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11/08/2013   Reported By: Barbara Cariddi

Many veterans find the transition back to civilian life full of unexpected challenges. In addition to the federal and state government, a number of private organizations in Maine offer programs and services designed to help veterans deal with those challenges. We take a look at a few of them.


One Warrior Won founder Rich Brewer and AnkaOne day, Rich Brewer decided to put an end to the PTSD tormenting him. The former Marine headed to his basement with a gun. First, he put it in his mouth. Then he decided it would hurt less if he shot himself in the temple. Brewer went back and forth, over and over. Mouth or temple? He couldn't decide.

That's when he had what he calls a God moment. "I realized that the hesitation was God telling me, 'You don't want to die.'" Brewer decided not only to live, but "to live like Mach 1 with my hair on fire."

The first step: Seek help.

Brewer had enjoyed a distinguished career in the Marines. He joined at age 17, and 19 months later had been promoted to sergeant. He was selected to attend Marine Security Guard School, got a top secret security clearance from the U.S. State Department and was assigned to the American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.

That's where Brewer was on Sept. 20, 1984, when a suicide truck bomb exploded. Brewer suffered burns, lacerations, a broken arm - and other injuries that weren't so visible, even to him.

In 1987, he left the Marines - decorated with a Purple Heart and other honors - and began a new career as a Massachusetts state trooper. Later, he married and started a new life.

But he said the psychological scars from the Beirut trauma were still there, no matter how good his life seemed on the outside. For help, he first turned to the VA. But he says the agency wasn't offering what he needed.

So he started his own program for veterans suffering from PTSD and other battle wounds. And he gave it a name that reflected his own salvation: One Warrior Won.

"When a veteran came to me, the only thing they would have to say to me is 'I need help,'" he says. "And after that, we would sit together and figure out what help they needed and we would go forth and get it."

One Warrier Won, headquartered in Portland, Maine is now in 17 states with 21 affiliates across the country. Brewer says the program is custom tailored for each individual veteran.

"When the veteran comes in, I say, 'What do you need? What are you willing to do?' Then we develop a program around that, because every veteran is different."

One Warrior One - a recent "Redneck Renewal Retreat" in Mississippi.Veterans can try alternative healing methods, such as acupuncture, Emotional Freedom Technique or yoga, if they wish. If they're craving a battle-style adreneline high, Brewer organizes "adventure expeditions," which might include ice climbing, kayaking, mountain climbing - anything that gets the juices flowing and creates the camaraderie many veterans miss in their civilian lives.

And Brewer fosters another kind of healing relationship: His organization provides veterans with "PTSD service dogs." The dogs, rescued from shelters, are specially trained to recognize oncoming panic attacks, nightmares and other manifestations of PTSD. Brewer says he could not live without his service dog, Anka.

"She wakes me up from nightmares," he says. "Dogs can sense and smell our hormones and things, so when I'm suffering from a potential panic attack and it's building up inside me, she can smell that, she can sense that, and she will actually literally herd me out of where I am, whether it's a crowded room or a grocery store."

Brewer says training the dogs and matching them up with veterans is very expensive - the process takes several months - and the VA doesn't cover it. So far, he says, he's been able to provide about a dozen veterans with PTSD service dogs, and hopes to link up many more, if he can find the funds.

But one of the most important things One Warrior Won does, Brewer says, is public education. "We're not crazy," he says. "PTSD sufferers aren't around every corner, waiting to kill everybody."

Brewer says it's important for the 93 percent of Americans who are not members of the military to understand that PTSD isn't a mental illness. He says it's a normal, predictable, biological reaction to the stress of combat and other traumatic events. And it's a condition that veterans can learn to cope with, he says - if they get the proper help.

Getting veterans that help is what Rich Brewer is now dedicating his life to. "My whole life is traveling around this country trying to stop 22 veterans a day from killing themselves," he says.

Learn more about One Warrior Won.




Bread of Life Ministries homeless shelterBread of Life Ministries always had a few military veterans in its homeless shelter, opened in 1986. But Executive Director Dean Lachance says after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the demand jumped astronomically.

"They come back broken and severely disabled," Lachance says. "And the community, the country, the churches - even the VA, we in this country - aren't really prepared to deal with this onslaught of veterans who are coming back with severe challenges from PTSD and physical injuries."

So Lachance decided to take action. "We jumped in with both feet to do some serious support for veterans, and we applied for a grant with the VA," he says. The application - for funds for a new homeless shelter specifically for veterans - was approved, and Bread of Life Ministries now runs Maine's only such facility. "We have 12 beds, and they're always full," Lachance says.

The shelter has been harboring homeless veterans for three years now. But that wasn't good enough for Lachance. "We recognized there was a need for homeownership as well, so we have some property which we were able to make available to build 20 homes for veterans."

The homes are designed for the disabled, with ramps, fully accessible bathrooms and other features. Bread of Life was able to subsidize the cost of the homes, thanks in part to grants from Home Depot and a federal community block grant program.

Lachance says Bread of Life Ministries runs largely on private and public grant money, and individual donations. In addition to the veterans shelter, the organization operates a separate shelter for non-veterans, a soup kitchen and a transitional housing program.

Travis Mills, wife Kelsey, daughter ChloeIt's also partnered with veteran Travis Mills, who lost parts of both arms and legs in combat in Afghanistan. The so-called Travis Mills Project aims to create a National Veteran Recreation Center on a site in Belgrade, Maine.

Bread of Life also operates a resource center that provides one-on-one help for veterans seeking jobs, housing, educational opportunities and other vital services. Lachance says BOLM has staff available 24 hours a day to help guide veterans.

"They're all eligible for supportive services at the VA," he says, "so we make sure they're getting connected to a mental health support person, or support for physical health needs, or financial needs, connecting to job services, getting connected to career centers or the university, both of which have specialized services for veterans."

Lachance says Bread of Life Ministries works closely with the VA Medical Center at Togus, located next door. He says the partnership is beginning to make some inroads. But he says there's still a long way to go to meet the needs of veterans.

"They're twice as likely to have suicide, twice as likely to have substance abuse, twice as likely to have mental health issues, twice as likely to have divorce," he says. "They're coming back with physical and mental challenges that make their daily life very, very difficult. We don't get what they've gone through, nor will we ever. But awareness is so important."

Learn more about Bread of Life Ministries.




Embrace A Vet founder Joy Johnson with her husband, Greg Johnson.Two-and-a-half years ago, Navy wife Joy Johnson heard a statistic that chilled her to the bone: Twenty-two U.S. military veterans a day commit suicide, "which equates to a veteran every 65 minutes killing themselves," Johnson says.

That was the impetus for Johnson to establish Embrace A Vet, a year-old organization based in Harpswell, Maine, which is devoted to helping veterans recover from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - or PTSD - and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Johnson says Embrace A Vet, which she founded with therapist Bonnie-Kate Allen, partners with local Veterans Centers, but takes up where traditional programs leave off. She says it's designed to complement mainstream treatments.

"I would said we're getting mostly Vietnam veterans, which is a beautiful thing because they never got the support back when they needed it, and many of them are tuning into things that they've been carrying around for 46 or 47 years," Johnson says.

Embrace A Vet 2 First retreatFor veterans who have not been able to "tune into things" through mainstream programs, Embrace A Vet offers alternatives. Among them are five- to seven-day long "healing retreats" where veterans can participate in a variety of alternative healing practices, including massage, acupuncture, Yoga, EFT - Emotional Freedom Technique - and Native American ceremony.

The retreats offer plenty of recreational activities, too, such as woodcarving, Nordic walking, fly fishing and therapeutic riding.

Johnson says veterans are required to come with a partner - "someone important in their lives," she says. The partners, often a spouse - learn the alternative healing techniques so they can help veterans continue them when the retreats come to an end.

One of the best things about the program is that it doesn't cost veterans a cent. Johnson says Embrace A Vet is funded largely through money-raising community events that she puts on herself, often in her Harpswell home, and individual donations - of either time, goods or money.

"So many people want to do something and they don't have a clue what to do," Johnson says. "One woman baked 34-dozen cookies. Some guy that just came to a fundraiser as a guest has sent us two $1,000 checks during the year. One guy gave us $10,000."

She says Embrace a Vet also follows up with every participant. She says it's a data-gathering effort aimed at finding out which elements of the program work over the long term, and which ones don't. Johnson says she hopes that will pay off in the future.

"It's a great way for the community to say, 'Thank you,'" Johnson says.

Embrace A Vet 1

Learn more about Embrace A Vet


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