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"We give them their greatest weapon back—themselves.”

  • Charles County,St Mary's County,Calvert County
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Hollywood, MD- On average, 22 American veterans commit suicide every day. In 2014, more than 7,400 veterans took their own life. That’s about 18 percent of all suicides in America, however, veterans make up less than nine percent of the country’s population.

There’s not always a clear-cut understanding of why veterans are committing suicide at alarming rates. It could be combat-related stress but a large number of veteran suicides are among those who spent little or no time fighting in recent wars.
If, and when, a veteran does try to seek help, they’re often encouraged to pursue a medical diagnosis. That diagnosis essentially leads to prescription medication. However, many times medication is not the right answer.

Warfighter Advance is a local non-profit organization that is trying to steer away from the belief that post- traumatic stress (PTS) can only be treated through medical intervention. The program was developed by Mary Vieten, PhD, ABPP, CDR Medical Service Corps, USN (Ret) back in 2003. Dr. Vieten is a nationally recognized expert of post-traumatic stress and has worked with a range of military organizations. The idea behind Warfighter Advance is to address the needs of veterans or active duty service members who have been formally diagnosed, or are self-reporting, with PTS, anxiety, depression or substance abuse resulting from deployment-related trauma.

The heart of Warfighter Advance lies in The ADVANCE – 7 Day Op. This “boot camp” is designed to provide a week’s worth of intense focus on education, confidence-building, outdoor activities and group discussions. “We want to make veterans subject matter experts in their own recovery. We don’t say post-traumatic stress disorder—or PTSD—because it’s not a disorder. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” said Matt Scassero, president of the Board of Directors. “One of the big pieces of it is that there are no drugs and we work to get them off all of the psychotropic drugs. We spend the week educating them about what they’re going through, what they can expect and what they’ll deal with in the future.”

The veterans also learn valuable coping mechanisms. “We give them exposure to leadership and teach them skills to be a leader in their personal life. We teach them spirituality and we talk about their stories being sacred. They learn how yoga can be a great coping mechanism and can help relieve stress. We also teach them how alpha brain stimulation can help with pain management. They also participate in ropes courses and focus on team building and confidence building. The biggest stress relief comes from talking—these veterans learn to open up and talk about things they have never shared with anyone else,” Scassero noted. “We also give them each other and it creates an alumni support and accountability network.”

The ADVANCE is held at Lions Camp Merrick in Nanjemoy in Charles County. The camp has hosted 16 retreats over the past two years. “The camp is everything we need; the facilities, the location and the environment,” Scassero explained.

Since Warfighter Advance launched the retreat program, Scassero, who is a retired Navy Captain, said hundreds of veterans have benefitted from the education they received. “The first thing we tell them when they arrive is that they’re not sick, it’s not a disorder. We tell them right away, ‘You’re a highly adapted, highly trained warrior; you’ve been exposed to something traumatic, anyone would react to that. You don’t go into that environment not sick and come out sick—you come out traumatized.’”

Scassero explain the drugs are often poisoning the men and women who are taking them, “One individual came to us and he was on 31 different drugs. The drugs are killing you—you’ve got to get off the drugs. We just provide the information about these pharmaceuticals. We help them ease off the medication and teach them how to do it properly. We teach them why they’re not mentally ill—just traumatized.”

Scassero said finding the veterans to attend the retreat is the easy part. There are hundreds, even thousands who could receive much needed aid from the program. “Most who come through this program are not trigger-pullers—often they’re religion specialists and corpsman—they weren’t supposed to be put in those situations. They weren’t expecting to be exposed to it the way they were.” The vets who attend the retreat often learn about it through word-of-mouth. Warfighter Advance has no direct affiliation with Veterans Affairs or any government entity.

Each retreat includes an average of 24 veterans. Many times it’s a mix of younger and older vets. Some previous attendees who have gone through the program return and serve as mentors. The goal is to offer 12 retreats a year. Right now the group offers eight.

Warfighter Advance also offers specialized programs, like a Vietnam veterans only retreat in the fall. It’s also working to support those who suffered military sexual trauma while serving.

There is a team of four veterans who make up the core staff of the retreat program, including Dr. Vieten. Everyone else is a volunteer and brings a different skill set to the program. The ADVANCE is fully funded by Warfighter Advance and there are not out-of-pocket expenses for the veterans. The program is funded through generous donations.

Scassero said the program has been proven successful time and time again, “The response from the veterans has been unbelievable. Life-changing, life-altering. We give them their greatest weapon back—themselves.” He went on to say that if you know a veteran in your life who is struggling--talk to them. “Even if they don’t think there’s anything wrong, try to get them to open up and get them some help.”

You can also help. There is a Rotary 4 Vets Tri-County Trot 5K/10K hosted by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park on May 27 on Solomons Island to benefit Warfighter Advance. Click here for more information or to register for the run. 

To learn more about Warfighter Advance and its mission, click here

Contact Joy Shrum at j.shrum@thebaynet.com

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