“No matter what you do, a psychiatrist or a psychologist cannot understand what you’ve been through.”
Brad Largent, a retired member of the Navy living in Falmouth, is not the first service member to echo this sentiment about recounting hardships to a civilian.
But with some help from the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 3103, Fredericksburg-area veterans now have a weekly support group led by their peers.
“We’re a sounding board for people who are suffering, whether it be PTSD, anger management or other issues relating to service,” Largent, one of the group’s peer leaders, said.
The group, spearheaded by Dr. Andrew Jones, a staff psychologist at McGuire’s community-based outpatient center in Fredericksburg, is based on the principle that veterans have access to the help, support and camaraderie their peers afford “but outside of normal clinic hours.”
“As patients come to the clinic and participate in our clinic groups, they would ask, ‘What’s next?’” Jones said. “That got me thinking that we need options that extend beyond their formal treatment.”
So Jones started asking veterans if they’d be interested in forming their own groups, then contacted local VFW commander Gary Pesnell to provide a meeting place.
Norris Hassell of Spotsylvania County, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, said that the group provides a sense of belonging he never felt in solo sessions with a doctor.
“These one-on-one sessions, they’ve done what they can do,” Hassell said, “but I think the best treatment is peer groups to discuss how we get through different things in life.”
Hassell and Largent agreed that the primary drive behind a peer-led group is the comfort being around people with similar experience brings.
The group, which started meeting at the beginning of June, is still small, but they’ve already gained from its existence.
“In group sessions, I notice that I pick up more tools that I can use to handle myself if I have an anger problem,” Hassell said. “I now have more than one approach to overcome it.”
Jones’ supervisor, Dr. Brian Meyer, said that Hassell and Largent received training to deal with the various ethical aspects of leading a support group, including how to deal with mental health issues when they arise.
“What if there’s an emergency? What if you find out that this veteran might be suicidal? What do you do in that moment?” Meyer said. “We don’t expect peers to have that knowledge at their fingertips, so we let them know.”
Though Jones, who works at a VA clinic, created the group, everyone involved agrees that the group’s ‘ownership’ really belongs to participating veterans as a method of enduring support for their health and wellness.
Jones said that the VA will be around to assist them if necessary, but said they are operating only in an advisory role now.
“My ultimate hope is that they’ll make progress and find the health and happiness they’re seeking,” Jones said, “and that they can do that sharing this experience with other veterans.”
The group is not restricted to any particular branch of service, role, rank or era served—members just have to be veterans to get the most out of the group.
Hassell, who enlisted as a teenager and still wrestles with PTSD at the age of 65, said the peer support group is one of the best kind of treatments he’s ever participated in.
“This is something that is veterans helping veterans,” Hassell said, “and it’s about developing a better quality of life as you reconnect into society.”