Army Col. David Rabb, left, speaks June 21 to a group of current and former military personnel about the stresses of combat during a presentation at the Pathway Home in Yountville, Calif. The Pathway Home is a nonprofit organization about 50 miles north of San Francisco in the Yountville Veterans Home. When about 22 veterans are killing themselves every day, according to estimates, Pathway has found uncommon success in improving the lives of some of the military's veterans most afflicted by PTSD and other stress factors. (Mihir Zaveri / AP)
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YOUNTVILLE, CALIF. — Tucked away in Northern California wine country, a small mental health organization has found success working with struggling U.S. service members, reducing suicide rates with unconventional treatment methods that include backrubs and cookouts.
Soldiers in the specialized counseling program in Napa Valley receive traditional therapy to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems linked to combat stress. But at The Pathway Home, services expand to social gatherings, photography classes and even swimming with dolphins.
About 380 veterans have gone through the program in the past five years, and only one has committed suicide. The results have drawn the attention of an Army detachment that has stationed itself at the center for training through September.
Military officials say service members respond to the treatment because it acknowledges their unique experiences and helps them adapt to often overlooked aspects of civilian life.
“Here they’re not patients, they’re residents,” said Col. David Rabb, who commands the Army’s 113th Medical Detachment, Combat Stress Control.
The program “is respecting them for who they are; they’re warriors,” he said.
At Pathway’s four-month program, veterans learn to manage their finances and receive career, legal and educational advice, said Fred Gusman, the organization’s executive director.
“When you go to a hospital, they’re not going to help you with your legal problems,” said Gusman, who helped start the program in 2008. “They might have marital counseling. They might not have marital counseling. They’re not about getting you in school, because they’re a medical center. Pathway is about the whole person.”
On a recent afternoon, smoke wafted from the courtyard as Pathway residents mingled with fatigue-clad soldiers from the medical detachment at a barbecue.
Rabb said the assignment provides his unit an opportunity to “learn from the best” and “also engage combat veterans.”
“Where else can you do that in the civilian sector?” he asked.
The cookouts are an integral part of the Pathway program, allowing veterans to build their social skills, Gusman said. Attendees often include Vietnam or World War II veterans and schoolchildren.
“It’s that kind of process that makes these men who come here feel they are part of society again, and that they’re not a secret, that they’re not strange and civilians aren’t strange,” Gusman said.
Before the gathering, Darint Thong, one of 20 residents at Pathway, rested face down while a masseuse pressed her hands into his broad back.
Thong said the rubdowns available as part of the program help relieve stress. He served two tours of duty in Iraq as a sharpshooter in the 101st Airborne Division of the Army. He would describe what he saw there only as “the ugliness of the world.”
Thong has been back in the U.S. for seven years but has struggled to adapt to civilian life. He developed a drinking problem, struggled with anger and was arrested for driving under the influence. He sought treatment through the Veterans Affairs hospital, but he relapsed and eventually contemplated suicide.
The Modesto resident has been among the gnarled oaks and shady lawns at Pathway since June.
“I feel better,” he said. “Everybody here is going through somewhat of the same thing that I went through.”
When fully funded at about $1.5 million a year, Pathway can take 40 residents, who are selected on a first-come, first-served basis to come live 50 miles northeast of San Francisco on the estate of cream-colored buildings with ceramic tile roofs.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that an average of 22 veterans kill themselves every day in a report based on data through 2010 that was released in February. About 350 active members of the U.S. armed forces killed themselves in 2012, according to military officials.
Rabb said his unit has come to Pathway to learn about its methods and also work with residents. His unit deploys to war zones to provide support to soldiers dealing with combat stress, which results in anger, high blood pressure, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
“When we go back to war, you’re as good as your training,” Rabb said. “This is training.”
He said the visit was also a way to show the Army hasn’t forgotten about its soldiers.
The organization leases its buildings and grounds from the Veterans Home of California-Yountville, a state facility, for $1 a year.
J.P. Tremblay, a deputy secretary at the California Department of Veterans Affairs, said the state provides Pathway with the space in part because it allows residents to live with each other and with the counselors and staff as opposed to more common outpatient treatment.
“We saw it was a unique program that provided an opportunity for services that needed to be provided for vets,” he said. He added, “It is almost like a college campus.”
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