Some veterans of combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq come home with mental and spiritual wounds as well as physical injuries. Many don’t know how to ask for help coping with them. But a five-year-old all-volunteer program in Michigan is stepping up. The Buddy to Buddy program which links veterans with fellow vets who need help obtaining services and benefits, or who just need someone to talk with: someone who understands what they’re going through.
Buddy to Buddy Program Coordinator Stephanie Zaarb says that link is key: “I think it’s critical, I think it’s what makes our program so successful. We’ve been conditioned our whole lives to drive on, change our socks, take an aspirin, and keep going forward. So we are really bad at stopping and saying, 'wait a minute…I need some help here.'”
Zaarb says veterans may seek help from the VA or from state or county programs but often get discouraged during what can be a complicated process. Some may stop seeking help altogether. And that’s where a fellow veteran, a volunteer who’s been there before, can help them find assistance.
Zaarb deployed to Iraq twice during her six years as an air battle manager with the Air Force. She intended to make the Air Force her career until she was grounded with a medical disability. Zaarb says returning to civilian life was bumpy. Despite having a Master's degree she had to make do with a minimum-wage job at first before getting a position with Boeing. Zaarb later returned to Michigan to join the Buddy to Buddy program.
Nearly half of the volunteers in Buddy to Buddy are veterans of the Vietnam War, including Southwest Michigan Regional Coordinator Bob Short. He knows exactly what other veterans are going through.
“I remember very well, even though it was 45 years ago, what it was like to come home and feel like a fish out of water for a while, and flounder and find my own way. And a lot of us now are at the point in our lives where we have time to help out, and helping this current generation of veterans is time well spent.”
Short recalls helping a veteran who had just returned from Iraq who was forced to leave the military earlier than expected because of an injury. Short says that veteran was very angry and bitter. His mother called Short to see if he could help her son and told him, “He’s home, he’s angry, he won’t talk to anyone, he’s drinking, the whole gambit, the whole scenario. And all I could say at that point was see if you can get him to call me, and we’ll meet, and we’ll talk.”
After several months, Short and two other volunteers met with him over a two-hour breakfast just to listen and present ideas; ideas that he accepted and began to work on. Then Short heard that the veteran had died in an auto accident. Short says he wondered if it was a case of suicide but then he got another call from the man’s mother.
“I apologized for not following up more and spending any more time with him, and she says, "Oh no, you have it all wrong.' She said the one meeting we had with him turned his life around. He was on a much more positive track. She said he stopped sleeping with a loaded pistol; he started having long conversations with his mother at night; he started thinking about going to school; he was going to get a dog; he was making all kinds of plans for the future. So, he did not commit suicide.”
The Buddy to Buddy program always needs more volunteers. Training is available for those interested. All it takes is an interest to help out other veterans. Although the Buddy to Buddy Volunteer Veteran Program is only available now in Michigan, organizers hope to expand into other parts of the country to reach more veterans who are in need of help.