After serving in warzones overseas, returning veterans can face of a myriad of problems, including issues with benefits, relating with those who haven’t served and mental health.
Joe LaBranche knows those struggles all too well.
A former United States Marine who served as a machine gunner in Vietnam, LaBranche has been dealing with post-traumatic stress (PTS) since 1968. He said he wasn’t formally diagnosed until 2009, but the signs had been there for more than 40 years, back to a time when mental health issues weren’t discussed as openly as they are today.
“People used to tell me, ‘Joe, you just need to get over it.’ Well, what is there to ‘get’ because they didn’t know about post-traumatic stress back then,” he said. “I could be happy one minute, and the next minute be like a raging bull. When you live with somebody with post-traumatic stress, you give them secondary post-traumatic stress because they walk on eggshells.”
The same year as his diagnosis, Joe and his wife, Carol, founded AboutFace-USA, a local group to help veterans and first responders with PTS. The group began with non-structured meetings allowing members to “come in and talk about whatever they want to talk about,” but becoming a registered nonprofit in 2013, the group began widening their services.
“I got it started because I just didn’t want any veterans going through what I went through,” Joe said. “Basically, we help veterans and first responders and family members if they need financial assistance. We’ve purchased vehicles for individuals, we’ve took them shopping to buy them food, paid mortgage payments.”
While Joe leads meetings with veterans, Carol uses her experience being the spouse of someone dealing with mental health issues, along with training from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, to lead classes for family members of those dealing with those struggles.
“I teach a class called ‘Homefront,’ which is specific to veteran family members,” Carol said. “That’s a condensed version of [NAMI’s] evidence-based program, which is called ‘Family-to-Family.’ I teach that as well, then I facilitate a support group right here in Forsyth County for anybody with a family member with mental health issues.”
Carol said one thing family members should recognize is that anger or other issues are the result of changes in their loved one’s brain. She teaches empathy and communication skills to help with those issues in her classes.
On the other side, Joe said for veterans, “The military prepares you for combat. It does nothing to prepare you for the psychological aftereffects of combat.”
“I lived their experience,” he added. “When we came out of Vietnam, we were jungle fighters. [I was] a machine gunner. Well, 72 hours after I left Vietnam, I was walking the streets of Detroit. There was no reintegration period. There was no transition period. Unlike the other wars where you went over as a unit, in Vietnam, we went over as individuals, so we came back as individuals.”
Joe said combined with the lack of resources is the fact that most of those who go into the military or become first responders have a tough mentality that is not accustomed to talking about feelings or asking for help.
Those traits can be invaluable during the most intense moments of combat, but they don’t always translate to life back home. Those meetings give members a chance to see how common their issues are, which Joe detailed while recalling one participant who was surprised how many people were dealing with a struggle he thought only he was facing.
“You don’t own that problem. Everyone in that room shared that, but what he gets to learn is how everybody else overcame it, how they coped,” Joe said.
Their meetings with veterans aren’t the only ways the LeBranches and AboutFace are active in the community.
In Forsyth County, they host Project Grow, which pairs students and those with special needs with veterans to grow vegetables using an Aeroponic Tower Garden, an advanced form of aquaponics growing vegetables in an air or mist environment rather than in the soil. Those gardens are now in 14 schools in the county.
The program works with a number of shelters and programs aimed at homelessness and homeless veterans. Carol weaves sleeping pads made of 700 grocery bags. Backpack drives bring socks, underwear, toiletries, tents, thermal sleeping bags and other items for the homeless.
Joe said that while veterans are only 7% of the country’s population, they make up 26 percent of the homeless population.
While the group already does a lot for veterans, their next plan is the most ambitious.
“We plan on building an 80-bedroom facility for veterans and first responders,” Joe said.
They are currently looking at a property in the area for The AboutFace Veterans and First Responders Training Village, with plans to offer a variety of different types of therapies, meetings, facilities for clients to live in, day programs, job training, obstacle courses and other services.
“There’s other things we’re looking at doing,” Joe said. “We haven’t got it down, so I don’t want to go into that, but we’ll be teaching A-Z that they can go out and start their own businesses.”
With the obstacle course, which was likened to those on the show “American Ninja Warrior,” there will be a smaller one for kids. Joe said like the gardens, the aim is to create a connection between veterans and students.
“We want to mentor the children, because the best way to help someone with post-traumatic stress is to get their mind off their own issues. When you’re dealing with a high school kid, they’re looking up at you, so they have a mentor to look at,” Joe said.
Joe said veterans’ issues can often be overlooked and there is a growing divide between those who served and those who didn’t. He said with the exception of those who know someone who is serving “people are oblivious.”
While supporting the troops is a popular sentiment, Joe feels it doesn’t necessarily always lead to action.
“Later on I said, ‘Okay, we all support veterans. Somebody tell me how you support veterans,’” he said. “One guy gets up and says, ‘Well, I have a bumper sticker on the back [of my car.]’ He thinks that’s support. That’s not support, that’s appreciation, like when you go up to someone in an airport and say, ‘Welcome home. Thank you for your service.’
“That’s appreciation not support. The veterans made a sacrifice. Your support involves making a sacrifice, whether it be financial, whether it be your time, whether it be your skills, whatever.”
More information on AboutFace-USA can be found online at AboutFace-UA.org or by calling their office at 888-766-0222.