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Area veterans sought as volunteers to assist service members with issues related to civilian life

Ryan Huser was 20 going on 21 and studying finance at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred. A short time later, he joined the U.S. Army for a number of reasons, including a desire "to do something bigger than myself."

Huser spent nearly six years on active duty and was deployed to Bosnia in 2003 and twice to Iraq — a 12-month tour in 2004 and a 15-month tour in 2006. By March 2008, he was ready to take a break from the battle rhythm of military life and finish his college education.

Huser returned to his suburban Chicago hometown of St. Charles and joined the Army Reserves to keep an affiliation with the military, staying in until March 2011. He also enrolled in summer classes at a local community college and enjoyed being among family and friends.

Then the honeymoon phase of being home ended.

While Huser was away, his friends graduated from college and started careers and families. When he returned, he found he didn't have as much in common with them, and they couldn't relate to his experiences in the military or understand the challenges of reintegrating to civilian life.

"You feel slightly isolated," said Huser, who stopped talking about his experiences around friends and kept them bottled up inside.

It was at DePaul University in Chicago, where Huser is finishing a degree in exercise science, that he found a group of people he clicked with — young veterans like himself who had returned to school as nontraditional students and were adjusting to their new lives.

"Even if their experiences were different than yours, you have that same military background. They understand you," Huser said, adding they became his first "true" social and emotional support system since leaving the military.

Now Huser is extending that support to other military service members through an innovative program called Illinois Warrior to Warrior.

The peer outreach and support program, run by Chicago-based Health & Disability Advocates in partnership with the Illinois Army National Guard, recruits and trains veterans to help National Guard soldiers and their families access community-based resources they may need during or after deployment. The goal is to get them the help before any issues they may be dealing with escalate.

"It's kind of like having a battle buddy," said Laura Gallagher Watkin, Health & Disability Advocates' director of veterans programs. The Chicago-based national nonprofit organization works to improve the lives of people with disabilities, low-income children and older adults and military families and has worked with the National Guard on other efforts.

"There's a sea of good will out there, but not everybody knows how to access it or navigate it," program coordinator Joe Franzese said, adding that's where the volunteer veterans come in.

And with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars winding down, Franzese said, the program is needed more than ever.

"This is the time when we've completed the mission. Now we need to take care of those who served the mission and focus on the care and maintenance of our troops."

Warrior to Warrior is modeled on the Buddy-to-Buddy program in Michigan developed for National Guard soldiers and their families by the University of Michigan in partnership with the Michigan Army National Guard and Michigan State University. Illinois was the first state to adapt the program.

The Illinois program launched in April 2012 and is currently operating in Rockford, Woodstock, Machesney Park and the Chicago area with about 30 volunteer veterans. Now officials want to expand the program statewide.

They are looking for volunteers from Danville, Paris, Champaign-Urbana, Mattoon, Decatur, Bloomington and Springfield to work with National Guard units in those areas.

Currently, there are 13,000 members in the state's Army National Guard and Air National Guard. The agency, whose program targets the Army National Guard at this time, would like to recruit two volunteer veterans per unit, but more are welcome.

"For full roll-out of the program, we're estimating we'll need a couple hundred volunteers," Gallagher Watkin said.

The program is designed to meet "the unique needs and challenges" faced by National Guard members. Traditionally, most served as part-time soldiers, and units were called up for active duty to assist with domestic emergencies and disasters such as floods and hurricanes.

That changed after 9/11, Franzese said. In the last 12 years, units have been called to full-time duty to serve year-long tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes repeatedly.

"Troops were deploying in combat roles more so than at any other time," he said. "They were performing the same operations as full-time active duty service members."

Franzese said full-time active duty service men and women are attached to a military base and community, which offers health and mental health, financial and other specialized support services to assist them and their families during and after deployment. And in those communities, service members remain in close proximity to members of their unit, which can be crucial.

"When you're attached to a unit and are far away from friends and family, your unit becomes your new family, said Franzese, who talks from experience. He served five years on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps and another two in the Marine Corps Reserves and was deployed to eight countries, including Iraq.

"You go through these life-or-death situations together where you know they'll take a bullet for you, and they know you'll do the same for them," he said. "When you get home, it's nice to have people around who know what you've gone through."

By contrast, National Guard soldiers are attached to armories, which can't provide the services that military bases do, Franzese continued. The soldiers return to their hometowns and are expected to decompress from war and reintegrate into civilian life, "sometimes without the support system or resources that can help them with some of the things they're dealing with."

"It's a huge challenge when they come home," Franzese said, adding that on base, soldiers are more likely to pick up on a problem with a fellow soldier and encourage them to get help. "Who do they have to connect with when the guys and girls they deployed with are spread out across the state?"

The Illinois Warrior to Warrior program is free and confidential.

It recruits volunteer veterans from all branches of the military and provides them with training on communication skills and how to access services, which program officials compile into a database. Volunteers also receive suicide prevention training through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We're looking for people who are friendly and outgoing," Franzese said, adding applicants must pass a criminal background check and go through an interview process.

Then volunteers are assigned to a National Guard unit in their area, where they will act as community liaisons to members and their families. They have a chance to meet and interact with members and talk about their own experiences making the transition from military to civilian life at the unit's monthly weekend drill events and other military events.

"Volunteers usually hang out and get to know them over lunch," Franzese said, adding they want members to feel comfortable with them and gradually earn their trust. "We don't want to be intrusive. They know that if they need us, they can come talk to us or call us, and we'll be there for them."

Volunteers also provide outreach in their local communities and respond to calls for assistance from any veteran who may have heard about the program.

"We recently were able to assist two World War II veterans," Gallagher Watkin said.

That peer aspect is key, officials said.

"No one can understand a warrior better than another warrior, someone who has that shared experience of serving," Gallagher Watkin said. Service men and women are more likely to be open about an issue they're facing with another service member or veteran, rather than a civilian or even a relative who they don't want to burden.

Volunteers must be sensitive and willing to listen to the issues combat veterans face, including those affecting their health and mental health.

Currently, more than 300,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Along with that, there are more than 320,000 reported cases of traumatic brain injury due to explosive devices.

"Those are the numbers that are known," Franzese said.

He added that suicide is a growing problem. More than 1,200 veterans have committed suicide in the last six years, and those numbers are increasing.

In 2012, the number of suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers exceeded those that were killed in combat, Franzese said. He said 176 soldiers were killed in combat, and 177 committed suicide.

Some veterans are dealing with substance abuse or family discord and may be looking for treatment or counseling. Others may have questions about how to go about finding out whether they're eligible to receive health care through a veterans hospital or outpatient clinic and, if so, how they can access it.

Franzese said a large number of requests are from service members who are trying to get back in the civilian workforce in a slow economy. A good number have families to support.

He said employers are required to hold the job of a deployed National Guard member or offer them a similar position at a similar pay grade upon their return under the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act.

"But that doesn't always hold true," he said. "There are loopholes in everything, and not a lot of service members even know they're protected by federal law."

Volunteers try to connect those members with services that will help them with a job search, including matching the skills they gained in the military to available jobs, rewriting their resume to include those skills and letting them practice interviewing. They also make them aware of education and training opportunities and the GI bill to help them fund their education.

Huser said 90 percent of what he encounters are "really simple things that can be taken care of through text messages. 'Hey, man. What's the number of the VA, or who should I talk to for this or that.' It's helping them become part of a larger network."

"Sometimes, they're feeling bummed, and they want someone to talk to," he continued. "They may call up and say, 'Can you stop by and watch the Cubs game?'"

Whatever the issue is, volunteers aren't expected to be the experts or solve the problem.

"Their job is to be a compass and point someone and bring them in the right direction," Franzese said.

However, he said, some volunteers are doctors, drug and alcohol abuse counselors, lawyers and Illinois Department of Employment Services employees who use their professional expertise to give further assistance.

Though still relatively new, officials say the program is already accomplishing the mission it set out to do.

For example, a volunteer was able to connect a service member who was a truck driver during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with a major trucking company looking to hire an experienced dispatcher. Another volunteer helped a vet who recently returned home and was suffering from post-traumatic stress.

"He didn't know what to do or where to turn. Now he's enrolled in the VA, and he has access to therapeutic services and is receiving VA benefits, as well," Franzese said, adding those are just two examples of many success stories.

For volunteers, the program gives them another opportunity to serve.

"They want to make sure somebody else doesn't have to go through the same struggle they went through," Franzese said. "They're able to pass along the lessons they've learned to the next generation, and that's gratifying. It gives them a sense of giving back."

For Huser, it's simply living the Soldier's Creed and being a good citizen.

"It's not turning your back on anyone and doing what's right," he said. "I know how much it helps to have a battle buddy. It feels good to know you can do that for someone else."

For help, or to help

For information about the Illinois Warrior to Warrior program, to apply to become a veteran volunteer or to be included in the program's database of community-based services, go to ilwarriortowarrior.org or call 877-938-8403.

Reporter

Noelle McGee is a Danville-based reporter at The News-Gazette. Her email is nmcgee@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@n_mcgee).