By SARA ARTHURS
“Why struggle through your issues all alone?” asks the brochure for a new program called “Battle Buddies.” “We have veterans who want to support you!”
“When we’re in the service we are all given a battle buddy,” said the veterans service office’s executive director, Nichole Coleman. This person isn’t necessarily your best friend, but your job is to take care of each other. If you go to the bathroom, you don’t go off alone, as the other person helps keep you safe. But when you get out of the service, you no longer have a buddy, although you might feel that you still need one.
A two-day training for local veterans interested in serving as Battle Buddies will be held Jan. 25 and 26 at the Family Center. Buddies will be matched up after the training.
The Battle Buddies pamphlet goes on to explain that the program is designed to offer peer support and a partnership to help motivate, educate and advocate for positive life choices and changes; support to develop and implement a personal plan for an improved quality of life; and assistance for a fellow veteran to see recovery in a positive and realistic way.
There are no requirements to be a Battle Buddy beyond being a veteran interested in and able to provide support to another veteran. However, those who have, say, experience in recovery from addiction might be matched with someone needing precisely that same support.
But Battle Buddies aren’t just for veterans with post traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse issues. Coleman said those newly returning from service and re-entering society might be in need of support as they adjust to civilian life. Employment is a particular need, she said, as trying to find that first job outside the military feels foreign. A person might enter military service at age 17 and get out when they’re 25. They’ve genuinely obtained a lot of skills through their service, but have never had to write a resume, or don’t know what to wear to a job interview.
And Coleman encounters Vietnam veterans who are struggling upon retirement, having spent 50 years “dealing with — or not dealing with — the trauma of war by working.” These veterans might benefit from a Battle Buddy. Conversely, those who are doing well upon retirement might find being a Battle Buddy to someone else needing support could give them something constructive to do with their time and skills.
Coleman said some veterans have no family, and those who have great relationships with their families may not want to share their trauma with their families. They don’t want to tell their families the things they have seen — or the things they have done. So there is a lot of isolation among veterans.
She said veterans’ mental health issues can lead to many other issues including legal, financial and family problems. But “there’s so much hope in recovery,” Coleman said.
When people think of “recovery” they may think of substance abuse, not mental health. But the same concepts apply — a mental health condition won’t necessarily disappear, but with a good support system it can become manageable.
Focus on Friends is a nonprofit center helping people in recovery from addiction, mental health issues or trauma. The organization trains volunteer recovery guides who provide peer support to others in recovery. Executive director Ellyn Schmiesing said that, unlike a therapist, peer support volunteers aren’t being paid to help the person — they are there because they want to be.
Battle Buddies will receive training similar to other peer support volunteers, but with some veteran-specific parts of the curriculum. They’ll build skills and gain knowledge in how to respond to those in need. Training will include role playing, and there is “a lot of practice involved,” Schmiesing said.
Schmiesing said the military is “a whole culture” that she can look at, from the outside, and try to understand, “but I don’t know what it’s like to live it.” At Focus on Friends they have learned that “there is real power” in being able to look someone in the eye and say, “I get it,” she said.
And what they have found is that supporting someone else makes a difference.
“If you believe in them, sometimes they start believing in themselves and take off and fly,” Schmiesing said.
A veteran already providing support informally to a friend or a neighbor can come get trained at Battle Buddies, even if they don’t want to be matched with someone new.
Coleman said seven people have already signed up to be trained to serve as Battle Buddies, and she has heard from one veteran who would like to receive help from a buddy.
She said the idea for the program came out of a conversation she had with Dr. Michael Flaherty, a consultant to the Hancock County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services. In addition to Flaherty’s help developing the program, a psychology student interning at ADAMHS also contributed.
Coleman hopes that, a year or two down the line, those who have received support from Battle Buddies will themselves be able to offer that support to others.
Focus on Friends is located at 509 W. Trenton Ave., and can be reached at 419-423-5071. The veterans service office is at 1100 E. Main Cross St., Suite 123, and can be reached at 419-424-7036.
Anyone wanting to sign up to be helped by a Battle Buddy can contact either organization, but those wanting to sign up to be trained should contact Coleman at the veterans office.
Veterans in crisis can call the crisis line at 1-800-273-8255, then press 1.
At the end of her trainings, Schmiesing will often say, “Go forth and do good things.”
“It takes one interaction — five minutes — to change somebody’s life,” she said.