A relatively tiny proposed earmark making its way through the Minnesota Capitol is of intense interest to state veterans, active-duty military, reservists and National Guard members as the Legislature tries to wring out the state's next two-year budget.
The proposal: $100,000 for the Veterans Resilience Project, a Minnesota-based nonprofit focused on tackling the mental health issues some veterans face when they return from deployments.
"The amount is pretty small, and I don't see any reason why we couldn't get that amount through," said Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who carried a House bill to fund the Veteran Resilience Project. "The VA often moves slowly. When we have a therapy that's helping — and you can get so many powerful stories from veterans who've been helped by it — it sometimes takes a while for a system to change. We have this group of volunteers who have been making a difference and doing it on their own. But they can only do it for so long."
The Veterans Resilience Project has trained a network of therapists in Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and it defrays the cost of appointments. EMDR therapy can help veterans process traumatic memories and manage post-traumatic symptoms.
EMDR therapy can help encourage healing from post-traumatic stress disorder by having a subject pay attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound, which can shift the way a person processes a traumatic memory. But it's currently provided only on a limited basis by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Eric Wickiser of Minnetonka served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, mostly on nuclear submarines. He was trained to direct missiles from a submarine to a target. For three-month stints he'd submerge in the Atlantic Ocean: no sun, no fresh air. Sometimes, Russian subs tailed them.
It wasn't until decades later when he came to terms with the gravity of his role: "If we ever did let those missiles go, we're not talking one or two people dying — we're talking tens of thousands," he said. "That realization just devastated me, that I could have been part of that. I was in my mid-50s, and it shook me to my core."
Wickiser had a breakdown. It was as if he'd lost trust in his own moral compass, he said. A therapist suggested EMDR therapy. While typical EMDR involves tracking moving lights, Wickiser's involved holding metal cylinders, his eyes moving back and forth between the two.
"It basically reprograms the brain," he said. "You don't have to necessarily walk through the traumatic experience. That's the most interesting part about it. A lot of talk therapy, they encourage you to go through it again, refeel it. Imagine those guys who'd seen their buddy blown up next to them having to re-experience that."
"They train us very well for combat theater," Tom McKenna, a Marine Corps veteran who credits EMDR therapy with bringing him back from the brink of suicide, said in a legislative hearing. "What they couldn't and didn't train us for was what happens afterward. … I, like many others, bottled it up. It didn't come out until years later, and when it did, it was bad."
Since Elaine Wynne of Golden Valley founded the Veteran Resilience Project six years ago, she has trained about 50 therapists in advanced EMDR therapy.
This funding is less than the Veteran Resilience Project hoped for — Winkler's original bill would have allotted $400,000 per year — but the group believes the state stamp of approval will be a big step toward sustainability.
"So many times we've had veterans come in with our therapists, and they'll say on their third or fourth visit, 'How come everyone doesn't do this?' " Wynne said. "People in rural Minnesota have long waiting lists for care, and EMDR in general is not available to them. We feel everyone should have access."
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647