Veterans & Mental Health: Donald's Story

Sue Bergeson Health Guide
  • Sometimes I wonder if what we do at DBSA makes enough of a difference. It's a hard job. The pain our peers experience is great, and our resources are limited. It's easy sometimes to become discouraged.


    But the other day Donald (not his real name) told me his story, and it's something I'm going to hold on to for a while, because it's so encouraging. With all the issues in the news about our veterans and all of our worries about them as they return home, I thought you might enjoy hearing his story, too.


    Donald served two tours of duty in Vietnam. That's several years of watching his peers die unexpectedly after tripping a bomb, running into a sniper or engaging in warfare. That stripped away everything, including Donald's humanity. Through his many injuries, he lost the equivalent of all the blood in his body-twice.

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    Donald came home from Vietnam, but Vietnam never left Donald. He drifted like many veterans of that war, until the only place he could survive was on the street. In his hometown of Chicago, he lived under the famed Michigan Avenue and skirted the neighborhood where he grew up, scrounging in garbage cans for food and hoping no one would recognize him.


    One day, a fellow vet gave him a sandwich. He didn't demand anything from Donald in return; he just gave him something to eat. Every Saturday, he was there with his sandwiches. And soon Donald began to trust-for the first time in what seemed like forever. And then he began to help his fellow vet hand out sandwiches to others. Inspired by his peer, Donald too found a dream-he wanted to find a way to give back.


    Think about that: Donald was homeless. He had nothing. He wasn't guaranteed a single meal or a place to sleep at night, but that simple act of receiving a sandwich from a peer caused him to dream of ways to reach out and help other vets.


    Because of his trust in his "sandwich friend," Donald found his way to the VA for help and began receiving services. He was put on permanent disability and treated for his bipolar disorder. But sadly, as is the case with many of us, Donald's treatment didn't help him. The statistics say that 60% of us can find relief through medication, but 40% of us don't. For Donald, the side effects of the medication made his illness even worse. And so he sunk back into despair, giving up his dream.


    But once again Donald got lucky. He was tapped this summer to participate in the certified peer specialist (CPS) training program in Florida funded through DBSA's partner, the Rebecca Lynn Cutler Legacy of Life Foundation. And through that program, he heard for the first time in his life that recovery is possible. Recovery-a full life in the community where our illness doesn't get in the way of achieving our hopes and dreams. Notice that recovery isn't a life without illness, but a full life despite the illness. So, instead of focusing on how ill he was, Donald could start building on his unique strengths. He could focus on what he wanted to create in this life.


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    What Donald learned through this summer's training jump-started his life. Today, he's working with DBSA to help bring support groups to homeless shelters, churches and soup kitchens-places where vets congregate across the Chicago area. He's starting a website so that all of the groups seeking to help vets have a common site to use and to make it easier for vets to find the help they need.


    One person, one program. DBSA's CPS training touched one amazing person, Donald, and set off a ripple effect. As a result, Donald and others also inspired by CPS training can help countless individuals find the hope, help and support they need to move forward. DBSA is training hundreds of vets as peer specialists, ready to help their fellow vets as thousands more return home from combat in the next few years.


    Now that's what I call making a difference.


    Have you had a "sandwich moment," like Donald did, that helped change the course of your own journey? I would love to hear about it.

Published On: November 07, 2007