Peer Support Key to Healing Wounds of War

Story by Erin Wittkop, Defense Media Activity

Screenshot: Army Maj. Kevin Polosky, far left, talks about his experiences as a caregiver for his Army veteran wife during the Military Officers’ Association 2013 Warrior & Family Symposium at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2013. He was joined by Air Force Reserve Maj. Bonnie Carroll, middle left, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors president and founder; Debbie Sprague, middle, wellness and life coach for military caregivers and wife of a Vietnam vet; retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard “Mick” Trainor, middle right, and Scott Thuman, local ABC network anchor and panel moderator, far right. (The Pentagon Channel screenshot by Erin Wittkop/Released)

Army Maj. Kevin Polosky, far left, talks about his experiences as a caregiver for his Army veteran wife during the Military Officers’ Association of America 2013 Warrior & Family Symposium at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2013. He was joined by Air Force Reserve Maj. Bonnie Carroll, middle left, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors president and founder; Debbie Sprague, middle, wellness and life coach for military caregivers and wife of a Vietnam vet; retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard “Mick” Trainor, middle right, and Scott Thuman, local ABC network anchor and panel moderator, far right. (The Pentagon Channel screenshot by Erin Wittkop/Released)

I recently had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Military Officers’ Association of America 2013 Warrior and Family Symposium at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington, D.C. This year’s theme was “Mental Health: Linking Warriors and Their Families, Government and Society.”

The event consisted of expert panels and keynote speakers each offering a distinct and insightful perspectives on how American citizens, military families and service members can help troops cope with the invisible wounds of war.

Each expert had incredible information to share but I was especially struck by the wisdom offered during the day’s first panel, “Six Degrees of Separation for Warriors & Families: The Impact of Mental Health Across Generations.” This panel consisted of four individuals who had personally come to terms with the psychological effects of war.

Air Force Reserve Maj. Bonnie Carroll, Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors president and founder, Army Maj. Kevin Polosky, executive officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice director of logistics, Debbie Sprague, wellness and life coach for military caregivers and wife of a Vietnam vet, and retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard “Mick” Trainor all offered their unique insights from personally healing from the wounds of war or helping a loved one heal. While their experiences differed as they each represented a different generation of warfighters, one factor rang true for all of them: peer support was key to overcoming the psychological burdens they’d faced.

“The human dimension is so important. [It’s] a constant in dealing with troubles,” Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard “Mick” Trainor said. As a Korean War veteran and the brother of a World War II veteran, Trainor emphasized the role camaraderie played in helping himself and his contemporaries cope their combat experiences. “One of the great things after World War I and World War II was the American Legion and the VFW. People would join these things and they were with their substitute [battle] buddies.”

Army Maj. Kevin Polosky, Iraq and Afghanistan vet and husband and primary caregiver to his Army veteran wife, agrees that a kindred spirit is sometimes the best medicine, especially for active duty troops who aren’t comfortable with the idea of formal counseling.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in combat. I think I’m lucky because I have a spouse who I can share it with but I actually remember being at a friend’s house, we were outside smoking a cigar and I just looked him and said, ‘Dude, I’m having some problems,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m having some problems, too,’ and that was the best help I’ve ever gotten. To me, it’s finding that peer or someone you can relate to and just being able to bring it up in conversation [is the greatest help].”

Air Force Reserve Maj. Bonnie Carroll, TAPS president and founder, agreed it is “peer-based support that is so critical,” explaining that it’s at the core of her organization. “TAPS is the frontline support resource for all those who get that knock on the door and receive that folded flag. We now have [over] 40,000 surviving families who gather around the country in care groups and support groups.”

Caroll also relayed the story of how Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was taken by the way TAPS families were connecting with each other during a survivor gathering in 1996. “He said to all of us, ‘I now understand why there has to be this community of care. We can’t do for you what you must do for each other.’”

When Debbie Sprague’s Vietnam veteran husband began his intense struggle with latent post-traumatic stress disorder and complications from Agent Orange exposure, she found a lack of peer support to be one of her biggest hurdles as she tried to help her husband cope.

“When my husband was diagnosed and I looked around, I would get blank stares when I talked about the fact that he had PTSD or things like, ‘There’s no such thing. He’s just in it for the money. It’s a good excuse for bad behavior.’ I was totally at a loss because no one I went to could help me; no one understood what I was going through.”

Today, Sprague leads her own support groups to educate other military and veteran spouses about the effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury and help them support friends and loved ones who may be suffering.

Despite her own difficult experiences, Sprague remains hopeful about the future. “I think having spouses and families understand and be educated is going to be a real support too for our veterans.”

As the panel came to an end, Sprague offered the audience a challenge to continue making progress for our country’s service members and veterans in need:

“I would like to challenge each of you whether you’re a warrior, a spouse or just someone that cares about our warriors, to go out and find a peer and give them support and encouragement and help. If we, each and every one of us, do that to one person and we keep paying it forward, I think we’ll move a long ways towards getting all of our warriors the help that they need.”

I, personally, intend to meet her challenge.

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  • Tony Shelton

    My dad was a natural good country boy from N.C. went from Parrish island to Korean war in the 50s,I still have his group Platoon picture,I was born in 57 and grew up hearing war stories of which I realized that there are so Many lower ranking Marines that were in the blood mixed Mud,Freezing cold ether being killed or loosing there best friends and there stories will never be told…Those were the REAL Men who were never promoted nor can be giving a chance to be honored with a microphone in front of people….He was Troy Dean Shelton who watched his best friend be shot to death next to him and he went forward and shot the GOOK between the eyes as he stated, later own finding a open can of pork and beans to eat which made him sick for 2 weeks as he made his way back to a USN ship and when he boarded the Adm. ask him where he’d been, he stated “”Fighting The War Sir Where The Hell Have You Been”, I often wondered why he never could sleep or stay in one place or trust anyone but as I grew up I realized how much he’d been though and why he drank but I saw never saw him drunk,eveytime I hear the song by “George Jones” called Wild Irish Rose I remember my dad,He was in ether fight or flight the rest of his life sleeping out of a old Van..,Iam still in South Carolina Ex 2rd Armored Div. “Hell On Wheels”….. And now He’s buried in Tnn.