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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Veterans and Peer Support: An Update from the NCIL Veterans Subcommittee

By David Koch, NCIL Veterans Subcommittee; Independent Living Specialist and Assistive Technology Specialist, CILWW

Peer support is one of the core services offered at Independent Living Centers across the country and is considered a helping relationship between an individual who has experience living with certain conditions assisting another person to cope and adapt to similar circumstances. Peer mentoring is at the heart of the peer support model; this is an opportunity for peer mentors to use their own personal experience of living with a disability to empower others in reaching their goals.

NCIL logo - National Council on Independent LivingThe peer support component of IL fits well with the Vet to Vet framework. However, Veterans’ peer support or Vet to Vet peer support has its own nuances to traditional peer support. Fellow Veterans connect better as peer mentors in the peer support process. Finding and training mentors can be a challenge with less than ten percent of the US population being Veterans (2014 VA estimate).

There are many different frameworks, but Veteran to Veteran is the most common and often the most successful because of a common bond. The Department of Veterans Affairs recognized this need for peer support. Smaller non-VA programs are just for combat Veterans while others are open to all Veterans and a few to include the Veterans’ families. As a Veteran who has made the transition to civilian life, the transition was and is not always easy. For some Veterans, especially when dealing with mental health challenges or issues such as depression or PTSD, it can be a tough road. They are often the Veterans disenfranchised by the VA, yet in real need of peer support. 

The VA has recognized the value and importance of Veterans being able to see recovery taking place and having a fellow Veteran help them navigate the VA system. The VA has been hiring Peer Specialists to serve as role models by sharing their personal recovery stories and showing that recovery from mental illness is possible. They teach goal setting, problem solving, symptom management skills and a variety of recovery tools. The number one requirement is to be a Veteran who has recovered or is recovering from a mental health condition. The VA currently has over 1,400 medical facilities in urban and rural areas throughout 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories and is growing their Peer Specialist and Peer Apprentice programs.

The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) peer support groups are led by and designed for Veterans who want to discuss personal challenges and lend support to one another. Veteran peer support groups can lead to finding that sense of camaraderie with new friendships, provide a renewed sense of community, strengthen bonds through shared experiences, and introduce new solutions to challenges. WWP can help warriors connect with fellow veterans and service members in their communities and overcome challenges as a team. These support groups are available to Veterans across the country, and the number of groups is always expanding.

PTSD Anonymous is another national group that is on a first name basis to keep it anonymous. They are a nationwide network of community-based, non-clinical, veteran-led support groups for those suffering from military trauma and seeking the fellowship of their peers. PTSDA is a concept for a peer-to-peer, mentor networking forum to discuss the everyday struggles of living with PTSD (TBI, MST, and other military related issues) and to explore possible solutions with others in a safe and caring environment. PTSDA highlights strengths of our veterans and their families in working together and caring for others at the community level. They are already properly trained and highly experienced in working in teams and helping themselves.

Many states have local peer groups often in the larger cities. A larger group in Wisconsin is Dry Hootch in Milwaukee and Madison WI. “Hootch” is military jargon for a hut or safe place to sleep during combat. The idea revolved around the creation of a retail coffee shop run by and for Veterans, which also supports an extended network of Veteran families and encourages Veteran interaction with the community in a holistic approach that includes a Veteran’s family. Dry Hootch provides peer support and readjustment services for all Veterans.