Local program teaches veterans how to cope with stresses of past and present

DANVILLE — It's still dark outside when Brad Walden wakes from a restful night's sleep. He slips out of bed and dresses, careful not to disturb his roommate, then heads down a hall toward the aroma of coffee brewing.

It's a typical morning ritual. But for a good third of his life, Walden's mornings and nights were anything but typical.

A U.S. Air Force staff sergeant with the 615th Air Rescue Bravo Team in the Vietnam War, Walden and his men rescued pilots who were shot down in South Vietnam and rushed the wounded to the nearest military hospital compound. Six months into his second tour of duty, he was hit by shrapnel and sent home.

After returning to civilian life, Walden couldn't sleep more than two hours a night. When he did, he often relived seeing downed aircraft, bodies in the wreckage and other horrors of war in his dreams.

On those nights, he'd wake up screaming and shaking and drenched in sweat.

Once, he awoke to find his wife pinned against the wall, his hands clenched around her throat.

Walden, who supervised industrial plant construction projects, tried to blot out the nightmares by drinking whiskey and smoking pot. His substance abuse, along with post-traumatic stress disorder, led to a host of other problems.

Today, Walden is learning to deal with his war wounds and stressful situations in life in a healthy way through a new initiative at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville. Launched in mid-April, the Psychosocial Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program was created to give former servicemen and women who are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and other issues the knowledge and skills to make good choices and get their lives back on track.

"In the military, you're taught to fight and not back down," said Walden, 61, of Crawfordsville, Ind. When you meet the enemy, "you can't say, 'Hey, let's stop and talk about this,' before you pull the trigger. It's difficult to change that way of thinking after it's been drilled into your head."

Here, he is learning a different way of thinking and reacting. And he's among a group of people who understand him best.

"It doesn't matter what branch you served in, we're all military," said Walden, an Air Force tattoo peeking out from under his shirt sleeve. "We have a camaraderie, an understanding of what each other has been through. I have no doubt that if something were to happen, these guys would be here for each other 100 percent."

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The comprehensive treatment program is a throwback to the VA's origins as a domiciliary for old, disabled soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

"The mission was more psychosocial than acute medicine," said Judy Phillippe, the program manager and a licensed clinical social worker.

A couple of years ago, Illiana officials recommended launching a local program as part of a five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans. The Office of Mental Health Services approved their proposal in November 2011.

"This program isn't the answer to homelessness, but it's a key piece. And it's really needed," said Phillippe, who anticipates a waiting list for the 36-bed program once word of it spreads.

Located in two renovated units in Building 103 on the main campus, the program is for male and female veterans who are struggling with PTSD, mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment and/or homelessness but don't need acute medical or psychiatric care. It currently has 21 men from throughout Illinois and Indiana ranging from ages 25 to 68.

A few recently ended tours in Iraq or Afghanistan and are having difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

Others like Vietnam vet Sam Seibert are just now dealing with the trauma of war and its effects.

Now 61, Seibert was a military police officer in the Army and stationed in Saigon during the war. After coming home to Paris, Ill., he worked briefly in law enforcement and then construction.

For years, life was good. But when his mother died, depression set in. That resurrected long-buried memories and a question to God, "Why did so many have to die?"

Soon after, Seibert's wife left. Then he lost a couple jobs. Then his house and life savings.

"Everything kind of hit me at once," recalled Seibert, who lived in his truck before entering the program. "I didn't know I was depressed. But looking back, I was always happy, then sad, then happy."

Seibert's goals include getting a handle on his bipolar disorder and migraines. He's also taking steps to find a permanent home, possibly back in Paris.

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When a veteran is admitted, a case manager does an assessment. Together, they develop an individualized treatment plan based on his or her needs, goals and interests. Then an interdisciplinary team of social workers, a psychiatrist, psychologist, vocational rehab counselor, recreation therapist, physician assistant, pharmacist, dietitian and around-the-clock nurses provides evidence-based treatments, therapeutic activities and other services — evenings and weekends, too — in a structured setting.

Vets choose from a wide range of classes. In one class on cognitive behavior, psychologist Brandi Burque helps them identify irrational beliefs and thought processes that cause negative feelings and behavior, and develop more rational and adaptive beliefs and thoughts. Down the hall, pharmacist Dr. Farahanaz Jahangririan talks about the importance of managing medication properly to prevent an overdose or develop an addiction.

And outside in a sunny courtyard, recreation therapist Suzi Robinson offers Seibert and others tips on how to plant colorful petunias, geraniums and marigolds in ceramic planters.

"It keeps my mind off my troubles," said Seibert, who once showed flowers and later taught gardening in 4-H. And "it brings back good memories of my mom. She was always into flowers."

Robinson tries to provide veterans with as many activities as possible. If they like something, she encourages them to pursue it. The activities relieve stress and give those in recovery something meaningful to do, the therapist explained. Boredom is the No. 1 cause for relapse.

Groups have gone to Heron Park to photograph wildlife and nature, and Kickapoo State Park to fish, canoe, walk trails, ride horses and listen to music. With each exercise, there's a lesson to learn and apply.

For example, at Heron Park, they took pictures of certain objects from different angles.

"It showed them we can all look at the same thing and have a different point of view," Robinson said. "In life, we kind of have the idea that our way is right and the other person's is wrong. If we step back, we can see everyone may have a different view based on their experiences."

Some vets have isolated themselves. So playing games or singing karaoke, which they do weekly, gets them to interact with others and try new things.

"They may think, 'Karaoke is silly or scary,'" Robinson said. "But they try it and realize it's not so bad. I ask them to use that in other areas of their lives that they see as being scary. When they do it, it becomes motivating. It builds self-esteem."

Veterans also are encouraged to go outside the program for services and activities that will aid in their recovery and success on their own. That includes continuing their education or training next door at Danville Area Community College, researching the job market and getting help writing a resume or preparing for an interview, taking nutrition or smoking cessation classes or seeking spiritual guidance.

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Though voluntary, the program requires that veterans do their work and comply with the rules. If they don't, they face sanctions including dismissal.

Gulf War veteran Todd St. Cerny, 43, of Pekin, welcomed the program's high expectations and structure. He was a data systems technician on a naval base in San Diego and aboard the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. He thrived in the Navy's highly ordered environment.

St. Cerny was eager to reunite with his new bride and infant son and add to his family. But back home, he drank to cope with life's pressures and disappointments. Over time, his routine, marriage and other parts of his life slowly unraveled.

At his family's urging, he entered a private treatment program and was able to maintain sobriety for a time. Then another heartbreak — his son was killed in a hit-and-run accident — triggered a relapse.

Another program helped for a time, too. But St. Cerny believes the VA's more than any other will give him the tools and support to live a sober life.

"It's very early in my recovery," said St. Cerny, who is taking steps toward that.

He was elected to the program's resident council — aimed at empowering participants and giving them even more of a voice — and is responsible for orienting newcomers. He also wants to take computer classes at DACC this summer and has started exploring whether he's eligible for benefits and the college's TRIO program.

"I've had my bad moments and cravings," he continued. "But I'm learning how to deal with those feelings. And I'm more hopeful than I've been."

While Walden's nightmares have subsided, letting go of his anger and bitterness is a constant battle. Much of it stems from how he and fellow Vietnam veterans were treated by many Americans, even older vets, while overseas and when they came home. He's relieved that now, returning servicemen and women are getting the homecoming they deserve — the homecoming Vietnam veterans should have gotten. Still, it's hard not to feel envious.

But Walden firmly believes the program has put him on the right path. After working with his psychiatrist, he finally is on the right medications and feels better mentally than he has before.

"This isn't something that's going to come in two days or two months," he said of his recovery. "It's going to be a lifetime of work. You always have to be on guard for something that might knock you off. You have to constantly make a conscious effort to apply these principles of rational thinking to stop, clear your mind and make the right choice."

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Psychosocial Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program

Mission: To teach and coach veterans who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment and/or homelessness to improve the quality of their lives through the development of adaptive living skills in a psychiatric residential environment using recovery-based principles and best practices.

Capacity: Thirty-six beds consisting of 15 two-bed rooms for men, and six single-bed rooms for women in a separate locked wing. Accepted veterans are placed on a waiting list and admitted in chronological order.

Length of stay: Three to six months.

Program tracks: Substance abuse disorder, serious mental illness, vocational assistance and homeless.

For information: Call 554-5923.

Source: Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System

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