VietNow National Convention PTSD
VietNow National has chapters around the country, and has had a National Convention every year for the past thirty-two years now. The conventions are fun for everyone, and new members, long-time members, and family members all have a great time.

A Sense of Belonging

By Mary Tendall, VietNow National PTSD Chairperson

When you came back from the war, were you disappointed? In addition to mistreatment from people who didn’t understand, did you also feel lost, and like you weren’t sure where you belonged?

When a deployed soldier is soon to return home, there are expectations of a re-connecting with loved ones and friends. But as that time draws near, tensions regarding the homecoming often increase. Getting off the plane to reunite with family can even be painful, and can result in confusion for both the soldier and the family. And for Vietnam veterans we must not forget the deplorable reception they received from a misguided segment of our population. For soldiers and families, adjustment can be a challenge.

Traditionally, every culture received their returning warriors with receptivity and ceremony. That goes back to all our ancestors. Soldiers were tended to in ways that included traditions that allowed the soldiers to find themselves in a new respected and honorable role within the community. Not so in our modern times.

Our modern soldiers return knowing they do not belong to the country where they had served (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and others) – and at the same time they experience a new and slightly disconnected relationship from what they previously knew at home. The deployment experience, plus newly formed perspectives on life in general, help to cause this change in relationship from what life was before going to war. Our families can’t be expected to understand this disconnect that soldiers and veterans experience following combat, and the truth is that the soldiers also experience confusion regarding their own changes.

The VietNow National Convention

I just returned from the annual VietNow National Convention, held in Illinois. Once again, I witnessed the immense sense of belonging that this amazing organization has provided for its members. In addition to all the services VietNow offers to other veterans and communities, its very existence provides an invaluable opportunity for veterans and family members to feel unconditionally received, understood, respected, and supported.

We are really a family here. Everyone is welcome – we work through the hard times and the easy times – and no matter what, we love each other.

And VietNow also creates an opportunity to be involved in helping other veterans and families. A woman who attends VietNow’s convention every year with her husband said, “We are really a family here. Everyone is welcome – we work through the hard times and the easy times – and no matter what, we love each other. “

Some have been members for many years, and some were attending for the first time. One new spouse expressed such joy and gratitude regarding her acceptance and for the information she learned about her new partner’s issues. Another veteran told me how, through this organization and the people he has met and worked with, he has finally felt he could be himself with a group of people who will be around as long as he wants.

I’ve seen spouses laugh and cry together, sharing grief and joy with few words necessary – and I listened to the members’ pride as they reported their stories of services provided to so many veterans. The opportunity to have these invaluable and unique connections year after year is priceless.

The Wednesday Group (PTSD)
The Wednesday Group first met as a Vet Center support group I led with another therapist. After my retirement from that contract, they continued their dedication to each other, and have continued to meet independently for the past eight years.

The Wednesday Group

While sub-contracted with a Vet Center In Sacramento, California, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from hundreds of combat veterans and their families as a group and on an individual basis. When I ended my contract with the VA, many of the group’s members I had been working with vowed to support and continue their unique bond. One man’s wife runs a country restaurant that closes early in the afternoon. That left a lovely space available for the group to continue meeting. That was eight years ago, and they continue to meet every Wednesday for two hours in the evening. This group is diverse, but what they share in common is having served in combat and struggling with the challenges upon returning home. Each veteran’s issues within the group are understood in ways that are unequalled by anyone else. One of the spouses reported that, prior to attending the group, “Neither he nor I were able to successfully cope. We learned that he was not alone. That was a huge relief. He was not crazy!” She and the other spouses report that their husbands have learned self- regulation skills that keep them from “losing it.”

The Wednesday Group (PTSD)
The yearly prime rib dinner at the restaurant where the Wednesday Group meets. Spouses and special guests are invited, and the meal is top-notch.

The group sustains the same “rules” that were established in the VA group, such as confidentiality, avoiding talk of religion or politics, early check-in, etc. They also have enjoyable social gatherings, including a BBQ or a yearly prime rib dinner at the restaurant. The spouses have become friends, and one recently said that this is one group where she can relax with her husband, since he is so at ease, and they both leave at the same time. (She was referring to his usual tendency to leave early from any kind of social interaction.) Another veteran said that this group is one in which he feels trust, and thinks of those attending as “brothers in arms.” In fact, others in the group also offer that term to describe who they are as a group.

One member of the group looks forward to the meetings, and knows there is a place where he belongs based on the unique and common issues experienced by others.

Although many of them have received individual treatment for their symptoms of PTSD, nothing can measure up to the sense of trust and belonging they have developed with the Wednesday Group. Some have moved away, and others attend more sporadically, but it doesn’t matter. These guys will always be there for each other. Since they understand and share many of the challenges regarding issues that arise in the civilian world following combat, they know that they don’t have to bottle it up or get into heavy reaction.

Another of the wives said that her husband no longer does or says things he regrets when he feels reactive. She reported that he is able to work through it “most of the time.” One member of the group looks forward to the meetings, and knows there is a place where he belongs based on the unique and common issues experienced by others.

What I hear from both the veterans and their partners is the gratitude for what this group provides. A true sense of belonging is once again established where there is trust, understanding, and dedication. They know there is always a group of people who will be there for them to share in the hard times as well as the good times.

Make your own group happen

I encourage others who have lost that sense of belonging after deployment to find a group where a similar experience is possible as in these two examples. If you want to start your own group, either as an offshoot of a VA group, or in hope of finding others with similar issues, send me an e-mail (maryten@jps.net) and I will send you a list of guidelines that can help keep the group operating in a manner that sustains order and respect.

While we no longer have the traditions and ceremonies of old that pulled people together for the healing and a sense of well-being important to adjustment following combat (this includes family members), it’s still possible to make a group happen or to join a group that will provide the connection and sense of belonging that these two groups illustrate so well.

Read more stories like this one.

___________________________

You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is maryten@jps.net.

*The names of any veterans and/or family members mentioned in this article have been changed for privacy reasons.

Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA, LMFT, serves as the VietNow National PTSD Chairperson. She has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, specializing in PTSD. She also works with groups such as Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes.