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At VA, peer counselors connect with struggling veterans

Jae C. Hong/AP file photo

A decade ago, gripped by alcoholism and drug addiction, Navy veteran Albert Krull contemplated jumping off the Tobin Bridge spanning the Mystic River in Boston.

Instead, Krull decided to seek treatment at the nearby Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., where today he serves as a peer counselor for other veterans at the same hospital that helped restore his life.

Jason Zimmerman, an Army medic who served in both Bosnia and Iraq, experienced horrors he said most civilians cannot begin to comprehend, such as “your friends dying, no matter what you do.”

Zimmerman said he figured these experiences would fade with time, but they didn’t. He first sought counsel with a chaplain at Fort Bragg, N.C., and then with other veterans who understood the overwhelming terror of combat. The support he received from those encounters helped as he struggled with both deep depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

On discharge from the Army, Zimmerman returned home to Tennessee and landed an administrative job at the Mountain Home VA in 2002. “I was not cut out to be a paper pusher,” he admitted. When VA kicked off its peer counselor program in 2006, Zimmerman applied in a move he explained as an almost magical process of “the job finding me.”

Both Krull and Zimmerman agree that peer counselors can play a unique role in helping other veterans overcome searing combat experiences because they “have been there and done that.” This shared experience helps break down the barriers veterans often erect when dealing with civilian counselors who never served in the military, they said.

Zimmerman said he understands the bad Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq experiences his clients must reconcile as they “try to rationalize the irrational.” He brings one simple message to his fellow veterans: hope. Zimmerman is living proof that veterans can successfully overcome traumatic combat experiences.

He lets his clients know their post-combat stress, fears and nightmares are legitimate and that based on his recovery, a full and rich life lies ahead. “If I can do it, you can,” Zimmerman says he tells them.

Unlike Zimmerman, Krull is not a combat veteran. He served in the Navy in the mid-1970s when he was assigned to help fight a 14,000-acre California wildfire. “To this day, I have recurring nightmares of being trapped in a fire and being on fire,” he said of the experience that led him to seek a “Jack Daniels cure” to cope with the stress. It’s an approach to self-treatment that’s bound to fail, he tells veterans -- something he knows firsthand. His personal story provides other veterans with hope that they can cross, rather than jump off, the mental bridge that impedes their recovery. His work as a peer counselor at Bedford is a way of giving back in a place that sparked his own recovery, he said.

The Bedford VA has six full-time, paid peer counselors, five volunteers and on-campus meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, another form of peer therapy, Krull said.

Dan O’Brien-Mazza, VA’s national director for peer support services, said the department has hired about 300 peer counselors since 2006, with about 60 hired since President Obama signed an executive order requiring VA to hire 800 additional peer counselors by the end of 2013.

O’Brien-Mazza, a Vietnam era veteran, said VA peer counselors are provided a year of training and must meet certification standards established by the department. They also must be veterans who have recovered or are recovering from a mental health condition, he said.

The department wants to assign at least three peer counselors to the staff of every medical center and at least two to the staff of large community-based outpatient clinics, he said.

Jeffrey Burk, a psychologist who serves as the national mental health director for VA’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Service, said per counselors serve as part of an integrated mental health care team, which includes traditional clinicians. But, he said, veteran peers bring a “unique perspective” in caring for other vets “because they walked the same path.”

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