10/31/2008 05:00PM ● Published by Super Admin
While a large majority of our veterans return safely to us and successfully rejoin civilian life, there is a persistent and troubling number of veterans who don’t. Our veterans return from war forever changed by their experiences, and families are often the first to witness this change. Excited anticipation gives way to confusion and frustration with the realization that the person who shipped out isn’t the same as the veteran now returning home. And while there are a growing number of organizations that offer direct, immediate counseling for veterans, there are surprisingly few offering long-term or ongoing support to families of veterans.
John Henry Parker, a Sacramento local and former US Marine, found this out the hard way. In late 2003, Parker’s son, Sergeant Danny Facto was serving his second tour with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. Positioned in one of the most dangerous battlegrounds in the Afghan-Iraq war, the 10th Mountain had been the focus of recent media attention, appearing on Peter Jennings’ “World News Tonight." Shortly thereafter, Danny called home to his father.
“He said he was having some serious reservations about coming home. He didn’t really understand how he was going to make the stretch back to being a parent and a husband after what he’d been going through. It was just, kind of an alarming phone call to get out of the blue,” recalled Parker.
Parker, resolved to do everything he could to seek out counseling for Danny, and guidance for he and his family on how to deal with this new set of events unfolding. The results of John’s search, or lack thereof, were disturbing.
“Kind of naively, I thought especially with the homecoming problems we had with Vietnam, that we as a society would have some kind of organization or support group for parents and family members to help with this traumatic transition, says Parker. He goes on to say, “I was in the Marine Corps, raised by a father who was a combat veteran…so I was hoping there was something out there, but I just didn’t find anything.”
In his search for answers, Parker began meeting other families struggling with the same issues. He began talking to people in the mental health field, within the VA, and in the media, and out of those conversations an idea was born. Parker decided to form his own non-profit organization, called Veterans and Families, dedicated to assisting veterans and their loved ones through the difficult period known as “homecoming.”
Throughout 2004 and 2005, Veterans and Families ran a series of focus groups, with a core group of attendees, mainly spouses, some veterans, as well as Vietnam veterans. It was here Parker gained valuable insight into the relationships between veterans and their family members, particularly spouses. Parker recalls, “You know, when it came right down to it, they were really angry and upset because they’d been good military spouses, they’d done everything they were asked to do and yet after all this is said and done [the veterans] are coming home saying ‘I love you but I can’t live with you, I need my space.’”
Eventually hampered by the fact that no list of returning military and family members was available on an ongoing basis, the support groups gave way to a formidable Web presence, which remains and continues to grow today. The Veterans and Families Web site, veteransandfamilies.org, is an extensive Web portal linking to numerous civilian non-profit, government and media Web sites. Available for download is the crowning achievement of Veterans and Families: The Homecoming Preparedness Guide.
This 15-page guide provides crucial insight into the veteran’s mindset, allowing family members to learn how their veteran has changed, and help families move into a new and more realistic understanding of their loved one. It also offers veterans valuable insight into the feelings that his or her family may be going through, and is an invaluable resource for both veterans and their loved ones, at any stage of homecoming.
“Our biggest piece of advice that we offer families for every single person outside of the veteran is: manage your expectations,” says Parker. “Manage your expectations around what’s important to the veteran coming home. And start by asking the very easy question of ‘How do you want to spend your first hours/days/weeks/months at home?’” Asking this question is often a good reality check for family members. If expectations go unmanaged and these kinds of questions aren’t asked, resentment begins to breed and can quickly accelerate into a negative spiral.
One of the most striking aspects of the Homecoming Preparedness Guide is its simplicity. It outlines scenarios such as if a veteran is noticeably edgy in a restaurant, changing the seating arrangement can help them to feel more comfortable. John elaborates, “I’ve got several spouses who call me and say, ‘You know what, everything in that guide happened. We went to a restaurant and I asked for a corner table so he could actually sit in the corner and watch everything that’s going on in the room, and not only did he appreciate it, he actually opened up and started talking to me, which hadn’t been happening.’”
The breakthroughs that come from the right kind of actions are much more long lasting and more deeply felt by the veteran than words.
Through the Web site, Veterans and Families remains constantly connected to the “homecoming” process at all stages. “We’re getting people that are saying, 'My husband’s coming home, I’m scared to death…his emails, his voicemails, his messages, he’s changed.’”
For veterans who reach “critical mass,” Parker says Vet Centers are the single best resource, of which there are 232 nationwide. Though significantly overstretched, the Vet Centers are equipped to deal specifically with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
One important tool the Vet centers use in treatment programs is getting veterans from similar conflicts into the same room together. To Parker, that method is key; “Nobody really understands a combat veteran better than another combat veteran.” Parker’s son Danny showed him this when he interacted with other veterans during Veterans and Families focus groups. “[With other veterans] he’s not my son Danny, he’s back in the role of a sergeant and a squad leader even though he’s out of the military now. He talks to these guys directly and gets right to the point, ‘You’re telling me you’re okay. How much sleep are you getting? How much are you drinking?’ Veterans have a way of communicating with each other that is a real brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Parker is pragmatic and prefers that the military adopt what he calls a “mandatory decompression process.” Parker says, “If it’s important that we have an all-volunteer military in the future, we better release people back into society in a way that helps them manage and cope with what they will encounter. Veterans are reluctant to seek counseling [and] this is a real problem. Instead, Parker believes that there is value in self-help, something that is especially valuable for veterans. “When I got out of the military, an officer really changed my life and shifted my focus,” recalls Parker. “He said, ‘you’re going to get out of the military in a couple of weeks, and what’s interesting is the world is exactly the same. You’ve changed.’” On the officer’s advice Parker visited the nearest bookstore and embraced self-help names like Napoleon Hill, David Schwartz and Maxwell Maltz. Whatever civilians may think of the “personal development” phenomenon, when you’re someone who is truly looking for help, books like these can set you on the right mental path.
In his experience with Veterans and Families, the biggest lesson that Parker has learned is that veterans and their families are ultimately, and understandably, very private about “homecoming” and its aftermath. “After all the things we thought we wanted to do, the Homecoming Preparedness Guide was most relevant. If the legacy of Veterans and Families is that those in need can access the Homecoming Preparedness Guide from the privacy of their own homes, and start to understand how to make the journey back to normalcy, then that alone is a legacy that Parker can be proud of.
In 2007, through Veterans and Families, Parker helped launch the Warrior Transition Project, which partners with an organization called Brain State Conditioning, using neurofeedback treatment to find an alternative form of treating the symptoms of PTSD. The Veterans and Families Web site provides a number of first-hand testimonials from veterans attesting to the success of the treatments. Parker’s ongoing drive to explore new opportunities and to find hope where there seems to be none, is embodied in the Veterans and Families organization, and shows veterans that just as they fought for us, there are people here who are willing to fight for them.
As is with any non-profit organization, funding is the key to Veterans and Families’ ongoing success. With the help of Bobbi Parks, CEO of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and proud mother of an Iraq Marine Combat Veteran, Veterans and Families is currently evaluating the unmet needs of homecoming veterans and their family members to continually align their focus with current and future needs. Parker says, “[Parks] will hopefully be assuming more of a leadership role in the future with the organization. She is an incredible person, spokesperson and leader.”
And what of John’s son Danny? He’s been out of the military now for a few years and adjusting into civilian and college life while pursuing a Masters in Clinical Social Work, which will allow him to counsel other veterans. Life still is not without its ups and downs, and John, Danny and the family still take it day by day. “We talk about the future but we seem to talk more about how he’s doing right now.”
To download the Homecoming Preparedness Guide, make donations, or for more information about veterans’ issues, check out veteransandfamilies.org.
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