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Peer-to-Peer Networks Help Veterans Receive the Care They Deserve
Photo: President Bush with David Smith at the Military Service Initiative Summit in 2014 (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)
In 2009, while having a beer at a local bar with a close friend who had just returned from Afghanistan, I met someone who would change my life forever. His name was Clay Hunt and, like me, he had recently separated from the military.
Clay and I quickly became close friends, largely because I didn’t know any other veterans in the area and he understood what I was going through with my transition. But one thing in particular set Clay apart. After multiple deployments, he had found that counseling and veteran service organizations were hugely helpful in his transition process.
Over time, Clay mentored me and guided me towards effective organizations that were able to provide proper care and resources to help me along my journey. If not for Clay, I’m not sure how I would have found the resources that led me to such a successful transition.
I point this out because the inability to easily locate resources, determine their effectiveness, and then connect with a person who can help them take action is one of the major obstacles veterans face in receiving care for their invisible wounds. The fact is, veterans should have access to and knowledge of peer-to-peer veteran networks that provide excellent care, knowledge, and resources. This would eliminate the struggle of trying to locate the resources, make contact with personnel, understand the organization's mission, and request help… time after time.
The Bush Institute's new Warrior Wellness Alliance offers a way to make those connections. The alliance streamlines the veterans’ ability to find and leverage high-quality trusted resources and it eliminates the stigma of seeking help.
Like me, many veterans can be reluctant to seek out services from mental health professionals. They fear that mental health professionals who lack military experience will be unable to understand or relate to their circumstances. Often, veterans reaching out to other veterans is the key to showing that it’s okay to ask for help.
The Warrior Wellness Alliance aims to overcome this reluctance by creating a network of leading veteran resources. The desired outcome is that when veterans join one of the alliance organizations, that organization will help provide additional referrals for care and resources through the alliance partners.
The alliance currently consists of a series of care providers as well as the nation’s leading veteran non-profits, such as Team Rubicon, Team Red White and Blue, and Student Veterans of America. By bringing in organizations from a diverse set of backgrounds (disaster response, fitness, education as listed in order above), transitioning veterans can seamlessly connect with the people and tools that will allow them to continue seeking purpose, development and personal growth.
By eliminating some of the obstacles and stigmas that veterans face when seeking help for invisible wounds, the Warrior Wellness Alliance effectively eases the burden and strain of transition. This makes the process easier for veterans, their families, and even the caregivers.
This alliance is only in its beginning stages. But, as it grows, we will be able to see the outcome of providing a series of connected and committed resources in one place at the most important moments of the veteran transition process.
It’s early to tell, but my belief is that by providing these resources directly to the veteran, we can eliminate much of the struggle and stigma that many of us have faced when taking off the uniform and re-entering civilian life. Rather than relying on single individuals to help us along the dark and winding path of transition, we can rely on entire networks of organizations, caregivers, and fellow veterans.
David Smith is a post-9/11 veteran and a Team 43 Sports alumni. He joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Corporal David J. Smith joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004. Smith was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return to the States experienced severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.
One event, in particular, hurt him the most. During an intense gunfight one night while trapped on the roof of a burning building, Smith caught movement and muzzle flashes out of the corner of his eye coming from a nearby alleyway below his position. He didn’t have his night-vision mounted because his team had been clearing through the building. Acting on instinct, Smith shot into that group of targets moving toward their position. It turned out to be a group of Marines and Smith wounded one of them. That warrior was sent home and had part of his foot amputated. Smith lost contact with him for many years and he didn’t know how well he was doing. It was the single most painful, regrettable moment of his life. Knowing that he had injured one of his own, “It haunted me for years.”
Afterwards, Smith says, “I had a very hard time admitting that something was wrong. Instead of taking responsibility for my transition like I should have and asking for help, I tried to ignore it all because it was painful and embarrassing and I didn’t want to appear weak. Ultimately, I found myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. That’s when I realized I just couldn’t fix the problems on my own and I needed help.”
Smith participated in his first event with the Bush Center in 2012, riding in the W100k just a month after he had contemplated suicide. At that time, he remembers feeling like his heart was going to explode every day from all the emotions he was finally feeling again. It was really nice to be biking and laughing among other warriors. Since then, Smith works towards providing transition assistance for fellow veterans and eliminating the stigma of post-traumatic stress. In February 2015, Smith participated on a panel discussion with President Bush and three other veterans about transition in hopes it helps someone else avoid the same big mistake he almost made. “Seek the help you need and you’ll respect yourself for it.”
Today, Smith is a great example of Post-Traumatic Growth. He has re-focused himself, overcame obstacles, and is living a rich, fulfilling life. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Smith interned on the New York Stock Exchange, delivered disaster response with Team Rubicon in the Philippines, and traveled to almost 30 countries doing missionary and humanitarian projects. He finished those projects in December 2014 and moved to Norway, where he lives with his wife and works as the Chief Marketing Officer for Dogu AS, a software start-up company, while running a veteran transition resource blog on the side.
“Day-to-day life is amazing,” says Smith. “I don't struggle with depression and anxiety, I'm not afraid to fall in love or show my emotions, and I work hard to be a great man every single day. I refuse to let past failures or experiences shape the way that I view the world. I’ve never been happier, healthier, or more at peace than I am today.”Full Bio
Mental Health Awareness Month
May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness and reduce stigma, particularly for veterans and the invisible wounds of war. Members from the Bush Institute’s Warrior Wellness Alliance offered their perspectives throughout the month to discuss what they wish more civilians understood about veteran mental health, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. They also discussed how everyone can help get more warriors the care they need. Check out their videos below.
How a Community in New Orleans is Helping Veterans Transition
Dylan Tête, Executive Director and Founder, Bastion Community of Resilience will receive the George W. Bush Institute Military Service Citation at the Bush Center's Forum on Leadership.
Creating a Global Veteran Community
Deputy Director of Military Service Initiative Kacie Kelly recently spoke at an international veterans’ mental health conference: “Evidence, Innovation, and Practice” hosted by Kings College London and the Forces in Mind Trust Foundation.