Message to vets: Talk to each other

Peer therapy can help those who’ve served cope with combat trauma.

I usually write a remembrance column for Veterans Day, but this year I want to talk about a simple way to help troops and vets who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, abusing drugs and alcohol, or contemplating suicide -- through one veteran talking to another.

I can spin many absurd tales of my Marine Corps service when talking to civilians but when it comes to dealing with the stuff that could lead to any of the above, I only trust those who have been there and done that. Even then, it’s taken more than 50 years to finally put The One Bad Vietnam Day to rest.

In clinical terms, this is called peer therapy, an approach woefully ignored by the Military Health System and the Veterans Affairs Department after 11 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with that burden borne by an all-volunteer force, some of whom now suffer from the mental blowback of multiple deployments.

In grunt terms, peer therapy extends the Army’s battle buddy pledge to life after combat.  And it works. A few years back, an Army buddy of mine who works in the Pentagon received a call from a suicidal Army reservist shortly before Christmas.

This friend -- not a clinician -- asked the reservist to call or email him every day over the holidays, while he worked within and outside his chain of command to get her the help she needed, which meant finding her a bed in a VA hospital shortly after the holidays.

Extending the battle buddy pledge amounts to a life long commitment. It means that I, not the system, am responsible when someone reaches out for help -- without hesitation. Another Pentagon friend called me about three months after he came home from his second Iraq tour and said he needed help.

We talked and, since I am not a clinician, I referred him to an active duty psychiatrist friend who steered him to the kind of counseling he needed without a trace back on his records. Despite what Defense Department leaders say, there’s still stigma attached to seeking mental health help, and it’s a career killer.

Three years ago I sat down at the Pentagon with some friends and said I needed to talk about The One Bad Vietnam Day and did so for about 30 minutes. They in turn, for the first time, talked about their bad Afghanistan and Iraq days in a meeting that ended in tears from the verbal relief of a crippling burden. I could not have done this with civilians.

I also acknowledged that I needed professional help, and thanks to now retired Army Brig. Gen. Lori Sutton, who ran the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, found a therapist in Santa Fe who served as a Marine in Vietnam a year after I completed my tour. I immediately trusted him as we shared a common experience.

Survivor guilt is common to combat vets. In my case that stemmed from failing to prevent the suicide of a Marine Vietnam buddy more than a decade ago. I finally managed to lift that weight this year after a long conversation with another veteran who knew and loved both of us, illustrating again the healing power of one vet talking to another.

This August President Obama signed an executive order for improved access to mental health care for veterans and their families, which required the VA to hire 800 peer counselors by the end of the year.

This is a small step towards incorporating a therapy that works into the system, but I think the VA needs to hire thousands of battle buddies. Meanwhile, I am responsible for doing what I can do to help other vets.