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Group Helps Vets Adjust to Life on the Home Front

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Roger King, left, with Hunter, and Sean O’Donnell, with Kuno, are members of a new veterans support group in Sag Harbor.

By Stephen J. Kotz

U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Roger King was stationed at an outpost in Fallujah, Iraq, on July 31, 2006, when a patrol returning to the base was ambushed near the front gate. Lance Corporal King, who was nearby, ran to get his weapon to return fire. It was the last thing he remembered.

“I was hit by a sniper in the helmet,” said Mr. King, who was knocked unconscious by the bullet’s impact. After three days of medical treatment, he was back on duty, showing no apparent lingering effects from his head injury, and chalking up his lucky escape to his modern helmet.

But Mr. King, a Sag Harbor native, who had been planning to reenlist when his tour of duty ended, knew something was wrong several months later when, during a training mission, he had to play the role of a soldier who had been shot and killed by a sniper. “It led to me getting nightmares and the post-traumatic effects of getting shot,” he said.

Mr. King said he eventually concluded that he could not fulfill the duties expected of him as a marine and reluctantly chose to leave the service. Once back home, though, he continued to do battle with his nightmares and was eventually referred to Katherine Mitchell, a licensed clinical social worker, by a friend at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Sag Harbor.

“It became pretty clear, early on, that it was important to have something available to him, beyond just talking to me,” said Ms. Mitchell, who began meeting with Mr. King in June 2013 and thought he would benefit from talking about his readjustment to civilian life with fellow veterans.

After a little research, Ms. Mitchell discovered the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, a joint initiative of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and the Suffolk County United Veterans.

The project is named after Joseph Dwyer, an army medic from Mt. Sinai, who, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide after his return from Iraq in 2008. The program, which was championed by State Senator Lee Zeldin, is funded by New York State and has now been expanded to a dozen counties statewide.

By September, the project had agreed to launch its first peer support group on the East End, one that now meets weekly at Ms. Mitchell’s Noyac office.

Although Ms. Mitchell said post-traumatic stress disorder is a major concern and that the number of veterans committing suicide has reached epidemic proportions—a recent Veterans Administration study found that as many as 22 veterans kill themselves each day—she stressed that the support group is available to serve all veterans.

“Anybody who serves in the military is changed by it, it’s a change of culture,” she said. “It’s not just about PTSD and guys freaking out. There are a lot of things to come to terms with while readjusting to civilian life.”

“With peer support, we are trying to provide an alternative to group therapy,” said Sean O’Donnell, a sergeant in the Army National Guard from Patchogue, who now serves as the facilitator of the Noyac/Sag Harbor group. “We are trying to catch the guys who fall through the net” and might not actively seek out more traditional forums to discuss their problems.

Mr. O’Donnell said he had his own difficulties readjusting to civilian life. In Iraq, he served on a security detail for convoys of 50 to 100 18-wheel semi-tractor trailers that would barrel from Kuwait into Iraq.

“We didn’t have a lot of fire fights, but there were plenty of close calls,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “Plus, there was the constant tension, the constant threat of a truck rolling over or getting blown up. My job was to sit up and be on the alert.”

When he got home, he found himself suffering from a condition known as hyper vigilence in which he would notice absolutely everything along the road, from the clothing other drivers were wearing to pieces of debris on the shoulder. It got to the point, he said, where he would make his wife drive and he would sit with his eyes closed in a fully reclined passenger seat to try to avoid the stress it caused.

Mr. O’Donnell, who now runs four different meetings in Suffolk County each week, said that another aspect of the PFC Joseph Dwyer Project is that the program is willing to offer veterans non-traditional services that run the gamut from yoga to acupuncture.

It just so happens that Ms. Mitchell shares office space with Mikal Gohring, an acupuncturist, who is offering free treatments to the members of the support group following a model that was developed by volunteers treating victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Mr. Gohring said that many veterans the group in New Orleans treated for storm-related stress issues, raved about the results, leading it to expand its offerings.

“I’m looking forward to it growing,” he said, noting that he planned to offer demonstrations at the Sag Harbor VFW and American Legion.

Mr. O’Donnell, whose German short-haired pointer, Kuno, recently sired puppies, has added yet another offered to the mix in the form of a therapy dog program that he leads on weekends. One of his puppies, Hunter, will be going to Mr. King.

“We pretty much offer the whole spectrum,” said Mr. O’Donnell, “from alternative treatments to offering outings for guys who want to go out and go on fishing trips or go kayaking.”

There’s food too. Jordan’s Initiative, the charity started by JoAnn Lyles, whose son’s Jordan Haerter was killed in Iraq six years ago this week, delivers free meals to the veterans on meeting nights.

The director of the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, John Schulz, is also veteran, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq.

“These guys are coming back, especially the reservists, with very little debriefing,” he said. “They are released back into the world and a year later they could be called right back up again.”

“The groups usually start by word of mouth, veterans talking to veterans,” he continued. There are now seven active groups in Suffolk County and he said he expected two or three more to be up and running by summer. “Sag Harbor seems to be a successful. We’d like to set them up in Southampton and East Hampton.”

Mr. Schulz said the project likes to keep the groups small. “We try not to have more than four or five guys,” he said. “One the group gets too big, people sit back and let the other people do the talking or they just get overwhelmed.”

“I do what I can, but this is really about peer support,” said Ms. Mitchell of the meetings at her office. “I’m always on the fringes of it.”

She added, though, that it’s not always just veterans. “They have had a couple of meetings where they have invited significant others so family members get an idea of what their loved ones have experienced.”

“It’s not just talking about your problems,” added Mr. King, who is training to become a facilitator himself as the program expands. “It’s about talking to other vets, bouncing ideas off of them, and pretty much the idea of having that best friend and comrade who is willing to say, ‘Hey, this is what works for me.’”