It was mid-November 2004. I was on a mission with other Marines to pick up enemy prisoners of war, south of Highway 10, in the Jolan District of Fallujah, Iraq. We drove past the same green bridge where four U.S. contractors had been killed a few months earlier. As we neared our destination, we rolled up to where fellow India Company Marines were taking fire. We stopped and joined the intense urban combat ambush that was in full swing. The horror of the battlefield surrounded me — Marines going down from enemy gunfire. As the fight boomed around me, the next thing I remembered was a smiling Marine extending his hand to pull me up. I had been knocked out from the concussion of an Abrams main battle tank firing a round. I got up and continued the mission.
Having “borne the battle,” I’ve been on both the receiving and providing sides of services as a Veteran and a VHA Peer Support Specialist. I went from undergoing cognitive processing therapy as a patient to co-facilitating with the same licensed clinical social worker to a group of 20 Veterans. Using my perspective as a Veteran and being comfortable with using the co-facilitating technique helped the therapist use my experiences to exemplify the role and benefits of the PSS Program to others. Through this more personalized outreach to Veterans, the PSS program is helping VA transform its traditional counseling services.
Ten years ago, I would not have been willing to share any stories from my battlefield experience. In 2006, I reached out to VA for help at a nearby Vet Center. I went through their counseling and training, and attended VA support group meetings. After completing my cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure training programs, I was selected to participate in a new VA program – the Peer Support Specialists Program (PSS).
VA now has more than 930 Peer Support Specialists delivering voices of inspiration, hope and courage to Veterans. These individuals have embarked on a passionate journey of embracing empathy as a tool for healing. VA now offers Veterans the opportunity to work with a Peer Support Specialist, a combat Veteran who has experience dealing with “invisible wounds.” This Veteran-to-Veteran connection provides respect and credibility to the program. The therapeutic bond between Veterans helps to build rapport and encourages Veterans to access care for mental health issues, support for vocational goals, and assistance when applying for benefits and navigating the web of VA rules, regulations, and policies.
The Peer Support Specialist is like a battle buddy wearing many different hats: a tour guide, life coach, inspirational speaker, friend, patient advocate, community planner, educator, and benefits coordinator. During group therapy and individual therapy sessions, the PSS story focuses on a “recovery story” instead of an “illness story.” Within the recovery story, there are coping strategies for the same obstacles and barriers that individuals face when dealing with extreme difficulties. The story brings comfort, validation and acceptance for those who have borne the battle.
Shortly after beginning my new job as a PSS, I attended a group therapy session with more than 20 combat Vietnam Veterans. It was a slow process of warming up before the group embraced me as one of their own. We connected on an intimate level — joining together in the therapeutic process. As the weeks went by, one Veteran, “Pepper” [not his real name], stood out to me as a quiet and reserved individual during our roundtable talks. When it was his turn to speak, Pepper would quickly say, “I’m 110 percent today.” It appeared to me that he preferred to listen, rather than speak.
Then, during one of our Friday afternoon sessions, the floor was open for group members to speak. Pepper began to tell the group about his struggles in life. You could have heard a pin drop. He spoke of his nightmares, dreams, pain, frustration and worries. He spoke of his military service and the day of the injury, and about what had happened to him. Tears ran down his face.
Overwhelmed, I felt the same, and my own waterfall of wounds swelled up inside. I was speechless. Pepper pointed to me and said, “I’ve spent 50 years dealing with this and have never told a soul. The only reason I did, was because of you.”
“How did I unlock his pain from all these years?” I wondered. This was the power of peer support. I listened and he felt understood. All that anyone wants to feel is understood by others.
From my experience — whether it’s being understood or just listened to — Veterans need to feel a connection with their health care provider.
On the road to, or in recovery, we may go fast, slow, hit obstacles, and even crash at times. The important thing to remember is that the road of life isn’t traveled alone; and this is evident in the PSS program. Others have gone down the road before you, and others will also travel a similar road behind you. This is where Peer Support Specialists can come in and help you to navigate the map of life (recovery). I believe in never leaving a fellow Veteran behind.
More about Peer Support Specialists can be found at: http://www.vacareers.va.gov/peer-to-peer/index.asp
Baren Berg served two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan on active and reserve duty, and in the Wounded Warrior Regiment, with the Marine Corps, from 2003-2013. He holds a master’s degree in Leadership from Duquesne University. He served as a Peer Support Specialist prior to being selected as a VA Presidential Management Fellow.