By Nancy Tannler

Members of RVP Board Mike Maxwell, Guy Burstein, Carol Levine, Shannon Pernetti, Abe Cohen, Pat Chandler (former member).

Back in 2005, Carol Levine, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker here, recognized the need to assist veterans reintegrate themselves back into society after returning from the war in the mideast. She did this by organizing the Returning Veterans Project–a service that provides veterans and their families free counseling and additional health services.

According to an interview with Belle Landau, Executive Director, this unique program partners with the local VA hospital, Vet Centers around Oregon and the Oregon Integration Team to connect returning vets with health care providers not available at the VA hospital.

“The intention is for these men and women to privately receive the care they need to help them recover from the ordeal of war and multiple deployments,” Landau said.

Upon discharge, veterans are given a form to fill out about their emotional and mental stability. Only in cases of severe brain injury are they required to stay for medical help. In most instances, these young veterans are anxious to return to civilian life so they deny any misgivings they might have about their experiences.

They don’t want to spend more time under military observation, plus, there is an added stigma of openly admitting that they were troubled by what they lived through.

It’s not uncommon for a returning vet to want to hide away for a few months losing themselves in video games, tv, drugs and alcohol just to numb the feelings until they are ready to cope. They are young and have seen things most of us can’t imagine–poverty, tragedy, death and destruction.

“The most common statement we hear from the families of returning veterans is that they are not the same person they used to be. The jolly and fun-loving are often depressed. They want their spouse, friend, son, daughter back, ” Landau said.

Returning veterans often find changes in both themselves and their spouses difficult to deal with. The original partnership is no longer the same, their roles have changed and it is difficult to restructure the foundation of the relationship.

Sharon Flegal, LMFT, (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), is a local volunteer who began receiving clients from the program four years ago. Having family and friends in the military, her heart went out to other veterans and she decided to get involved. She was mentored by Shannon Pernetti, a volunteer, who was very inspiring to Flegal.

Flegal’s fifteen year experience with the local Critical Incident Stress Management Team has helped her with a healing process for this type of trauma too.

Her patients don’t always know exactly why they have decided to receive help. They are often hyper alert, jumpy and snap quickly at people.

“Usually they are their own harshest judge and they feel shame over hurting someone or not being able to handle the experience of combat,” she said. “One of the biggest concerns is not being able to feel again.

By listening to their stories and developing a trusting relationship, Flegal is able to help mend the mind. The good part is that they can be helped. According to Flegal,  “Once they realize they are experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal situation they are able to create new neuro networks in the brain.” This objectivity to traumatic events enables them rewire their brain.

Flegal feels her contribution is as a non-judgemental teacher where clients learn about the body and mind in a new way that allows them the space and information to heal themselves.

Another local health practitioner, Mae Costello, L.Ac., (Licensed Acupuncturist) heard about the Returning Veterans Project from a colleague in 2007 and became involved. She comes from a military family and understands the needs of those who have served the country.

Acupuncture is able to relieve both mental and physical pain. “Often the first time I work on a returning vet, they will tell me that this is the most calm and relaxed they have been in years,” Costello said.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury and back injury are some of the ailments Costello treats in her practice. Symptoms include pain,  memory loss, night terrors, speech impediments, headache and insomnia.

“The first stage of the cure is to get people sleeping well because a lot of natural healing can take place then,” she said. She treated one veteran, his wife and children for a year and a half but eventually they were able to reintegrate themselves back into life, love and their community.

These are just a couple of the local health practitioners volunteering with the Returning Veterans Project. The agreement  with the project is to accept one patient at a time. There are regular classes offered to volunteers that qualify for the Continued Education Unit required to retain a license.

The 425 current volunteers have donated over 3,000 hours of time for the cause.

The Returning Veterans Project needs more volunteers as over the next year, there will be 12,000 active duty military personnel returning to Oregon.

Currently there are 31,000 vets living in the state. Next to Louisiana, Oregon has the largest number per capita of National Guard deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns and they are called back to serve as many as five times.

“Oregon does not have an active duty base, so there is no place for returning vets to debrief,” Landau said. “Plus, next years budget cuts are targeting the Oregon National Guard Joint Transition Assistance Program (JTAP).” This organization helps  returning vets with reintegration back into their communities, career planning, education, health care and families.

Not everyone returning from war is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD) although many do experience stress and anxiety.

It sometimes takes from six months to two years for traumatic episodes to surface and disrupt normal activity. That is why the Returning Veteran Project is such an important organization. Counseling, acupuncture, chiropractic care, naturopathic care, massage therapy are subtle yet powerful ways to help people in these types of crisis.

If you are a veteran in need of assistance or a health practitioner looking for a way to serve your country go to ReturningVeterans.org and follow the prompts.