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MHA Vet2Vet Program: Leading the Way in Peer Support

Mental Health Association in Orange County, Inc. (MHA) is pleased to provide Orange County’s only Vet2Vet Peer Networking Program, also known as the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project. The program is named in honor of Private First Class Joseph P. Dwyer, an Army Medic who served in Iraq, and subsequently passed away from an overdose due to self-medicating his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Vet2Vet Peer Networking provides veterans and members of the Armed Forces the opportunity to network with one another in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. Peers share the challenges they are facing and/or have faced and provide solutions and /or support to their peers on topics such as: PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Military Sexual Trauma (MST), suicide, addiction, VA benefits, employment and education, among other topics. Services exist in the form of peer networking groups which meet in Orange County’s three cities, a 24 hour Helpline at 1-800-832-1200, a Veterans Community Task Force, as well as linkage to a wide variety of resources are among some of the services offered.

When the Military Uniform Comes Off

Every year more than 180,000 people enlist in the armed forces. Soon after enlistment young men and woman are shipped off to training and given a uniform to wear. It’s not just a uniform, for many it becomes a protective outer shell, one that makes them stand tall and proud. Self-esteem soars after completion of initial training which comes in two phases; Basic Training (BT) and Advanced Individual Training (AIT). Many who had never accomplished much in their whole lives now have universally understood roles in our society; Soldier, Marine, Airman, Sailor, etc. Furthermore, they are called Infantrymen, Intelligence Analysts, Logistics Specialists and more. They have a status that needs no explanation, and is for the most part respected. Now members of their respective teams, these proud young men and women stand strong alongside one another, mutually supporting, encouraging and protecting. Then one day their service is over, and the uniform comes off. Here is how it is after the uniform comes off and why.

Each persons’ uniform becomes a different kind of protective outer shell. Who a person was when they joined the military has a huge impact on how that uniform’s protective outer shell will come off. For those who had some sense of self, status, and what I call pillars of self-esteem, the process will be just another change in life. The pillars of self-esteem I refer to can be many things, but I like to say; recognized skills, experiences, confidences, and who/what they consider themselves to be outside of the uniform. While the life-change when one leaves military service can be daunting for anyone, most people will adjust in time and be okay with the uniform. For those who joined the military to run from family dysfunction, personal problems, and lesser skills and experiences than others in society, taking off the armored skin that brought them so far is really tough.

Protective shells limit growth as in the case of sea creatures like the crab. It is the same for some men and women in uniform. Whether new enlistees came to the game with adequate pillars of self-esteem or not, putting on a uniform sometimes inhibits personal growth. A period of growth that can last the length of a standard enlistment or one that can last 20 years or more. It’s not the size of the uniform but rather the growth of the individual’s self and the individuals expectations. Sometimes when people grow as a team they fail to grow as individuals. When the military sets up a service member’s bank accounts, feeds them, provides them with free medical services and more, the activity and thought processes of these essential life skills are not etched in the minds of those served. These are basic life skills that civilians must master at an early age. Once out of the military, a veteran’s inclination is to turn to people and systems that served them while they were in uniform. Once individuals leave the military, their trusted provider is no longer there to help. Stepping outside the shell is HARD, but change is hard. Most people know this and military folks know it, but for those who went from Zero to Hero in a matter of weeks, and back again, it’s really hard.

A Veteran recently said, “When I was in uniform, I never had to explain to myself or anyone else who I was or what I was capable of. Now that I am out of uniform and seeking employment, I struggle to confidently represent myself or even understand what employers expect of me.”

Protective outer shells don’t sweat, nor do they let anything out. Strong stoic military types keep a lot inside their shells. They hang onto stress, fear, anxiety and a variety of feelings most of the time they are in service. Military personnel don’t often complain about pains or injuries for fear of being discharged or letting down their teammates. Some fear they will lose the best paying job they ever had and let their families finances down. For instance, a level E-5 service member with 5 years in service, living off post in Kingston, NY will make approximately $4,500 per month. Many Veteran’s outer shells often hide medications they are prescribed to cope, the alcohol they drink to cope better and the psychological issues they dare not tell their chain-of-command. When the shell comes off for some, their bodies are pulled earthward by the gravity of life. It is not any single thing that takes down these individuals who so bravely served their country, it is usually a multitude of challenges the uniform’s protective shell shielded them from and held them together psychologically. Most veterans that hit the streets after they leave the military play a huge game of catch-up, carrying burdens few understand.

Finally, no one left behind! They say crab barrels don’t have lids because when a crab tries to get out, the others will pull him back in. This is true for most people on this planet. Shell or no shell, in or out of the military, veterans take care of their own. Governments and communities don’t always do so, but veterans always will. The odds of getting out of the barrel greatly increase when a veteran self-identifies to another veteran. It does not matter how long ago a veteran served, you’d be amazed at how they come together. When men and women who have worn the uniform bond, they stand straighter and stretch to fill the shell they once wore. No shell, just pride and camaraderie, and memories.

For more information about MHA’s Vet2Vet Program, contact the Vet2Vet Coordinator at (845) 342-2400 Ext. 237 or find the Vet2Vet of Orange County on the internet at

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