I am an Iraq vet and the executive director of the Veteran Resilience Project. VRP is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to providing any veteran (or active military member) suffering from the aftereffects of war and military service confidential trauma treatment, regardless of ability to pay. On the heels of a successful pilot project that helped 30 Minnesotans overcome the tyranny of their past, the VRP’s board of directors has empowered me to take the project to the public.
We produce an online radio show, “ResilienceMN,” which is a no-holds-barred expression of the experiences, trials, triumphs, lessons and laughter that we all take away as veterans, but that are uniquely our own to tell.
When I returned to Minnesota after four years in the U.S. Army Dive Company, I encountered an eerie silence about the wars. It was hard to tell we were at war. And if there’s one thing more damaging than violence, it is silence.
This isn’t news to most of you, but our National Guard has been put through the wringer deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, with over 50,000 Minnesotans with time in-country. We know from a Rand Institute study of 300,000 returning troops that 1 in 5 will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And only 1 in 4 within that group will get any help. That means of Minnesota’s 50,000 post-9/11 troops, 10,000 will have PTSD and 7,500 will go untreated. Given that the Minnesota National Guard has had the highest suicide rate in the country, you can start to see the size of the problem we face.
Other factors contributing to the current crisis: corruption and fraud at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), stigma surrounding mental health challenges, the mistaken belief that PTSD can’t be cured, turf battles, false narratives depicting veterans as mental patients instead of wounded souls and the military mantra “embrace the suck.”
The VRP is taking action. The VA isn’t effectively reaching or helping those of us who suffer from the hidden wounds of war: PTSD, military sexual trauma, moral injury or other aftereffects of military service. Therefore, let’s quit expecting the VA to do more. Let’s do more ourselves.
The VA restricts access to top-tier trauma therapy — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) — even though it transforms post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth. We will offer it to veterans at no cost.
Veterans or soldiers currently serving in the Guard or Reserves who want help through traditional routes have to accept it becoming a part of their medical records. Time and again, we’ve been assured that this information will not put soldiers’ advancement at risk or subject them to discrimination — yet we still see this as a huge barrier. A client’s information with the VRP is 100 percent confidential.
The VA is a large, bureaucratic institution that centralizes services and programs. We have a network of independent, licensed EMDR therapists at over 20 Minnesota locations who provide help where veterans live.
The PTSD therapies that the VA offers have well-documented dropout rates — as high as 60 to 80 percent. We offer EMDR, which has extremely low dropout rates of 10 to 20 percent.
The VA has a disruptive-behavior committee that has been used by staff members to retaliate against outspoken veterans or whistleblowers. We include the opinions and feedback of veterans in our organizational process of learning. We even take it to the next level with our “ResilienceMN” podcast, which interviews veterans, listening carefully, with respect.
It’s easy to have a truth-telling party at the expense of the VA. But that doesn’t let the community off the hook. Waging war is a collective decision, yet we allow vets and their families to suffer alone.
No matter what you believe to be the causes of this crisis, this much is clear: It ain’t working. So how about we do something different?
Join us on Sunday, March 20, at 1900 (7 p.m.) at the Uptown VFW Post No. 246 in Minneapolis for a benefit concert. Tim Mahoney, Matthew Griswold and Javier Matos will perform. A minimum $10 donation gets you great music and allows the VRP to provide this powerful tool to a vet in need.
It hurts that we lose 22 of our brothers and sisters to suicide every day. But knowing that we could have prevented this tragedy hurts far worse. That’s moral injury.
Paul Riedner is executive director of the Veteran Resilience Project.