By Christopher Banks, Corrections Counselor
Veterans look at things and do things for different reasons than those who have never served. They will watch or participate in a Veterans' Day or Memorial Day parade knowing about the sacrifice involved. They will join a Veteran organization or group to have a continued connection to their prior service. That special connection is based on the comradery shared by millions of Veterans nationwide. This comradery is from their shared experiences; not all Veterans served during war time. Not all have been deployed. Even fewer have served in direct combat. Regardless of their branch, the time in which they served, their combat experience, or their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), most, if not all, Veterans have a high level of respect with other Veterans and enjoy sharing with them. Just ask any Marine about the "Crucible" and you will see their eyes light up. Ask any Ranger if they went to "Jump School" and they will likely place their hand on their knee or their back. Ask any Veteran about their favorite NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) and they will have a rank and name to provide. It's not just their past service that connects a lot of Veterans though. They also share the hardships of life, like needing medical and mental health care at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital or medical center. Struggles with substance abuse or homelessness are too common among Veterans.
Veterans as a whole have had a hard year. The parades, ceremonies and fundraisers they usually help with or partake in were greatly cancelled. Groups and organizations have closed their doors or have a very limited capacity. Then when you consider those Veterans who have had the other struggles in their lives, it has been unrelenting. Shelters have been closed to keep them from becoming incubators for the virus. "Non-essential" medical and mental health appointments were canceled or postponed. Support groups were canceled, only to open back up in a limited capacity or in a virtual form. For many, a Veterans specific support group is a lifeline. These groups allow them to have a sense of purpose or a sense of comradery they cannot find elsewhere. They are no judgement zones that allow them to share in that special connection with other Veterans. Perhaps most importantly, they help connect those Veterans to important and vital services available to them.
One such Veteran-specific support group is called Veteran "X." This group is specifically designed to help Veterans who have mental or physical health concerns, suffer from substance abuse and/or struggle with homelessness. Veteran "X" is not a new group; Thomas E. Pratt, a peer specialist at the Hampton VA Medical Center in Hampton Virginia, founded it in 2009. Since its founding, more than 3,000 voluntary participants have enrolled at the Hampton VA Medical Center alone. It has expanded to include a Veteran "Hope" program (female-only version). It has also grown to include dozens of other VA facilities from the Carolinas, to Pennsylvania, and as far out west as Colorado. Pennsylvania, specifically Western Pennsylvania, has become a popular location for this group. There are currently more Veteran "X" groups in Western and Central Pennsylvania than any other part of the country. Though these groups are greatly restricted right now, there is an optimism about new goings on.
From Sept. 28-30, there was a new group of facilitators being trained by Veteran "X" Master Trainer Cary Adkins. This group of men and women is hoping to expand Veteran "X" to a relatively new area of the state.
Within the walls and fences of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC), this year, on Jan. 7, State Correctional Institution (SCI) Huntingdon became the first certified Veteran "X" group within a correctional setting. They were certified by none other than Program Founder Thomas Pratt, Master Trainer Cary Adkins and Group Facilitator Sherri McGhee-Brenneman. The facility sent five staff to be trained in the summer of 2019. They then spent the next six months diligently working with Veteran "X" master trainers and the Veteran "X" Implementation Team to make it work within a correctional setting. During that time, the SCI Huntingdon facilitators learned a plethora of valuable lessons. They were able to share those lessons with these newly-trained group facilitators during their recent training. Veteran "X" Facilitators Kevin Eckenrod and Christopher Banks were able assist virtually. They shared their struggles and successes, along with answering questions for the new facilitators. The training also brought another exciting opportunity. Sherrie McGhee-Brenneman, a group facilitator and social worker at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center, and Christopher Banks, a group facilitator and veterans coordinator at SCI Huntingdon, were both honored during the training. They were both certified as Veteran "X" master trainers, only the third and fourth in the country, respectively. With these newly-trained facilitators and newly-certified master trainers, there is a great opportunity to expand the Veteran "X" group over the next year and beyond.
Though this year has been full of unrelenting struggles, there is hope. Hope that the next year will be better than the last. That Veterans who struggle will be able to overcome their mental or physical ailments. Hope that Veterans will be able share in their normal activities and able to again share their special connection. If the men and women who were recently trained and certified have anything to do with it, that hope will become a reality.