A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June 2000/July 2000

Vets Helping Vets

Chapter 318's Plan To Help Veterans With PTSD

By Jim Belshaw

Eighteen months ago, Chapter 318 in Albuquerque set out to find a more meaningful way tobecome involved with the veterans community. Hal "Red'' Wilson, a former B-52 pilot shot down and taken prisoner during the 1972 Christmas Bombing of Hanoi, said the chapter created one that he feels is now ready to expand to other VVA chapters.

From his postwar experience as a counselor working with veterans diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Wilson devised a system in which veterans being released from VA recovery programs would be able to find a level of transitional support that otherwise might not have been available.

Following his retirement from the Air Force in 1985, Wilson returned to graduate school to seek a degree in counseling. He went on to become part of a team assessing and treating PTSD patients at the Albuquerque VA Medical Center.

"PTSD affects every aspect of the individual's life,'' he said. "My experience tells me that if someone has diagnosable PTSD, it's affected his life, whether he's functional or not. It doesn't mean it's trashed someone's life. It means only that it's affected it. I look at any PTSD as a positive--including mine. I like to think that I've learned from it; it works with me rather than against me.''

Remembering the PTSD team's continual worry that patients leaving the VA program often went back to their lives with no support system to ease the transition, Wilson saw an opportunity for Chapter 318 to offer a service that the VA and local Vet Center could not. 

"We also knew that nationwide the vets coming out of these programs were making a complete recovery at a rate of only one out of five,'' he said. "The ones who made it almost always were the ones who stuck with the aftercare and had a support system--family or close friends who were appropriately supportive. We're not talking about the guys the vets would go drinking with or anyone like that.''

Wilson proposed that the chapter begin a pilot program to provide such transitional support. Using his contacts with the VA and working with chapter members Betty Brooks and Allan Ludi, he set up guidelines for sponsors and made arrangements for referrals from VA recovery programs. "What we did was put together a program in which, on an individual basis, we hook up with a vet and function as that family support system, pretty much for as long as necessary,''he said.

Wilson said the VA was "very positive'' about the program, given its potential for offering the kind of support the VA can't provide after the veteran has been released from a program. Comparing the program in some respects to the support system found in Alcoholics Anonymous, Wilson said what the guidelines prohibit is equally as important as what they require.

"Some of the things we don't do may be as critical or even more important than the things we do,'' he said. "For example, we don't give clients money. We don't allow the vet to split the support team, to play one off another. We always meet in neutral territory, though exceptions can be made once a relationship is established. We never meet in places like bars, and we never go drinking together, even if the vet has no drinking problems.'' He said that although the program attempts to match vets with sponsors who share common interests, the program's size prohibits very much selectivity.

The most important characteristic of the sponsor-client relationship, he said, is that the sponsors must be understanding and nonjudgmental. "We function as a friend and adviser and don't do anything in terms of therapy,'' he said. "If they need a referral for either jobs or a return to treatment, we work to make sure they don't fall through the cracks. The further we get along, the more important it becomes that the sponsor is understanding, laid back, nonjudgmental, and responsible. It helps to have common interests, but it's not as important as the other attributes.''

Wilson has been working with a 52-year-old Vietnam combat veteran he says is in some ways "typical'' of veterans coming out of PTSD programs. The vet had been functional until the "PTSD caught up with him,'' at which point he went into treatment at the VA. Wilson said the relationship has been so successful that he doesn't see it ending after the veteran has completed aftercare. "He gets the chance to talk to somebody who understands what it was like to go through what he's gone through,'' he said. "He gets somebody who doesn't judge him, who doesn't find fault. If he screws up a little, we're not going to judge him.'' 

The program is called Vets Helping Vets. Wilson said he feels it is ready to expand in New Mexico and nationally within VVA. He said the program's strength lies in its informality and lack of structure, but cautions that expansion of the program from its current pilot status must be done slowly. He intends to play an active role in the expansion.

"We want anyone interested in exploring this program to call us,'' he said. "Initially, I'd like to see a chapter beginning the program to be in a location where there's at least a Vet Center and preferably a VA Medical Center. It will vary from chapter to chapter, depending on the level of expertise already available. But it's important that people train regularly. We want to encourage anyone interested in pursuing it to call us.''

Hal Wilson and Betty Brooks may be reached in Albuquerque through the following e-mail address: halsal@swcp.com 


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