Stanley Vigil’s favorite childhood memory was the day he received a bag of miniature Army Soldiers for Christmas as a 7-year-old boy. Later in life, Vigil became an actual Soldier who served 23 years in the Colorado National Guard. But when he got out, his military time followed him home in the form of nightmares. Despite experiencing distress daily, Vigil found a way to live with the same symptoms he once fought: collecting toy figurines.
For Vigil, it’s not just a hobby—it’s a practice that helps him circle back to the present moment.
Working on his 64,000-piece army is one of the exercises Vigil learned through the VA’s Life Skills Center at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center—a place where eligible Veterans enrolled with the Veterans Health Administration and receiving care through the Eastern Colorado Health Care System can attend weekly semester-styled classes based on a tailored mental health recovery program.
“For my [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] and Bipolar, I have been having problems after the Gulf War, but I got into Life Skills back in 2011 and have been coming ever since,” Vigil said.
Life Skills is a transitional learning center (also known as the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center) that incorporates the whole person and their individual goals into the program. In fact, it’s so individualized that attendance is completely voluntary.
When a Veteran walks in to the Life Skills Center, they are assigned an advisor and equipped with a team consisting of a psychologist, social worker, recreational therapist and a nurse. The team shares a goal to inspire and assist participants by instilling hope, validating strengths, teaching skills and facilitating community involvement so everyone can attain meaningful self-determined roles in their communities. These self-determined roles can be as simple as finally going on a date or reconnecting with a family member.
“I have a Veteran whose goal it was to go downtown for the first time in 15 years,” said Center Social Worker Ronit Rosen. “We supported her by explaining the bus schedule and took that first ride with her. It’s about the small wins. Navigating public transportation might feel like a barrier to some Veterans, so we help build their confidence to go on their own,” Rosen added.
The center works with countless regional partners that offer a range of activities for Veterans to include fly fishing, bowling, walking club, art class, equine therapy and more.
While using a working definition of recovery as “a process of change through which people improve health and wellness, live self-directed lives and strive to reach their full potential,” the center’s recovery model is based on four major dimensions:
- Health—overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being.
- Home—having a stable and safe place to live.
- Purpose—conducting meaningful daily activities and having the independence, income, and resources to participate in society.
- Community—having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope.
This holistic approach creates a safe support network where Veterans don’t have to feel alone in their challenges.
According to Life Skills Center Director Allison Douglas, “about 70 percent of our Veterans have PTSD and at least one other diagnosis.”
But with the help of their peers, Veterans open up about past trauma.
“There’s a non-judgmental culture of respect here where Veterans connect through their shared experiences,” Douglas said. “Talking about trauma helps destigmatize mental illness and dissolves shame.”
That’s why peer support is so fundamental to the recovery model. Veterans support and challenge each other while buddying up at community events. Then when they graduate, many return and help their peers.
As a graduate himself, Vigil continues to build his army of Soldiers, tanks, Humvees, and artillery vehicles, while staying active at the center. “The VA is so important in my life … As long as I keep coming to the VA, I’ll be happy,” he said.
“Some of my Gulf War problems are kind of going away, but not all of it. But I understand about my illness. They talk about my illness. I know more about my PTSD and how to work with it and live with it,” Vigil explained.
If you are a Veteran who’s interested in learning more about how Life Skills might benefit you, call 303-399-8020 or visit the center located at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, 1700 North Wheeling Street, Aurora, CO 80045.
Terri Rorke is a U.S. Army Veteran and public affairs specialist for the Eastern Colorado Health Care System.