Thanks to the efforts of an Iraq war veteran and a local social worker, a new East End peer-to-peer counseling group is opening up for veterans of all ages to share their stories and help each other through any lingering issues from their time in service. Roger King, the current commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9082 in Sag Harbor, served in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009, completing two combat tours in Iraq.
But when he came home for good, the 28-year-old said, he, like other returning American soldiers, began to have issues getting simple tasks done, like remembering to take out the trash and figuring out directions.
“I had issues with problem solving, and when you’re used to focusing on nothing but mission accomplishment, struggling with problem solving is an issue,” Mr. King said.
He recalls growing frustrated and irritated at times over minute tasks, not knowing why he could not keep his thoughts together or deal with fairly basic issues.
“So, then you want to deal with it how you did in the Corps,” he said, declining to share specifics. “Or you deal with your demons recreationally, and end up with no money.”
Mr. King said he tried to get therapy through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but with the closest groups meeting in Yaphank, his commitment just wasn’t there.
Then last spring, Mr. King began to see Katherine Mitchell, a licensed clinical social worker and a credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor with a practice in Noyac, and things began to change for him—up to a point.
“I was finding that there is a level where, no matter my training or their willingness to open up, I’m just not going to get it,” Ms. Mitchell said. “That’s what pushed me to find an alternative method of counseling, helping Roger.”
Ms. Mitchell explained that despite the progress they were making, she felt she wouldn’t be doing her due diligence unless she researched how other social workers were best getting through to patients who’d been in combat.
While discussing their therapy options, Mr. King told Ms. Mitchell that there were many times, in his role as VFW commander, when he would hear from other veterans about their experiences, both abroad and back at home. Their perspective, Mr. King said, would hit home, making him realize more than anything else that he wasn’t alone in his struggles to adjust.
“Just about everyone has had similar issues adjusting to civilian life,” he said. “There are similar characteristics no matter the era you served.”
And with that talk, Ms. Mitchell said she began researching peer-to-peer counseling groups available to East End residents—with very little success at first.
“Once the ball starts rolling and you do a little digging, you get introduced to all sorts of people,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Everyone seemed to agree that peer-to-peer counseling, just talking to other veterans, is what worked best. But there were no programs anywhere close to the East End.”
Following some extensive research, Ms. Mitchell said she discovered the PFC J. Dwyer Veterans Peer to Peer Program, a program started in January in five cities throughout the state after State Senator Lee Zeldin of Shirley, a major in the U.S. Army Reserves and a member of the Senate’s committees on Veterans, Military Affairs, and Mental Health, obtained funding for it through the 2012-13 state budget.
The program, which runs weekly counseling groups for veterans as well as occasional outings such as fishing trips, is named after Army Specialist Joseph Patrick Dwyer. Mr. Dwyer was a battle medic from Mt. Sinai who was once captured by a Military Times photographer clutching a tiny Iraqi boy as he raced across a battlefield, a photo that went viral and was seen around the world. When Mr. Dwyer returned from his tour, though, he couldn’t escape the stress of combat, falling into legal and marital trouble while dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, ultimately dying from an accidental drug overdose.
After beginning in January with a handful of veterans all over the state, the program now boasts nearly 400 participants in 11 groups across Suffolk County, according to Timothy Strobel, the coordinator of the PFC J. Dwyer Veterans Peer to Peer Program.
But Ms. Mitchell was running into an issue familiar to Mr. King: an obvious disconnect between those seeking to serve the East End, and those living on the East End.
Ms. Mitchell tried to explain to Mr. Strobel that Yaphank was simply too far for many East End residents to travel for a therapy session.
“Tim was like, ‘Yeah, we have one on the East End, it’s in Yaphank,’” said Ms. Mitchell. “Well, once he came out here to check out our facilities and see if we could establish a new site, he got it. He saw the need.”
After extensive coordination and planning, the newest group, with Mr. King participating and Mr. Strobel facilitating, opened up at Ms. Mitchell’s Noyac office, at 3297 Noyac Road, on September 24, and will be running weekly on Tuesday nights. Mr. Strobel hopes to start 10 additional groups in the coming months, as well.
A secondary focus, aside from the peer-to-peer counseling, will be helping veterans access available medical or benefit services.
In addition to the counseling, the participants at the East End site are offered acupuncture therapy from Mikal Gohring Acupuncture. Mr. Gohring uses a Veterans Military Stress Reduction Protocol developed by Acupuncturists without Borders. During treatment, participants sit upright, fully clothed, in a circle of chairs, as five needles are placed on each ear. They are then told to close their eyes and rest for a half hour to 45 minutes, “alleviating symptoms of stress and trauma,” according to literature.
The newly established group currently has only four participants, though Ms. Mitchell said she can certainly see their enthusiasm and willingness to engage in the program. She said she wants to lay groundwork so that soldiers will enroll as they come back from serving, not as they find they are having problems. She even mentioned that she’s seen a few accounts of soldiers returning home recently in The Press, and would like to extend the invitation.
But Mr. King emphasized that it is important not to force peer-to-peer help on anyone, because someone not fully committed to seeking help can make things awkward for the rest of the group and the damage to the individual may be too soon or too deep to let out in a group setting.
“Sometimes you just don’t want to open up that box,” he said. “Do it only when you’re ready.”
“I think it is important to remember,” added Mr. Strobel, “that we aren’t professionals—which we see as a good thing. We’re just a tool to help you along your path. It’s easier to open up to a former vet, and sometimes that’s all it takes, opening up.”