WASHINGTON — Mental health professionals in the past have touted the benefits of veterans meeting with peers for counseling sessions to discuss trauma and prevent suicide.
Now, Veterans Affairs officials are readying to take that idea one step further: Bringing whole military units back together for treatment.
The Veterans Health Administration this week announced a new pilot program with the advocacy group The Independence Fund which will reunite troops who experienced some of the toughest combat conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan for group therapy sessions, with the hopes of using those common bonds to better work through individual post-military struggles.
“I had one guy tell me, ‘I literally went to hell with these men, so I can go on a yoga retreat or whatever you want if you think it will help them,’” said Sarah Verardo, chief executive officer of The Independence Fund. “They still want to support each other. And building on that trust is key to getting some of these veterans the help they need.”
The effort comes at a time when progress on preventing veterans suicide nationwide has remained stalled. About 20 veterans a day take their own lives, a figure that has held steady in recent years.
Most of those veterans have little or no contact with official VA programs, making outreach a key component of VA’s suicide prevention programs. Dr. Keita Franklin, executive director of the department’s suicide prevention efforts, said in a statement that programs like the new pilot dubbed Operation Resilience can help reach those who need it.
The first retreat will take place in April with members of Bravo Company, 2-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division — the unit where Verardo’s husband, Mike, was serving when he was severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan eight years ago.
Since his return, the couple has attended numerous funerals of his fellow soldiers. Some were combat deaths. Several others were suicides after the unit returned home.
“It got to the point where the only time they saw each other was funerals,” she said. “We needed to change these guys’ perspective on what it means to return home.”
Details of the first event are still being worked out, but Independence Fund officials have already heard from more than a dozen more units who want to participate in future retreats. The program will focus on groups who saw heavy casualties overseas or a significant number of suicides after they returned home.
Defense Department officials are working with VA to identify unit members and issue invites. VHA officials will handle mental health counseling presentations and interventions, and use the event as an opportunity to look for ways to better connect with all veterans.
A second event is already being planned for early summer, with another hard-hit unit. Verardo hopes to expand the program in years to come.
“These are men and women who went to war together, survived Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “We need to help them survive at home.”
More information on the program will be available on the Independence Fund site.
Veterans who are experiencing distress may contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for support assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.