National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Navigating Life After War: The Role of Faith and Community in Recovery

By Katrina Gay, NAMI Director of Communications

NAMI recently spoke with Hector Villarreal, founder of the San Antonio Coalition for Veterans, about his work to support veterans and their families better manage their unique situations. Mr. Villarreal will be speaking as part of a panel presentation, “Veterans and Families: The Roles of Faith, Community and Recovery” at the NAMI National Convention, on Friday, June 28 from 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  

The following is an excerpt of the conversation.

What got you involved in helping veterans?

I did not want soldiers to be treated like the Vietnam veterans were treated, like I was treated when I came back from Vietnam. In addition, when I first began to work with soldiers and their families, when they were back from war, I spoke with over 5,000 different families and individuals, in grocery stores and other places. They shared their experiences and challenges.

They reminded me that when you leave service in the military, you are losing the culture. Many told me how lost they felt being outside of the culture they had become comfortable with, or used to. They didn’t know where to go, who to report to. Families would say, “I don’t know why my son is so different than he was before he came back from the war,” and veterans would say, “I don’t know where to go now that I am out; I don’t know who to report to.”

Many of these soldiers have had repeated deployments with PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] and other mental health issues to deal with, which sometimes makes it more challenging.

I am a praying individual. And as a result of the questions I was getting from these encounters with veteran soldiers and their families, I prayed. And, frankly, through me, the Lord wrote the proposal for what is now the San Antonio Coalition for Veterans.

Tell us about the coalition. What exactly do you do?

We currently have 1,100 working partners, organizations, associations; all sorts of individuals and agencies who participate in the coalition with one focus in mind: to help veterans, their families, caregivers and their survivors. These working partners, such as the Texas Veterans Commission, the VA [The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs], the Small Business Administration, politicians, service providers, food banks, Catholic Charities, Army OneSource, and literally dozens and dozens of others, are available to help. So we are all here and we help the soldier decide what partner, or group of partners, is right for them; the right one to meet their needs. Most of these partners are non-profit. Basically, we help the soldiers find the match.

Can you give me an example?

For example, this one veteran came to me the other day initially in need of funding to evade eviction. So we asked Catholic Charities to help, and they were able in this case to do so. In addition, Family Endeavors, another partner, was able to provide help by providing a long-term solution. As a result, the soldier did not become a homeless veteran.

But it is rarely this simple. There is hardly ever just one issue with one answer. A veteran or family member doesn’t come with just one problem, although they initially may be focusing on just one. For example, getting evicted also means, likely, a lost job, a need for food, issues in caring for any children in the home, and more. So we start to outline all of their problems, then start calling, with them, all of the agencies and broker for them. In addition to straight brokering, we also help negotiate with partners, for example the Texas Workforce Commission, when necessary.

It seems like common sense, but clearly so important: an advisor to help someone navigate the community resources to help them solve their problems and get their needs met.

The San Antonio Coalition for Veterans has done this all without a penny. The reality is that the veterans have difficulty finding the services they are looking for much of the time. But when they find one, that agency is often only able to help with that one problem. And then they often call the coalition, saying, “We can do A for this veteran, but not B or C or D that they also need. Can you help them find these other resources or agencies to help?”

So we step in to help them find the B, C and D, and get the appointments they may need and set the plan into sequence. When we work with them, they have a complete plan to resolve the complete list of problems.

To keep the coalition’s work meaningful and active, we meet monthly with VSOs [Veteran Service Organizations] and families. Each month we have anywhere from 85 to 120 people at each meeting. We get calls from all over, so word has spread. There is such a need there.

And how does the faith component work into your efforts?

Whenever possible, when talking with a veteran, before we proceed with the action steps, the issue of faith naturally comes in. If it is appropriate, I might say, “Now is a good time to pray, do you think?” I can pray with them or for them. But they almost always agree with bringing prayer into the discussion.

The faith component is potentially a critical component. But because the separation of church and state is so strong, you can’t talk directly about it. You have to be careful and very gentle.

How do you connect then with the faith community directly?

We work as much as we can with members of the faith community. They often circle their wagons, not intentionally, but often because they don’t know what to do with the issue of veterans, their family members and their crisis, often because of the PTSD as well. They are overloaded with other things. We present solutions and offer to help.

Hector Villarreal. (Courtesy)

To help solve this problem, we recently had a meeting with the Command Chaplain of Army North and the Chief of Chaplains of the Army, Air Force and VA. As one result, we discussed beginning to strive to help the communities faith leaders better understand the combat they have experienced; help them to understand, to establish veteran and family support groups and services in their church, for example. The second take-way I asked for was that if they have a soldier coming to them for assistance, I want them to think that they should be able to reach out to the priest or other congregation leader and, ideally, get a faith community or other of the soldier’s denomination nearby and pass on this soldier’s problems to that minister so that they are being transferred, seamlessly, to a faith community.

They have to be careful. They are just brokers, they are not indoctrinating. They are often limited by their own culture/protocols as this is a very sensitive issue, faith. But when it is done respectfully and well, many are seeing this as a natural thing.

In reality, the military was not prepared for PTSD. Because of the multiple deployments, soldiers often could not decompress properly. In those cases, they were still “active” and couldn’t talk about things without risk of losing their security status.  But things are getting better, slowly, but they are getting better. The military is working feverishly to make these changes, but it takes time to move a battleship, to turn around and change directions. I am encouraged and see progress. We all have to be patient and continue to do our part.