October 01, 2012

Veterans rebuild civilian selves

As his departure from the U.S. Marines draws inexorably closer, Sgt. Juan Chavez, a Taylor native and veteran of three combat deployments, has two words to describe his re-entry into the civilian world.

“Totally nerve-racking,” said Chavez, who joined the Marines in 2003 and survived tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s this sense of, 'Oh man, I’m becoming a civilian.’ I won’t be Sgt. Chavez anymore.”

Some of the changes will be cosmetic: He knows he’ll lose his beloved uniform, he’ll have to tone down his four-letter language, and he’ll have to “use actual words instead of acronyms.”

But beyond that, he worries he is about to lose the sense of purpose that has defined his life for the past decade. “I’ve seen it before when other Marines get out and they have no idea what’s going on,” said Chavez, who is stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif. “It breaks my heart because they’ve done so much, they’ve seen so much, and then they get out, and they hit a dead end.”

Chavez, 29, is hoping for something that has proved elusive to some veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan: a safe and successful reintegration into civilian society. A six-month American-Statesman analysis, which revealed alarmingly high numbers of suicides, prescription drug overdoses and motor vehicle crashes among young Texas veterans, in many ways reflects the difficulties they have had in assimilating after they return from war.

And yet, despite the grim numbers, there is reason for hope: Across the country and here in Texas, a growing number of innovative programs, mostly driven by groups and individuals outside of government, have taken root. The most successful, according to experts, enjoy broad community support, reach out to veterans before they encounter major problems and do more than simply find veterans jobs.

Keith Boylan, community educator at the San Francisco-based veterans organization Swords to Plowshares, said the coming years will be crucial in forging a public commitment to addressing the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, which will probably persist for decades.

“Right now, there seems to be a lot of political, social and corporate will to help veterans,” Boylan said. “At some point, though, that will drift. Folks want to understand, but that will wane as they come home and time starts to pass. Getting out in front of it is huge.”

Lone Star model

In a hip neighborhood near downtown Houston earlier last month, a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans started their bike ride through the city, a semiregular event organized by an association that has grown to about 5,000 members. In Texas’ largest city, these veterans are banding together with activities that reduce the isolation that plagues many soldiers after they leave active duty.

“On a base, you usually hang out with everyone in your unit, and when you leave it to go to the civilian world, you have a real sense of loss,” said Brian Wilson, who deployed to Iraq in 2006 with the Missouri National Guard and joined the Lone Star Veterans Association in 2011 after moving to Houston. “Before I joined, when I went out, it felt like I couldn’t tell my story. But with vets who have been there, you can talk about (the war). That is really important.”

And although established organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have long provided a meeting place for older veterans, their younger counterparts say they need a place of their own. With bike rides, barbecues, yoga classes, softball teams and an active social media hub, Lone Star provides that social outlet.

Wilson, who now serves as spokesman for the group, said a group like Lone Star can do a better job at identifying veterans who need help before their issues snowball. “When you start hanging out, you can see when someone is struggling,” he said. “We can pull them aside and say, 'Hey, we need to talk.’ It’s better than walking up to vets blindly and assuming they have a problem.”

In addition to the social aspects, the group has set up a peer counseling program, where veterans provide each other with everything from résumé writing tips to relationship advice, and has partnered with the Menninger Clinic in Houston to do workshops on communication skills. The group also has set up an emergency response team as a way to use some of the disaster relief skills they learned in the military — and to give veterans a larger purpose they might have been missing since leaving the military. The team, which assisted in Dallas after tornadoes struck earlier this year, is similar to other disaster response programs around the country started by veterans.

“When a disaster hits somewhere, vets want to step up and help,” Wilson said. “That’s what they did in the military.”

Lone Star grew out of a 2007 returning veterans initiative between city and county officials that Wilson said was crucial in allowing the fledgling group to grow. National experts say such community coordination is another key to successful reintegration programs.

“We like to say, veterans don’t come home to federal agencies; they come home to communities,” said Nancy Berglass, who studied 15 reintegration models around the country for the Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for a New American Security. “There are a number of really outstanding efforts to make sure veterans are getting jobs, but at the end of the day if a veteran has a good job, but their health needs or emotional needs or family needs aren’t met, they won’t be able to reintegrate successfully.”

State officials have been eager to use Lone Star’s model in the rest of Texas, especially in terms of expanding their peer counseling program, and veterans in other cities have been clamoring for it to grow.

In Travis County, Constables Maria Canchola and Bruce Elfant have gathered a number of local, state and federal agencies together under the Veterans Intervention Project, which helped to build a veterans court in 2010 to connect veterans caught up in the legal system with treatment and other services.

Finding treatments

In a nondescript building in North Austin, tucked next to the MetroRail tracks and behind a storage facility, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wait for their appointments. But this is no ordinary counseling center. Often, sessions at Hope for Heroes are sandwiched between acupuncture and tai chi and can be supplemented by yoga and biofeedback, in which participants learn to control brainwaves and regulate physiological reactions.

Sean Hanna, director of Hope for Heroes, which is operated by the nonprofit Samaritan Center for Counseling and Pastoral Care, said the program provides an alternative to the overmedication of veterans. The Statesman investigation showed Department of Veterans Affairs prescriptions for narcotic painkillers have continued to increase despite rising evidence of abuse.

“The meds aren’t working,” said Hanna, a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a hospital corpsman from 1991 to 2000, including a deployment to Somalia. “They have their place — we can override some of those thoughts and feelings through pharmaceuticals — but it’s not the cure, it’s not the permanent solution. A lot of veterans come in who are taking 15 different medications, and they are still not sleeping or working.”

Hanna said that he has learned over the years that successful treatment programs must be flexible: What works for one person won’t work for the next.

“My original vision was creating a treatment program, but the more I do it, the more I realize that there is no one single treatment program,” he said. “It has to be flexible because they are humans, not just a veteran or a soldier or Marine.”

Hanna said the very world that veterans return to presents a daunting barrier to reintegration. “Typically, (in other countries) there is a strong tradition to come back to, and we don’t really have one,” he said. “Our society is so individualistic that it’s hard for our warriors to come back. The tradition is for them to be welcomed back into the village. In America, we don’t have that welcome-back 'thing.’ ”

Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam War veteran and author of “What It Is Like to Go to War,” explained a more profound disconnect. “If you don’t know how to deal with the fact that you killed people, our society basically shuts down that conversation,” Marlantes said. “Every day, we causally send people off to war and expect them to come back and not be changed. So you come back, and basically it’s this sense of, what was that all about? (Less than 1 percent of the population) was carrying on the war while everyone else was shopping.”

Marlantes said civilians need to recognize that many veterans have been fundamentally changed by their experiences. “While you are at war, you live entirely in the present moment, and you come back to a place where most people are completely disassociated, minds and bodies, completely living in the future,” he said. “It’s that sense of living intensely, and all of a sudden you don’t have it any more. How can you ever touch that again? It’s not psychological; it’s not biological. It’s sort of soul stuff.”

Hanna said one solution would be a reverse conditioning program. “The most responsible thing as a society we can do is, if we send them to eight to 12 weeks of boot camp, and then a month of infantry training and then a year deployment, there needs to be a de-conditioning program that’s just as uncomfortable as boot camp. The problem is our society doesn’t embrace that. It’s Twitter, Facebook, not a sense of breathe, relax, take it all in. And a program like that would cost a whole lot of money.”

Reboot, rebuild

That de-conditioning is almost exactly what a fledgling program in San Diego seeks to accomplish. Reboot, founded in 2010, provides veterans and service members about to leave the military with intensive classes and workshops aimed at helping strip down military mentalities and rebuild thought processes that are more effective in the civilian world. Active-duty service members must get permission to attend from their commanders.

Maurice Wilson, a U.S. Navy veteran who co-founded Reboot, said that when serving in the military, “it becomes you, and you become it. But once you walk out that gate, your brain is still thinking you’re in the military.”

To undo that, he said, “We decided the response was to have a civilianized boot camp. We teach you how to change from the inside out. It’s a heavy process.”

The program, which has space for about two dozen veterans in each class, lasts three weeks; the first week is based on “the You,” Wilson said. “We want you to be selfish, to think about your needs; that’s very counter to what the military teaches you.”

The second week is aimed at helping veterans figure out what they want to do after leaving the military. “It’s unlocking passions,” Wilson said. “Where do you want to go? What image gives your life meaning and purpose? It’s in them; they just need the right process to bring it out.”

The third week focuses on career exploration: how to interview for a job, how to use civilian words instead of the vocabulary they learned in the military.

So far, about 550 veterans have gone through the program, which is currently being evaluated by the University of San Diego and is expanding to Orange County and possibly beyond, Wilson said.

Wilson said officials from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have visited the program, but he complained that government-based reintegration programs often focus solely on helping veterans find work. “The challenge for them is they haven’t reconciled the three-week model and are stuck on the notion that all veterans need is a job,” Wilson said. “We passionately disagree. More than a job, they need to know where they fit in in life.”

“If we stay on the course we are going right now, how we’re utilizing major resources, we’ll never fix it,” he added. “The more we stall and not give them what they need, it will turn from an employment problem to a clinical problem — divorce, drug abuse, incarceration, suicide — because we’re not addressing the core issue, the behavioral piece.”

Chavez, the Taylor-born Marine, said going through the Reboot program changed his outlook on leaving the military.

For the first time, the father of one, who is leaving the Marines in January, sees college as a possibility and is excited about a post-military career in law enforcement or private security.

“The change in thought process was kind of tough for me because I always had this Marine mentality,” he said. “My hand was on the panic button when I knew I would be getting out, but they gave me a whole new refocus on life.”