After military service ends and the transition back into civilian life begins, it’s important for Veterans to stay connected with each other and their friends. Understanding – fostered by shared, similar experiences – can help create a much-needed sense of community.
Going one step further, building a support group around a common history or cultural identity can create an atmosphere with understanding and honesty at its core. It also can lessen feelings associated with mental health conditions, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
That understanding has been true for a Seattle-based The Black Veterans Support Group of Puget Sound, which was founded in 1984. The members are of various ages. They joined the group at different times and they served in different branches of the military, sometimes decades and worlds apart.
But they have forged a bond so meaningful to them that describing their appreciation for the group – and each other – brings some of the Veterans to tears.
This sense of camaraderie has eased many of the members’ feelings of loneliness and isolation, and it allows them to create true friendships that they carry into daily life. One Veteran who served four tours in Vietnam as a Navy SEAL before moving into submarine service credits the group with helping save his marriage.
“What I’d been looking for all my life”
The bond and genuine love he felt in the Black Veterans group spurred him to show the same kind of love and appreciation at home. That change allowed him to reunite with his wife after being estranged for three years.
“I found a band of brothers,” one Veteran said of the group. “I got what I’d been looking for all my life.”
The Black Veterans support group came together officially after a Seattle Vet Center team leader, the late Lemanuel “Lee” Jones, recognized the need for a therapeutic and educational support group.
That group would provide a culturally sensitive environment for Black Veterans with stress-related disorders and symptoms, such as PTSD, hypervigilance, trauma-related nightmares, difficulty falling and staying asleep, and irritability and anger.
The group met in person twice a month for decades. Last March, the group had to either give up their regular, in-person meetings – due to physical distancing reasons – or pivot. They chose the latter and began holding their meetings by phone.
While members miss talking face-to-face, the phone meetings have delivered one unexpected benefit: Members who no longer live in the area are able to attend the group’s sessions again.
Benefits of a peer support group
The Black Veterans group provides a safe, nonjudgmental place for members to exchange information on mental health treatments and programs they have tried, and to speak with group facilitators about their care and concerns.
Most importantly, it enables the men to express themselves openly and confidently. They can talk about their lives and their mental and physical health challenges. That’s something they said they usually didn’t experience in therapy groups and programs where most of the participants were white.
The members also report that their verbal and nonverbal communications are more accurately understood by other Black Veterans.
Other positive results of this support group include:
- Enabling members to learn from their peers about VA programs and from local service officers. Local service officers can help access VA.
- Reducing members’ suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. The camaraderie and care the group fosters gives members a support network that decreases their feelings of isolation and exclusion.
Take the next step
The Seattle group demonstrates members’ ability to remain connected, even from a distance. It can serve as a model for other Veterans support groups that wish to establish regular telephone or web-based meetings.
The members encourage interested Veterans to join a peer support group and feel the encouragement and friendship of their community. Group facilitators noted that the philosophy behind starting a group like theirs can work anywhere.
While the Seattle group is largely composed of men with PTSD, you can work with your local VA facility to find or create a group that best suits your needs and those of your community.
The following resources offer more information about this group and its inception, as well as ways to alleviate PTSD-related symptoms:
Dr. Murray Raskind directs VA’s Northwest Network (VISN 20) Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center. He joined the group in 1995 and has been its leader since 2010. Raskind served as a general medical officer in the Army Reserve from 1970 to 1976.
Cliff Holland joined the group in 2004 and has been peer facilitator since 2010. He is a Navy combat Veteran who served three tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1971.