament organization I had been volunteering for and asked him what he wanted me to do—expecting to be asked to keep on writing letters to the newspaper and visiting my Member of Congress. Instead, he looked up from the floor where he lay (bad backs being fairly common in social activism) he said: “Get me some money!” I did, raising $28 million over the next thirty years for various social change projects. Therefore I knew how to raise money.
As described earlier in this book, I started a small nonprofit and began a small program for returning veterans. When my early efforts to pay veterans to start local support groups did not start quickly, I raised the money to fly thirty vets to Miami Beach for a weekend workshop, the first Vets4Vets workshop. It went so well, that I raised the funds for several more workshops. At the point, our reputation reached the Iraq-Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund. They gave us $1.2 million and we were off and running. Peer support for 1500 Iraq-Afghanistan veterans!
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