When soldiers return home from war, they leave behind one battlefield but often find themselves thrust onto a new battlefield — this time fighting enemies in their mind.
The last thing a veteran should have to worry about is where he will get medical care, housing, food or support. But after a recent veterans discussion at Gila Community College, a small group of veterans, therapists and counselors decided Payson combat veterans need more support.
Following that Nov. 12 panel discussion, 13-year Army veteran Miles Hanson, who only moved to town six months ago, stepped up and started a Web site, www.paysonveterans.org. The site gives local information pertaining to employment, housing, medical care, veteran groups, current events, self-help and most importantly, a place for support.
“A one-stop shop for returning veterans and those already here is a great benefit to local veterans and the community as well,” Miles said.
Betty Merritt, founder and owner of the Merritt Center, put on the discussion and said Payson needs to offer its veterans more assistance after they return home from war.
“There isn’t anywhere enough services that you deserve,” Merritt said.
Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Joseph Robinson and Vietnam veteran Kevin Whitaker said they have both dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since returning home from war and found the bureaucratic process for getting help frustrating.
PTSD affects approximately 30 percent of soldiers who spend time in a war zone, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. PTSD develops after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal and can often last years.
Whitaker said he spent the last 22 years living alone in Pine dealing with his own version of PTSD.
“I avoided anything dealing with veterans,” Whitaker said to the group. “I didn’t even tell people I was a veteran. But now I would like to help other veterans.”
Beyond the Web site, the group agreed a bricks and mortar location for assistance would be great along with a veterans advocate for Rim Country veterans.
Miles said he would also like to create a business card with basic information about services that could be placed in businesses around town.
Most importantly, veterans need to feel that the community supports them and there is a place to go for help, Merritt said.
“There is a sense that the community expends little energy at the individual level with veterans,” Merritt said. “There is a need to expand the therapeutic community’s understanding and support of the needs of veterans.”
When people go off to war, they are programmed to be soldiers. When they come back, they need to be deprogramed, she added.
“If we don’t recognize that these people need help, we have reactive outbursts,” she said, pointing to the recent shooting at Fort Hood.
Another case hit closer to home, a February standoff involving a veteran and Payson Police.
On Feb. 1, Gulf War veteran Michael Gene Robinson, 52, began a nine-hour standoff by barricading himself inside his home and shooting at police officers.
Talking with police negotiators, Robinson said that the officers in front of his house were Iraqis and therefore his enemy. Robinson eventually told negotiators he was suffering from PTSD. Eventually Robinson surrendered and no one was injured.
Although Army Reserve sergeant Ken Moorin was never violent like Robinson, he was diagnosed with PTSD after he returned from Baghdad in 2004. Moorin suffered panic attacks that were especially debilitating during thunderstorms. Seeking release, Moorin attended Merritt’s free retreat for veterans in Star Valley.
“I felt a sense of peace being with other veterans,” Moorin said. “Talking was so helpful because there is so much anger and sadness.”
“It has to go somewhere so it might as well be health,” he added.
Merritt founded the non-profit Merritt Center in 1987 to offer renewal and empowerment workshops.
Spread over four weekends, veterans work through a series of activities including trauma-release exercises, which allow veterans to release tension stored in the sciatic nerve during combat.
Merritt was inspired to start the Merritt Center after experiencing her own release during a massage. At the time, Merritt was a successful executive with a large corporation.
“An hour into the message I started breathing differently and I felt a white light in my body,” she said. “It said ‘Let go’ so I quit my job the next week.”
Not knowing what she was going to do, Merritt meditated on an answer and saw fields of pansies. In August 1986, Merritt started a cross-country drive looking for the field of pansies she had envisioned. After 36,000 miles, Merritt ended up at the lodge in Star Valley, where she found a field of Johnny jump-ups blooming.
At the time, a doctor was using the center as a retreat for cancer patients. In 1987, Merritt took it over.
For the last five years, Merritt has offered retreats free for veterans.
“So often they come back and try to numb the pain through either alcohol or other stuff,” she said. “We don’t just shake it off so we need to learn how to release it.”
The first two weekends of the retreat involve bonding with other veterans who have gone through the program.
“A talking circle is introduced in the first session and used throughout the program to provide the foundation for creating trust. With others in the circle acknowledging their traumatic experiences the vet is willing to explore his/her own and before the circle ends or definitely before the first weekend ends, the vet is willing to share a piece of the experienced trauma,” she said.
At the end of each weekend, veterans are given activities to practice at home.
During the third weekend, veterans let go of the traumatic event during a Native American sweat lodge ceremony. During the sweat, Merritt said she keeps the door open more than it is closed.
At the end of the sweat, some veterans exit the lodge feeling reborn.
After letting go of the trauma, veterans replace it with something positive, Merritt said.
During the final weekend, veterans create new life goals. In the past, one veteran expressed a desire to write a book and another wished to give whale tours.
Whatever the dream, Merritt encourages veterans to follow through.
“I am living proof of making your dreams come true,” she said.
Visit the www.merrittcenter.org for the free online workbook, Basic Training for Life, a self-help program for returning veterans.