A Camouflaged Community
Forty thousand fans filled Wrigley Field with hot dogs and peanuts in hand, embracing the summer sun and beaming with pride for their beloved Cubs. Before the ceremonial first pitch, 100 uniformed veterans took the field. All at once, they recited their second oath, one to their community, an oath of continued service:
We are Fellows of The Mission Continues. As Fellows, our personal service did not end with our military service, but has only just begun. We are citizen leaders, committed to making a positive impact in our community, by upholding the values we learned through our military service. We pledge to work hard, both selflessly, and joyously. Trust will always be our foundation. As we serve, we will learn, grow, and always respect everybody unconditionally. We will do all of this because we are Fellows, and our mission continues.
Mission Continues is a national veteran nonprofit that empowers veterans to continue to serve their country in two ways after being discharged: one is a service platoons program that brings together teams of veterans to work on their communities’ most pressing needs on a monthly basis (such as homelessness, youth mentorship), and the second is their award-winning fellowship program that allows veterans to work in nonprofits of their choosing all over the country.
This feeling of needing purpose is common for many veterans in this transitional time. Aaron Scheinberg, director of strategy and research and regional director for the Northeast platoons of Mission Continues, left the army in 2008 after nine years of service including his time at West Point. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after being stationed in Iraq. He referred to himself as “one of the luckier ones,” with a more mild case of the disorder than others. He then went to the Columbia Business School for a three-year program, afterward accepting a high paid management consultant job.
“On paper I was definitely a successful veteran, but there was something missing,” Scheinberg said. “I was missing being a part of a team that was doing something important. I was missing being really actively engaged in my community and serving my country, and I was missing my purpose. Many veterans believe and look at time in the military and combat and think the best years of their life are over. How could you possibly do what you did to the same level in combat? And I was experiencing a little bit of that.”
Mission Continues currently has 32 staff members, and the organization has a national reach of 1000 fellows since its founding in 2007, many in the northeast region including New York City and N.Y. state. NYC has more than 100 veterans in a platoon that has been running for only three months. The program’s growth can be attributed to its unique approach to veteran aid.
“We take a strength-based approach” Scheinberg said. “So instead of a victims-based approach, which a lot of organizations do whether it is unwittingly or whether they try to help for the right reasons … but they are actually making things worse for veterans by focusing on the problems, focusing on the difficulties and the hardships rather than what veterans can do next, focusing on the strengths.”
The idea behind the program is that it helps veterans to achieve goals in life while harnessing physical, mental and leadership skills that these servicemen bring to the table.
“If you take the victim mindset, the what’s messed up about veterans mindset, then you are going to continue to hear the narrative that PTSD equals veterans, suicide equals veterans, crazy equals veterans,” Scheinberg said.
A 2009 Rand report estimates that 26 percent of returning combat veterans may have mental health conditions (PTSD, anxiety, depression, etc.). Veteran’s Affairs estimates there are nearly 400,000 untreated cases of PTSD. Fifty percent of those with PTSD do not seek treatment. According to the Congressional Research Service in September of 2010, PTSD distribution between services is as follows: Army 67 percent of cases, Marines 13 percent, Navy 11 percent and Air Force nine percent.
The Veterans and Armed Forces Health Promotion Act of 2013 was assigned to a congressional hearing in April of last year in hopes to amend Title 10, United States Code. Amendments would provide notice to members of the Armed Forces regarding the availability of mental health services, to help eliminate perceived stigma associated with seeking and receiving mental health services, and to clarify the extent to which information regarding a member seeking and receiving mental health services may be disclosed. The bill has still not been amended, according to the Library of Congress.
Federal aid directed at veterans currently comes from Veteran’s Affairs, its main service to help veterans fill out disability comp claims, pension claims, N.Y. state alternative veteran tax exemption access, passes for N.Y. state disabled veterans, and other government aid supplements, Kevin Justian, N.Y. state’s Veteran’s Affairs counselor, said. The VA also recently implemented a peer-counseling program. For PTSD or community support programs they refer veterans to their local VA centers or community organizations.
Community organizations for veterans are not solely built around service-based communities, like Mission Continues. Team Red White & Blue is a national organization that focuses on fitness and is comprised of approximately 36,000 members, located in more than 100 communities across the globe and gains approximately 500 new members each week, according to it’s website.
Jase Baese, Ithaca director for Team Red White & Blue, was in ROTC at Trinity University before serving in the army for four years. He has been discharged for 16 years.
“Essentially, the goal is to get veterans to interact with members of their community through athletic events and social events to help them make that transition from being in the military to being in the civilian world,” Baese said. “For a lot of people that is especially stressful, especially in the last few years because of the intensity of the military situations.”
The veteran community they are trying to reach is still growing. Nearly 2.5 million American men and women have been deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom since September 2001. Approximately 1 million service members will retire or separate from the military over the next five years.
Adjusting back into civilian life is not only difficult because of horrors witnessed overseas, but also because of the change in time and scheduling, Baese said.
“In the military the schedule is prescribed for you. You get up and you do exercise, you do your job, you have after hour’s activities sometimes and deployments so you go away for a period of time with a close-knit group of people,” Baese said. “And to lose that and come to a civilian environment becoming people who go to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and that’s it and everything else is an option, is a difficult transition for some people, especially for people who have been in for a number of years and have been through some deployments where their schedule is even more prescribed for them.”
Activities by TRWB include weekly runs, but members can also apply to national camps that allow for more intensive experiences for veterans in transition, as well as for TRWB leadership to learn more about the national organization and skills to be effective in those roles. Camps for veterans transitioning have focuses on yoga, trail running and functional fitness, better known as CrossFit.
CrossFit Pallas is one local gym that is pairing with Team Red White & Blue Ithaca. Owners Eamon Coyne and Tim Paulson decided the gym will be offering once a month free classes to veterans that will be led by Eamon, a Navy veteran himself who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. They said if there was enough interest, they would increase that at no charge.
“When you get a group of people together with a similar background or similar experience a lot of healing happens,” Coyne said.
According to TRWB, 41 percent of veterans stated that they are more likely to exercise if they can do it with a group or team. A number of studies show exercise to be the non-drug equivalent to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, SSRI, the drug therapies and psychotherapy used to treat depression and anxiety, according to Help Guide.
“Not everyone needs help. I think there is a misconception that all the veterans are damaged in some way and that’s not the case. But that doesn’t mean that their lives couldn’t be more meaningful by some of these activities, like what we are doing,” Baese said.
Cody Stahl, a 23-year-old junior exercise science major at Ithaca College, served 1st battalion 7th Marines for four years, being stationed in Japan and Afghanistan. Stahl uses physical fitness in the form of the Ithaca College Rugby team to help him connect with people and transition into this new academic life.
“When you come to college it is like a new slate, and especially not coming into orientations or anything and meeting a lot of people, you don’t really know people so joining rugby was probably one of the biggest steps to creating at least one small community of friends.”
It is the friendships and team spirit he has found through rugby, a different version of his military brotherhood, that drives his love of being on the team. Stahl said he feels he can talk to some of his teammates about anything, and talking has been a key part of his personal growth process.
“A lot of veterans bottle it up and it takes away their ability to interact with society so I think that is just a case by case basis and I was fortunate enough to be able to cope better,” Stahl said. “Because there are some things I wish I had never seen in my life, but it is part of the job. And I had to do it and I left it there.”
The Veteran’s Sanctuary is a local city organization that recognizes the beneficial aspects of talking and creating a dialogue between fellow veterans as well as with the civilian community. The Sanctuary works to create a residential program to support Iraq and Afghanistan veterans by providing a new path toward addressing veterans’ issues with tools like holistic wellness programs, expressive arts, farming, green job training and community living, according to their website.
The Combat Papers program at the Sanctuary is papermaking workshops where veterans use their uniforms worn in service, cut them up, beat them into a pulp and form it into sheets of paper and artwork. The Warrior Writers program creates a culture that articulates veterans’ experiences and bear witness to the lived experiences of these warriors. The Ithaca Warrior Writers program, run by veteran Jenny Pacanowski, is held once a month at Autumn Leaves Bookstore.
Pacanowski joined the army as a health care specialist/combat medic at the age of 23, after being told by a recruiter that her $40,000 in debt from college loans would be paid off by the military if she gave up her G.I. bill. She completed EMT training, was stationed in Germany and then within a month, she was in Iraq. While deployed, she was notified that the military was not planning on covering her student debt.
“I didn’t want to go back because I was going to die or at least I thought I was going to die…but I went back anyway because my friends were there and I knew if I didn’t run those convoys my friends would and I would not be able to live with myself. So back I went,” she said.
Pacanowski was discharged in 2005 for a breach of contract by the military. Through congressional hearings she has received up to 75 percent of her debt paid. But Pacanowski struggled adjusting, living in a secluded cabin in Pennsylvania for six years with a substance abuse problem
“I thought of sitting on the Kuwait Iraq border and how I crossed into that world, into Iraq one person and essentially almost all of us come back a completely different person so that is one border,” Pacanowski said. “But when I came back into the civilian world it was almost like a physical border that you go through because you take off your uniform and you put on these civilian clothes and you never go back to that. It’s almost like taking your own skin off.”
Pacanowski said that PTSD is the human reaction to extraordinary circumstances, meaning anyone can experience it, including victims from 9/11, rape victims, child abuse victims and people who witness combat.
The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, carries a stigma that has discouraged too many soldiers from understanding the condition and seeking proper treatment, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff told the PBS NewsHour. He would like to see PTSD called Post Traumatic Stress Injury, or PTSI, instead. Coyne added that it is not a disorder; it is just who veterans and PTSD patients are and how they are coping.
“Blaming a veteran is like blaming a rape victim,” Pacanowski said.
The Fort Hood tragedy — 16 wounded and four killed, including identified shooter Ivan Lopez, a soldier being evaluated for PTSD — is exactly the type of event that deepens the stigma around PTSD, according to NBC News. Many civilians largely misunderstand the disease, a misunderstanding Stahl notices in his daily life.
“When people find out I had been in the Marines, especially when they find out I had been deployed and say I have been to Afghanistan they kind of get that, not really fear look, but I guess a skeptical look,” Stahl said.
Scheinberg said that incidents like Fort Hood are not just veteran’s issues, they’re United States issues.
Stigmas and misconceptions about veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan even surround suicide. Scheinberg said it is most certainly a problem, but not just for veterans. Twenty-two veterans on average commit suicide per day according to the VA report, but if you compare that to civilians of a similar age in men, the numbers are not substantially different.
Scheinberg said that veterans who seem to struggle the most are those who do not have a community to turn to. Stahl said it is important to remember that veterans, regardless of the branch they come from, are a community within themselves and it is important to reach out to other veterans around you.
“Life is hard, life is struggle, life is suffering and if you can channel that into a positive way to share or let go of or release, I really think…listening to their stories is something that needs to be heard not only by other veterans, but by the community,” Pacanowski said.
Meagan McGinnes is a senior journalism major who is thankful to veterans in the U.S. and abroad for serving their country, and to Crossfit Pallas for kicking her ass. Email her at mmcginn1[at]ithaca.edu