vets helping vets in Berlin, NH

Leslie unloading hygiene kits at the Berlin Vets Center.

POST UPDATED 9-12-12: As you know if you’ve followed my adventures studying traumatic brain injury in military service members, one theme that emerges again and again is the difficulty of trust between veterans and their civilian friends, family, co-workers, and even the care providers they encounter. Even at the VA., as former Sgt. Matthew Pennington has explained, civilian medical staff at VA hospitals may not seem to hear a service member properly, nor to understand the culture of self-reliance and loyalty to their unit that makes it so hard to ask for help.

So the Vet Center program is a life-saver for many veterans–if they are lucky enough to discover a Center nearby. There, combat theatre veterans and their families can receive counseling from highly educated medical health professionals, including Clinical Social Workers, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors–many of whom are veterans themselves. Vet Center counselors also provide resource referrals for other issues (medical, legal, financial) that may be hampering veterans’ readjustment to civilian life after deployment. They help veterans to access such VA services as medical care, disability benefits, educational benefits, and employment resources. Vet Center counselors are trained to help with bereavement, marriage and family counseling, military sexual trauma (MST), as well as to screen for and address PTSD and TBI.

An important trust-builder at the Vet Centers: they work in collaboration with the VA Medical Centers, but they are not directly related to then. Vet Center records are separate from VA Medical records and are held in the strictest of confidentiality. Vet Center records may only be released if the veteran requests it. This is an extremely important point, as many service members may not come in for needed counseling if they think that their mental health records might be seen by their military supervisors and could adversely affect their careers (and future benefits). So active duty service members do not need to fear that seeking help from the Vet Center will compromise their job.

Unfortunately, many veterans and active duty military still don’t know that Vet Centers exist. And there are not many of them–only 300 in the nation. But the funding for Vet Centers has grown substantially in the past few years as the DOD and the military leadership grapple with the needs of veterans from the GWOT era. By the way, GWOT stands for “Global War on  Terror”; specific campaigns within GWOT include OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, or the Afghanistan war) and OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). So I’ll sometimes hear people reference OEF/OIF veterans as a way of referencing the most recent wave of combat veterans. Others refer to “post-9/11” veterans. In any case, this program is small but growing, and they need to help spread the word about the great resources vets can find through the Centers.

I had been hearing about this great program for awhile, but I still hadn’t visited a Vet Center myself, until an opportunity arose: as part of my Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteer work, I was asked to deliver 60 hygiene kits for the homeless to the Berlin Vet Center in the North Country of NH. In spite of its name, the center is actually located in Gorham, right over the border from Berlin. ROAD TRIP!!!

My co-volunteer Karen Morse and I pulled on our red SAF polos, picked up the Red Cross van in Portsmouth and headed to 515 Main Street in Gorham. There was a brief moment of sadness because we had been promised access to the coveted NH Red Cross Hummer for the journey, but it wasn’t available. Karen was more gung ho about the Hummer idea than I–she’s an Air Force veteran herself and extremely athletic, so she was ready to conquer the big beast and tame it to our needs for the long drive. I was intrigued, too, but the drive is 2.5 hours each way, and I was bracing myself for a noisy slog. As it turned out, we got the van instead, and the only excessive noise generated was by the two of us in the kind of epic, wide-ranging, female-inflected road trip conversation that good movies are built upon. We talked a lot about issues facing veterans, but we also had a great digression around our favorite youtube clips. We both heartily recommend Christian the Lion!

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Wendy Mayerson

So, Karen and I had a gabby, uneventful journey to Gorham, where we were greeted at the Vet Center by Jay Sprinkle, Team Leader, and Wendy Mayerson, Office Manager. Both are kind, warm people who clearly create a welcoming environment for the veterans in need who visit the Berlin Vet Center. We did not meet the other staff on this visit, but we did learn that more than half of the staff are veterans. Again, this is a key aspect to the approach of the Vet Centers: vet-to-vet support.

Karen Morse and Jay Sprinkle

After saying hello, we brought in the two big boxes of hygiene kits. We discussed with Jay the difficulties of reaching out to the homeless vets in the North Country, and then we did some picture-taking for Red Cross posterity of us presenting the kits in front of the Vet Center sign.

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Karen Morse

After the picture-taking, Jay gave us a tour of the facility and some history and core characteristics of the Vet Center program: we learned that it was first started by Vietnam vets who supported each other through informal “rap sessions”. The vet-to-vet format was successful but more professional clinical help was needed, so the Centers developed a formal relationship to the VA which began in 1979. The Vet Center program is, in fact, one extremely successful unit of 5 that now comprise the VA. We also learned that it is primarily a mental health counseling facility, but that they also serve as a resource referral when vets or their families have other needs. The eligibility requirement is that the veteran must have served in a theatre of combat in some capacity (even if you never experienced direct combat–please don’t feel that you must have been shot at to be eligible for support at the Vet Center!). Spouses and children of combat theatre vets are also eligible for services and do comprise a good percentage of the clients presently served in the North Country. The Berlin Vet Center works closely with the White River Junction VA Hospital over the border in Vermont, and even has webcam video conferencing for consultations with mental health staff there in cases where driving to WRJ isn’t feasible.

The Center is petite but lovingly furnished and quite inviting. There are comfortable chairs in every space, homey touches to the decor, and rooms for both one-on-one counseling and group activities. There’s even a backyard patio with a gas grille where veterans can informally hang out or attend barbecues or other activities hosted by the Vet Center. Local veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW sometimes partner with the Vet Center in such efforts; the Center also hosts meetings of the North Country Veterans Committee, which I’ll write about in another post. Suffice it to say, this is an important community hub for veterans and those who provide care for them.

At the conclusion of our tour, we were ushered into a storage area where Jay gave us some Berlin Vet Center outreach items: t-shirts and baseball caps for us to wear during our future outings across the state to help spread the word about the Gorham location and Vet Centers in general. Many veterans, even those from WWII, Korea, or Vietnam, have gone years without knowing that the Vet Center program exists. So Karen and I will proudly wear our Vet Center togs and explain to anyone who asks about the services available in Gorham (and at the Manchester Vet Center, which is the other location in NH).

Then we had an equally trouble-free ride home. I may have worn out Karen’s ears a little during our epic conversation! But it was a lovely day, a huge learning experience, and a great way to give a little back to those who have served.

So, if you have a loved one who is a veteran in need of some support, tell them about the Vet Center program. No matter when he or she served, from the revered WWII veterans still among us to our current heroes, all veterans can find a listening ear and real help to heal at the Vet Centers.

TBI chronicles, part 3: Meeting Matthew Pennington

Well, as I’m sure you can see, I was a born theatre-maker–not so much a blogger! I’m having such an exciting time running around doing research for Make Sure It’s Me/nh, as well as stepping into my new role as Associate Director of ACT ONE, that I keep forgetting to keep y’all posted. (I am allowed to say “y’all,” since I did my graduate work at UT Austin. Hook ’em, horns!)

So, I’ve decided to wrap up my discussion of the spring’s crash course in Traumatic Brain Injury in military service members by telling you about Sgt. Matthew Pennington, one of the many presenters at the Fourth Annual New England Civilian-Military Cooperation Conference on Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury in Chelmsford, MA in April. This conference brought together care providers from VA hospitals and numerous community-based organizations in several New England States. (And was co-chaired by two brilliant women: Tammy Masse of Naval Health Clinic New England and Donna Beaudin of Northeast Rehabilitation.) I had read about Matt in the New York Times in January, in an article called “Acting Out War’s Inner Wounds.” I knew he was from Maine and hoped I’d be able to connect with him to participate in MSIM/nh. When I realized that he’d be speaking at this conference I was attending, I emailed him to introduce myself. He was extremely gracious and said he looked forward to meeting me in Chelmsford. Woo hoo!

Although every presenter was marvelous (including Major General William Reddel, the Adjutant General of the New Hampshire National Guard, who had us all misty-eyed as he painted a portrait of the NG’s citizen warrior population), Matthew Pennington was an instantly beloved hit with the crowd. He put a personal face on the cost of war–and not just a face. He appeared before us that day in shorts and a t-shirt, an outfit that displayed his proudly-tattooed arms and also his lower legs. Matt had lost his left leg, severely injured his right leg, and sustained a traumatic brain injury serving in the Army in Iraq in 2006. And so he stood there on one prosthetic leg and with clear, extensive scarring on the other. I found this to be a courageous gesture of trust, as well as an immediate visual aid in understanding his story.

Matt’s experiences coming home from Iraq with multiple wounds is sadly familiar: while his early treatment at Walter Reed was reasonably successful, when he was sent home with his new prosthesis and moderate anxiety symptoms, he wasn’t prepared for the downward emotional and physical spiral he suffered as he tried to build a new life in the civilian world. Living in central Maine, he found limited services to address his deepening problems: mood swings, cognitive difficulties, and a parade of VA health providers who prescribed him antidepressants during short appointments during which Matt didn’t feel he could make himself heard or understood. Through his own research, and with the help of a doctor and counselors at a Houston veterans health center, Matt began to understand how his traumatic experiences in Iraq had created a combined syndrome of PTSD and TBI. And that certain medications would only make his symptoms worse.

But this new insight wasn’t enough to pull him out of his depression when he again returned home and tried to rebuild. What made the difference for Matt was a 2009 casting call by NYU student filmmaker Nicholas Brennan, who was looking for a wounded veteran from Maine to star in his short film, “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing.” (Although Matt was in the Army, he plays a Marine in the film–so he’s been known to Tweet both “hooah” and “hoo rah” on Twitter to cover both branches.)

As he explained to us in Chelmsford, Matt found the idea of plunking himself down in the middle of the New York student film scene pretty crazy. But he decided to “soldier up”–he had certainly faced worse in his life than a bunch of bleeding-heart liberal artists! And that experience has been transformational for him–not only has Matthew Pennington performed a star turn in a solid piece of filmic storytelling, he has also found a mission. He now travels the country with a program called “Operation: Marine’s Guide,” in which he tells his story, screens the film, and shares some important points about our wounded warriors. Sometimes his director, Nicholas Brennan, or his producer, John Logan Pierson, go with him. All three were on hand in Chelmsford, all lovely people. But they let Matt take center stage. Here are the concepts that have stayed with me from hearing Matt speak:

  • Service members exposed to the compression-blast wave from an IED have probably sustained a traumatic brain injury. The injured brain needs time to heal–and antidepressants and other medications often prescribed for PTSD may be dangerous for those living with a TBI.
  • Wounded veterans don’t easily trust civilian caregivers, who often have little understanding of military culture. It goes against a service member’s training and instincts to self-identify as wounded and ask for help. So veterans may find the support they need at Vet Centers, where the majority of counselors are themselves veterans, and where the consultations are confidential and not part of the military record. 
  • A major problem for veterans (or those who still serve) with a TBI is the constant surges of adrenaline they experience in response to everyday occurrences. This dysfunction in the adrenaline response could last for months or even years, so veterans who experience it need to find coping skills to help them “stand down” in these panicky moments.

Matt shared with us an awesomely effective, easy-to-remember coping strategy for panic attacks:

The adrenaline surge you feel comes from the “animal” part of your brain. So, first engage the animal brain by pointing in the direction of your home. Matt oriented himself towards one corner of the room as he pointed north and said, “That’s home.” Next, you have to engage the rational brain in order to quiet the animal brain. So, look at your watch and make note of the time and the date. By the time you have focused clearly on the date and the time, your rational brain may have the upper hand and the adrenaline response may start to abate. (Try it! It works!)

The marvelous thing about this bit of strategy Matt shared with us is that I had noticed him taking tiny “coping” breaks during his presentation. He remained calm, but allowed himself occasionally to break eye contact with the audience, fall silent, and take his time organizing his thoughts. When he told us about the Home/Watch exercise, he confessed that he has these adrenaline surges quite often, even when he’s giving talks like this. So these coping strategies are not just something he used for a short time to “cure himself”. They are part of the ongoing process of healing that he performs every day.

I was fortunate to spend some time after lunch that day chatting with Matt. He is extremely personable and passionate about helping other wounded veterans, as well as the care providers and family members who work and live with veterans and want to better understand their experiences. But he’s also a guy’s guy who makes time in his schedule for fishing and would like to learn more about film-making and acting. My biggest difficulty interacting with Matt is resisting the urge to hug him! From the interactions I saw taking place around him at the conference, I am not alone in that reaction. If anyone out there is looking for a speaker for your veterans’ group, health care conference, community organization, or church meeting, please visit the site for “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing” to contact Matthew Pennington.

So, I lay the Springtime’s adventures to rest–more unfolds even as I scramble to finish this and race to the next meeting. I’m happy to say I’m gearing up to direct Tragedy: a tragedy and performa run of Clean Room, so the satisfaction I feel in helping New Hampshire’s military is complemented by the pure joy of making more theatre. Thanks for reading and best wishes to all!