By Leah Harris

Veteran Peer Support Saves Lives, Eases Transition to Civilian Life

Veteran peer support has been getting some media attention recently, with one headline even claiming that it may be more effective for some veterans than traditional mental health treatment.

CPR News ran a story last month, entitled, “For Some Vets, Peer Counseling May Be More Helpful Than Traditional Mental Health Treatment.”   about a veteran peer support project The article traces the story of Robert Hernandez, who found connection and reasons to live again through a program called Battle Buddy Bridge in Los Angeles County:

“When Robert Hernandez got involved with Battle Buddy Bridge, his life began to change. He says he quit binge drinking and enrolled in college courses. Then he trained to be a paid peer support specialist, and he is now the organization’s program manager. He saw first-hand the value of having veterans help each other.

“’It was easier for us to converse with each other than talk to somebody that was a social worker, doctor, or one of our therapists,’ Hernandez said.”

A recent op-ed on entitled  highlighted the very stressful time when an active duty service member transitions to becoming a veteran. One study found that for active duty Veterans who served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars between 2001 and 2007, the rate of suicide was greatest in the first three years after discharge.

Californian and combat veteran Ron Self told “The military is really good at creating new neural pathways to make you into somebody other than you were before you came into the military. They don’t do anything to create new neural pathways for when you leave.” Self added:  “You’re essentially this new person, this new identity going into a world that you have not technically been a part of as the person you are now.”

After military service, Self eventually ended up incarcerated veteran in San Quentin. Today, he helps other incarcerated vets through his program, Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out (VHV) which provides services to five institutions within California. VHV currently has 9 active peer processing groups dispersed throughout these five institutions. 

Peer support, as part of an holistic approach to veteran wellness, can make all the difference in easing the difficulty of transitions, losses, and adjusting back to civilian life after military service or incarceration. It also has the capacity to help veterans find reasons to live and sometimes, even the motivation to become peer support specialists themselves.

Angela Peacock, a veteran peer mentor and group facilitator working with the Wounded Warrior Project, told PEERS: “I’ve seen more healing in support groups than I ever experienced in a therapy room. Most veterans don’t want to be fixed. They just want to be listened to and understood. Yes, it’s really that simple. Peer groups enable that.”