Chick Fil A meetup

From left to right, VConnections Executive Director Bill Buffington, Team River Runner volunteer Lisa Weed and local veterans Linda Sims and Charles “Pete” Williams meet over coffee at the Chick-fil-A in La Plata to discuss veterans’ issues on a recent Monday morning. VConnections hosts coffee breaks for veterans at area restaurants that provide a safe space for discussion of touchy issues for many of the region’s former service members.

The casualties of war are not always from deaths on the battlefield. After returning home, many veterans continue to fight their own private war in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes with deadly consequences.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 67 of the 6,079 total veteran suicides committed in 2016, the most recent year from which statistics were available, happened in Maryland. In 2018, the VA reported an average of 20.6 suicides per day between 2000 and 2015 of both veterans and active duty service members. In fiscal year 2018, a VA spokesperson said, 4,038 veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD were treated in Baltimore VA Health Care System mental health clinics or programs.

PTSD is not uncommon among veterans, either. It affects between 11% and 20% of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans in any given year, according to VA statistics, while an estimated 12% of Gulf War veterans experience it. PTSD is a bit more common for Vietnam veterans: The last National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study conducted in the late 1980s found 15% of veterans were diagnosed with PTSD, although it is estimated as many as 30% have experienced it.

PTSD often brings with it suicide, divorce, homelessness and other societal problems along with the mental and physical effects.

Despite how grim it can seem, it is not a situation without hope. For one, the previously mentioned VA statistics on Maryland veteran suicide rates are lower than the national average. Additionally, many veterans can find solace in their toughest times amongst those who can relate to what they’ve been through. One local nonprofit agency, VConnections, aims to provide support for Southern Maryland’s veterans that is not always readily available.

The traditional approach to group therapy, where everyone sits in a circle in the middle of the room having a conversation facilitated by a program manager, is not the approach VConnections takes. Rather, their twice-weekly coffee meet-ups at Chick-fil-A restaurants in La Plata on Mondays and Waldorf on Wednesdays, are open and move at the whims of those present.

Bill Buffington, the nonprofit’s executive director, said it’s a form of therapy that meets them where they are, even if those who participate would more likely refer to it as an expression of camaraderie.

Buffington called it a chance to “bring them together to actually share and talk about things that some people wouldn’t understand.” As a veteran himself, Buffington said he can personally relate to those dark feelings.

“I came home as a veteran, and the changes in me were present enough that they were recognized in just a few days,” Buffington said. “My daughter saw it. She didn’t see me smiling as much. She saw me quiet, sometimes in my room not feeling good that day. She’d ask, ‘Dad, are we going out today? Can we go fishing like we used to?’ And you can’t express to her what’s going on, but it’s affecting her just as much. It affects the whole family unit.”

Buffington said while he doesn’t feel enough services are in place to support both veterans and their families, the other problem is that many veterans don’t avail themselves of the available resources. For some, it’s a lack of access to the care and resources needed, and others simply don’t know where to look. The coffee breaks, as they’re called, serve to not only allow veterans to talk with other veterans who can understand their struggles but also provide a sorely needed access point for many.

At one of the Wednesday morning coffee breaks in Waldorf, a group that largely consisted of Vietnam veterans from all branches of the service met toward the back of the restaurant. U.S. Army veteran Charles “Pete” Williams, a regular VConnections volunteer, said their meet-ups are generally not structured. It’s common to have “five or six different conversations” going at once, Williams said, but occasionally one of the participants will say something that gets everyone talking together.

U.S. Air Force veteran Ron Feast, a regular participant, said it gives him “a certain calm to see the guys who’ve gone through the same thing that I’ve gone through. … It gives me a charge that helps me through the rest of the week, as a matter of fact. I look forward to it.”

Feast said he heard about the coffee breaks through Williams, while the two men were in Best Buy at the same time one day. Feast had a Vietnam veteran hat on, he said, and Williams approached him and struck up a conversation. That conversation, he said, came at an opportune time: He’d just gone through the disability claim process and received a final rating. He wanted to help people experiencing the same, Feast said, but “it was much more than that.

“I try to schedule all my appointments around this day. You meet people you can relate to, and you learn so much,” Feast said. “And you just laugh so much. I walk out of here shaking my head most days. They’ve become instant friends. … We can cover any topic, and it can get heated, but as soon as we leave out those doors, it’s forgotten.”

Another regular at the Wednesday breaks, veteran Charles Barnes, said he’s brought his expertise on “filing claims and cutting through red tape” to the table. He uses his connections with doctors and other officials to help other veterans. Barnes said he knows the frustrations of dealing with those processes intricately, as his own experience with getting support for his disability took 16 years. The longer the process went, Barnes said, the worse it became.

“When I got near retirement, I was at about 70%,” Barnes said, referring to the classification system the VA uses to determine compensation rates for disabled service members. “So then they went for unemployability, and I got 100%. When you get to 100%, and a lot of veterans don’t know this, you’ve got to work on getting that set permanently. Otherwise, they can come back and reevaluate you in a couple years and try and reduce that.”

Feast added that it took him 10 years to get a final classification, and he had his own struggles getting the VA to retain his status. Many veterans who go through the claims process without someone who knows the system, he said, which can also prevent them from getting the proper level of care required.

Williams said he got involved with VConnections to help his fellow veterans, not expecting exactly how much it would also help him.

“Being from the Vietnam era, I almost refused to talk about Vietnam,” Williams said. “I realized talking with guys who’d experienced the same thing made me feel a lot better about it. They know exactly what I’m talking about. This is a safe area for them to talk about things they wouldn’t generally, and hear about each other’s experiences. I call this our safe zone. We can talk about any and everything.”

At a Monday morning coffee break, veteran Linda Sims said she finds the meet-ups so helpful she recommends them every time she meets a fellow former service member.

“It’s been awesome. It’s a family,” Sims said.

Sims added that she agreed access to care is hindered for many veterans living with PTSD, but she also felt many may not seek treatment because of concerns about confidentiality and how their diagnosis may affect employment.

“A lot of veterans don’t have the ability to get there, so the resources can’t be used,” Sims said. “But also … an excellent solution would be something like the vans where people can get checked for breast cancer without it being openly advertised. You can be screened and evaluated for PTSD without everyone having to know why you’re there. You get the professionals you need to diagnose without having to open yourself to the stigma.”

Having a positive distraction is something else that can help with managing the symptoms of PTSD, and coordinated group physical activities are becoming an increasingly popular approach. One Maryland-based nonprofit, Team River Runner, focuses on the benefits of kayaking. Volunteer Lisa Weed, who was at a recent coffee break in La Plata, said kayaking offers veterans the unexpected benefit of being able to work as a unit with others, creating what veterans she’s worked with have told her is that all-important feeling of purpose and camaraderie.

“When you’re paddling in a group with your buddies, everyone is aware of each other and that feeling of a unit is recreated,” Weed said. “They feel that togetherness, that mutual trust. It’s more than that social connection. They feel they can help. They have a purpose. You’ll hear veterans talk about that when they talk about what kayaking means to them. And they can bring their families with them, which means a lot to them.”

Twitter: @LindsayIndyNews

Twitter: @LindsayIndyNews