When one local mom’s son returned home from serving in Afghanistan, he wasn’t the same person he was when he left.
“He came back a raging, angry man who had lost faith in the military,” says Debra, whose last name has been withheld for privacy reasons.
Her son served in Afghanistan for nine months before being injured in a rollover Humvee accident while on night patrol. He was transferred from Afghanistan to medical facilities in Germany, then to Texas, then to Colorado and finally home without receiving the typical psychological-decompression assistance that most soldiers do when returning from deployment.
During his transition from active duty to civilian life, he and his mother hit multiple roadblocks — an airplane ride to Germany for Debra, so she could be by her son’s side while he was being assessed, fell through; he was notified of his Purple Heart ceremony in Colorado only two hours before it began, making it impossible for his mother to attend; and he couldn’t seem to get his disability file processed once he returned home. Meanwhile, he was in an emotional downward spiral, constantly moody, dark and angry, his mother says.
Debra was desperate to help her son, but, no matter where she turned, she seemed to get nowhere.
“Typically, when you are the parent of a soldier and you call a veterans service, they say the soldier must initiate the contact,” she says. “So a lot of doors were closed to me, and my son wasn’t willing to try because every time he tried to do something he was shut down big time.”
But Debra didn’t give up. She kept reaching out to veterans services until she got through to Bob Short, a Vietnam veteran and Western Michigan regional coordinator for Michigan’s Buddy-to-Buddy program, developed at the University of Michigan in partnership with the Michigan Army National Guard to connect veteran volunteers with veterans in need of support.
“I remember her calling,” Short says. “She said her son was very angry, wasn’t doing well, and I said that if she could get him to call me, I would talk to him.”
Debra asked her son to call Short but was met with resistance. Some months later, Short called to check in with the family, leaving a message on their phone. That same day, Debra’s son had called Veterans Affairs only to learn his file had been sitting on someone’s desk for six months.
“With all that built-up anger, he snapped when he heard Bob’s message,” she says. “I hadn’t seen that type of anger for months. He called Bob up, who thankfully did not answer the phone, and left a raging message. I was looking at him thinking, ‘Well, there’s another door that just closed.’”
But it wasn’t, because Short called back.
“He was lashing out,” Short says. “I knew he was just very, very angry.”
After a sheepish apology, Debra’s son agreed to meet with Short and two other Buddy-to-Buddy Vietnam veteran volunteers, Fred Turk and Dick Overton. They talked about integrat- ing into civilian life and how to navigate the VA system. One of the volunteers called the VA and asked about Debra’s son’s file, which finally started things moving. It was only one meeting, but Debra’s son turned a corner, she says — he started looking into going back to school and getting a dog, and he re-engaged with her on a personal level.
“They met, and he went from being an angry, raging, unhappy person to truly believing that trust and love were still viable avenues for him,” Debra says. “It had nothing to do with justice, but everything to do with compassion and an offer of help that was sincere. I don’t think that anyone could have helped him had they not been able to relate to what it’s like to be a soldier who is no longer serving.”
Peer outreach is the premise and foundation of the Buddy-to-Buddy program, which was founded in 2009 and now has more than 120 trained and active volunteers working in 40 of Michigan’s Army National Guard armories.
“Our program has connected more than 2,000 veterans to resources,” says program coordinator Stephanie Zarb. “That’s a pretty good indication of success in a state like Michigan, where there are no-active duty bases, so this is all done through outreach at National Guard armories and in the community.”
The fact that Michigan has no active-duty bases is an important reason why Buddy-to-Buddy has focused its services here.
“When active-duty troops return from deployment, if they were trained on an active-duty base, they return to a military community where there are support programs,” Zarb says.
But that’s not the case for National Guard members.
“Say I was working at the University of Michigan and then was deployed for a year,” she explains. “I come back to the same desk at the University of Michigan, but it’s unlikely that I am the exact same person that was sitting there a year ago.”
Returning National Guard members might find themselves lost without the structure, environment and support they received while being deployed. Zarb knows the feeling — she felt at loose ends when she decided to leave active duty after spending five and a half years in the Air Force.
“When I came off active duty, I had no awareness of the resources out there, and, quite frankly, I did everything wrong,” Zarb says. “When I look through the interaction logs our volunteer veterans keep, I think, ‘Wow. I wish I had known this information back then. I wish there was someone there to have helped me.’ I feel like we’ve been successful because we put the human element back into this process.”
Last year 565 veterans across Michigan were assisted by 116 veteran volunteers in the areas of employment, health, finances, mental health and legal issues. Zarb says the reason the Buddy-to-Buddy program has been so successful is because it’s one of the few programs to use veterans as a resource for veterans. Many times veterans feel as though no one understands what they’re going through, and since they’re mostly surrounded by civilians, they’re right, Zarb says. But another veteran does know.
“I feel like being with another veteran is like when you see another American in a foreign country,” she says. “You don’t know them, but at least they’re American. They’re your new best friend because they speak the same language.”
Short, who was awarded a 2014 STAR (Sharing Time and Resources Award for Volunteer Manager of the Year by Volunteer Kalamazoo and MLive Media Group/Kalamazoo Gazette, says he’s committed to the Buddy-to-Buddy program because he sees the difference it makes in comparison to other services offered to vets.
Buddy-to-Buddy offers face-to-face connection with veterans who are trained to listen and assist. The veteran volunteers know all the local resources available to veterans, and Buddy-to-Buddy has a partnership with the Army National Guard so volunteers can serve hours on reserve bases getting to know the men and women who serve there personally, Short says.
“Where we can, we want to make a warm handoff,” he says. “It’s a personal touch. It’s not just saying, ‘Here’s a phone number to call or a website to go to.’ It’s doing some of the legwork so the soldier has a connection to reach out to.”
Another advantage of having veterans as volunteers, Short says, is that they are able to challenge the stigma that exists in the military culture about asking for help.
“We’re all supposed to be tough guys and suck it up and get it done. One of the things that people like myself and other volunteers can do is say it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. And if you need help, get it and get it soon,” he says.
Debra’s son died earlier this year in a car crash, and even through her pain and grieving she recognizes that Buddy-to-Buddy broke down the barriers of her son’s anger to improve his quality of life.
“If my son had not made it as long as he did, and if he had died in the throes of hate and anger, then I wouldn’t have been OK,” she says. “When he deployed, I said, ‘If he comes home in a box, I’ll be OK eventually, and if he comes home maimed, I’ll be OK, but if he comes home without a soul, I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it.’ His soul was in jeopardy until Buddy-to-Buddy and Bob Short. He had hope and trust after Bob talked to him. What parent can ask for more?”
This Veterans Day, Debra wants any veteran who may feel lost, angry or depressed to reach out to Buddy-to-Buddy.
“Buddy-to-Buddy will call you back, they will care about you and they can help,” she says. “Get help. Never quit.”
To connect with a volunteer veteran or to make a referral for someone else, call Buddy-to-Buddy at 1-888-82-BUDDY (1-888-822-8339) or visit BuddytoBuddy.org.