'They find that sense of worth': Projects help veterans return to civilian life

News-DemocratNovember 10, 2013 

Tender Lewis, 36, has spent the last eight years trying to figure out how to fit back into the civilian world after leaving the U.S. Army in 2005.

Lewis, suffers from back injuries and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder after a year spent near Baghdad, Iraq.

Even so, today she believes she's finally found way back into the civilian world. It's through a door called The Mission Continues.

Based in St. Louis, the group allows vets picked for its fellowship program to select volunteer opportunities while providing them leadership training in classrooms full of other post-9/11 vets.

Lewis, of Waterloo, is using her six-month fellowship through The Mission Continues to teach other veterans to play the guitar. Lewis' work is occurring under the auspices of Six String Heroes, a not-for-profit that works out of Jefferson Barracks VA Hospital, in South St. Louis County.

On most Monday nights, Lewis and other Six String Heroes volunteers teach the vets who show up the secrets of making music both individually and in a group.

"I'm able to help others that are like me and get them to that positive side, so that they don't feel alone, that they don't feel helpless," Lewis said. "It's one of the best feelings."

Music therapy on a guitar makes a huge difference for her and students, Lewis said.

"When they're playing the guitar, they have to focus on how to play the guitar," she said. "And to focus on different chords and what they're playing and stuff. So it takes their mind away from whatever they're dealing with, whether it's PTSD or chronic pain or whatever it is. Everybody feels a connection to some type of music."

The community volunteerism of the kind that Lewis is engaged in, and that groups like The Mission Continues promote nationwide, are the subject of new research showing they are an effective tool for helping veterans make a successful return to society.

That is one of the conclusions of a new, multi-year survey conducted by the Center for Social Development at Washington University, in St. Louis, and The Mission Continues, which began in 2007 in St. Louis.

The survey reported that The Mission Continues fellowship program helped 400 post 9/11 fellows to improve their job performance and chances of finding a job.

Participation in The Mission Continues programs also played a role in cutting by half the number of fellows who screened positive for depression. Twenty-seven percent screened positive for depression at the start of the program, while just 13 percent did so after completing it, according to the survey.

Meredith Knopp, the group's vice president of programs, and herself an Army veteran, called her program "a great combination that brings together veterans from all over to rebuild that sense of purpose, that camaraderie. This becomes their new unit."

The roots of The Mission Continues can be traced to founder Eric Greitens' return to the United States after a tour of duty as a Navy SEAL in Iraq.

During a visit with wounded troops at Bethesda Naval Hospital, in Maryland, Greitens heard the same refrain, according to Knopp.

"What he heard was this overwhelming sense of wanting to continue to serve, that they had more to give," she said. "And that our veterans need to hear not only 'thank you' but 'we still need you.' And so that's really been the catalyst to this program."

James Sperry, of Belleville, is attempting much the same thing in the metro-east with a group he founded called The Fight Continues.

Sperry, a Marine who suffered PTSD and a severe brain injury during the battle for Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004, said the catalyst for his organization began after he left a treatment center for veterans with severe PTSD in Atlanta.

One of the first things he did was spend a year volunteering for a Marine unit that tracks down the fate of Marine vets who experienced combat overseas.

"A lot of them are living like hermits, they're pretty much off the grid," Sperry said. "I come in there, I say who I am and what I've been through, and I give them no B.S.. and tell them I was right where you are four years ago, and this is how I've moved on."

The Fight Continues engages in a wide range of social service projects, both in Illinois and Michigan. The group has helped veterans in those states struggling with alcohol and drug addictions to get sober, according to Sperry.

"I know with addiction you got to keep them busy after they decide to stop so that they're not always thinking of going back to that bottle or that pill," Sperry said. "They find that sense of worth."

Scott Pickerell, 29, a veteran of Iraq, experienced a wide range of problems after leaving the Marine Corps in 2006.

"When I came back it was pretty much don't talk about it, just drink and forget about it," Pickerell said. "So I just forgot about it for years and pushed it way down. And it eventually caught up with me."

Pickerell today is working as a volunteer for The Fight Continues, with his efforts concentrated on improving the group's website. Pickerell figures that eventually he will feel comfortable enough to start working one-one-one with other veterans through the organization.

"I think it's a good avenue for people to go," he said.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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