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
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
"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
"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
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
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
Hal Wilson and Betty Brooks may be reached in Albuquerque through
the following e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org