Vets in Need and the Folks Who Respond(ed)
I attended the August 3rd Vet2Vet meeting at the invitation of my husband Ed, a committed volunteer consultant at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). The veterans peer counseling program, based at UMDNJ’s University Behavioral HealthCare Center (UBHC), was, for several weeks, our unceasing topic of conversation and I had jumped at the chance to go.
Because I was not involved in the program, I was a bit nervous, thinking I might be treated as an intruder, or worse yet, entirely ignored! But as we walked into the conference room, Chris Kosseff, the president and chief executive officer for UBHC came up to us with a big smile on his face and greeted both Ed and me with genuine pleasure. As we moved further into the room, we were introduced to a group of people who also greeted us warmly. Almost everyone centered their attention on my husband but kindly accepted me as the curious wife along for the ride.
After the whirl of introductions subsided, and before we all sat down, I looked around. The conference room was schoolhouse bare: a few windows; three long wooden tables in a u-shape with chairs around its perimeter; a rectangular table topped with brochures against one wall; and a white board for PowerPoint Presentations taking up space on another.
Bare, certainly, but when I thought about it, the room was a perfect setting for describing the plethora of veterans’ problems. Nothing to distract from the matters at hand; nothing to lessen the sound of voices narrating the life stories of soldiers.
I listened, read the literature, and absorbed some very startling statistics. For example:
- “More than 2,100 members of the armed forces have taken their own lives since 2001. . .” Star-Ledger Staff. 11/22/09. Military suicides increase as U.S. soldiers struggle with torment of war. NJ.Com/news.
- “There were 197 Army suicides in 2008, according to the Army’s numbers.” In 2009, “the number was 245. This year , through May, it’s already 163.” Jamie Tarabay. 9/15/2010. Suicide Rates Rise Over Decade. NPR Morning Edition.
- “Eighteen veterans kill themselves every day.” [emphasis mine] Dr. Robert Jesse, a deputy undersecretary of health at the Veterans Administration. Written testimony. 7/14/2010. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in Washington.
- Then there’s this: “…soldiers identified the following barriers to accessing treatment: [for instance] being seen as weak, leadership might treat them differently, concern that members of their unit would have less confidence in them, being embarrassed, being blamed by leadership for their problems…” Pietrzak, R.P. et al., 2009. Perceived stigma and barriers to mental health care utilization among *OEF/OIF veterans. Psychiatric Services, 60, 1118-1122.
- Findings also suggest that combat exposure increased veterans’ rates of disability and unemployment throughout their work lives. Alair MacLean. 2010. The Things They Carry: Combat, Disability, and Unemployment among U.S. Men. American Sociological Review. 75(4) 563-585.
UMDNJ’s nonprofit Vet2Vet program, set up to address the above issues in 2005, provides trained telephone support to the New Jersey National Guard and other vets. It is an early intervention, confidential, peer counseling helpline at work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in UBHC’s Access Center. Mental health professionals stand by for further clinical support when necessary. The program has grown considerably, improving to a marked degree the mental health of New Jersey’s soldiers. Not a single member of New Jersey’s Guard has been lost to suicide since the program’s inception.
Helping to mitigate many of the barriers to treatment for combat-scarred vets, the helpline, in the past five years, has had 15,000 contacts with soldiers, veterans, spouses, and other family members. Clearly, the Vet2Vet program has been a success in every way.
While it was the concept of the Vet2Vet program that initially aroused my attention, there is more to this story. And that ‘more’ is the nonmilitary people part: the folks who toil behind the scenes. They made sure that I was no longer simply ‘along for the ride.’
When Ed and I entered the meeting room that afternoon, we were surrounded by ten very special people. I’d like to tell you, however, about just two of them. Two women. They are remarkable, unusual, exceptional, even unique women ‒ excuse me, but my thesaurus runneth over. Linda Bean is one. Cherie Castellano is another.
I had heard about Linda and Greg Bean. Their son, Sergeant Coleman S. Bean, committed suicide after returning home from his second tour in Iraq. After Coleman’s first deployment, he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), told no one, and was deployed back to Iraq.
Coleman was an Individual Ready Reservist (IRR), i.e., a service member not assigned to a particular unit. And, strange as it may seem, IRR members on reentry to civilian life don’t have the support structures available to them that active-duty soldiers have. As a result, once he was home, Coleman was unable to receive the mental health counseling that he needed when he needed it. The awful burden of his death falls on all of us.
Linda faced the loss of her son in a proactive way. On July 14, 2010, she traveled to Washington to press the Veterans Administration, in a 5-minute presentation before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, to do more for returning soldiers. And she has spoken out in favor of corrective legislation. House bill, H.R. 5170, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.) would require counselors to call every member of the IRR who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan at least once every 90 days. The measure, named the Sergeant Coleman S. Bean Individual Ready Reserve Suicide Prevention Act of 2010, passed the house twice but was not included in this year’s Senate version of the Pentagon authorization bill. Hopefully, it is a temporary omission that will soon be corrected.
Cherie Castellano is the other member of this charismatic duo. She is the program director for the innovative Vet2Vet program which was modeled after the Cop2Cop program created by Cherie in 2000. That project was the first of its kind in the nation to focus on suicide prevention and mental health support for law enforcement officers.
These two women are polar opposites in personality ‒ Linda is quietly persuasive; Cherie is openly forceful ‒ yet they are very much alike. Both are smart, fearlessly candid, and driven.
I am the third, less obvious member of this small cast of characters. I promptly felt the pull of their dynamism in regard to the veterans’ issues, but I also sensed a connection of a different sort, one that was focused solely on our children: Linda’s Coleman (her middle child), Cherie’s Domenick (her special needs and charming nine-year-old son), and my girls, both lost to cancer (Valerie at 9 and Stacy at 37).
After the meeting’s presentations and discussion period ended, Linda, Cherie, and I moved along with the larger group to tour the Access Center, the core of the Vet2Vet program. I should say the group took the tour. Linda, Cherie, and I lagged behind, taking in the telephone counseling booths but, in reality, talking our way to a bond that, I believe, is now unbreakable. In short time, our personal stories were on the table for us to pick at, cry over, and rage about.
The rest of the group had worked their way to the front of the Center unaware that we three were still at the back of the room. A box of rapidly emptying Kleenex ‒ Cherie had snitched it from someone’s desk ‒ was available for our teary eyes.
Before long, Ed, noticing that I wasn’t next to him, left the main group and walked back to us. Hands in pockets, he jokingly commented, “Is this a girl’s only meeting?” No one answered him. We were too busy sniffling and wiping reddened noses. I do believe that he was right though; at that moment, it was “girls only.” My husband looked at each of us, backed off slowly, and moved away without another word. Linda, Cherie, and I continued standing in place and sharing our stories.
I paid attention to all that they said, and marveled at their determination to do what was right. If I sound swept away by Linda and Cherie, it is because I am.
Our newly forged bond reminded me of how swiftly some friendships are formed, and opened my mind, once again, to all the different kinds of pain in this world. While I consider myself a busy woman, I know I can do more, much more. And I will.
#OEF: Operation Enduring Freedom; #OIF: Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The veterans’ website is www.umdnj.edu/vet2vet/index.htm The Coleman S. Bean bill can be viewed on www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-5170 Take a long look at them. They promote a cause worthy of your attention.
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