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Peer-to-Peer Mentoring: A Catalyst for Empowering Veterans

Ryan Garner is an accomplished military veteran with over 14 years of service. He started his military career by enlisting in the armed forces and later earned a commission as an officer from West Point. Ryan now resides in Sarasota, Florida, where he works as a Veterans Career Development Facilitator for Goodwill Manasota. In his role, Ryan helps veterans and their families find meaningful employment, drawing on his experience and expertise to assist those who have served their country. With the upcoming Memorial Day, this article hits close to the heart.

I'm Ryan, an American soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder. Though I was informed of PTSD by doctors in 2009, I initially denied its existence and avoided discussing it with anybody, despite their insistence. It was terrifying for me because I was worried about what my family and friends would think and how my diagnosis would impact me.

As a Soldier, I continued driving on until a particular day in the Summer of 2009, four years following my departure from Iraq's battlefield. The exact cause behind this turning point remains unknown to me. Perhaps it was the sight of the young Soldiers' remains that I helped collect after an IED explosion obliterated their vehicle, knowing deep down that they would never reunite with their loved ones. It could also be attributed to the time of year, as it coincided with the haunting memories of Iraqi children covered in blood - innocent victims of a market bombing in Balad, Iraq.

Despite being unable to pinpoint the exact trigger, I felt an intense tightening in my chest out of nowhere one evening in 2009, making breathing difficult. I felt enclosed and overwhelmed by panic in a way that made me get out of bed instantly, convinced I would die. Although I considered going to the emergency room, I found solace in my military training, which urged me to persevere. My morning began with panic, fear of confinement, claustrophobia, and tightness in my chest. When that moment came, I wondered whether I might have a heart attack. I needed to seek medical attention if that was the case.

I returned home to St. Louis after my medical retirement. There, I realized that while I no longer burdened the Army, I was now one to those who were most important to me: my family and friends. Like many others, I hid myself to avoid being seen as another broken ex-soldier. In contrast to what I expected, those around me provided help that worked against me instead.

In the darkest hours of the night, I am haunted by memories of recovering the bodies of my comrades. Iraqi children were tragically killed, and the blood on my uniform remains an unforgettable memory for me. While I enjoy my family's company during the day, I find myself confronted by the faces of many family members who have lost their lives, and I continue to be haunted by the loss of fellow soldiers.

I sought help because I grew tired of not being there while battling my inner demons. The moment had arrived for me to return home for real. That is when I discovered the peer mentor groups provided by the Wounded Warrior Project. Unlike the many doctors and therapists I had encountered before, these groups truly helped me bring everything into focus.

Except for other combat soldiers, no one else truly comprehended the weight of my experiences. I sought out fellow soldiers who wore combat patches to find solace and mutual understanding. Together, we formed a tight bond, grappling with the immense weight of the deaths, destruction, and pain we had witnessed firsthand. We felt isolated, fearful of seeking assistance, and burdened by the haunting memories that plagued us. 

Peer-to-peer mentoring is a highly effective method for developing and honing leadership abilities, gaining insights from others, and establishing a support network. This entails forming a partnership with individuals with comparable aspirations, obstacles, or interests and engaging in a reciprocal exchange of feedback, guidance, and motivation. Peer-to-peer mentoring has thus been a valuable resource for me and other veterans, providing many benefits. Here are just a few:

Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Mentoring for Veterans:

1. Development of a sense of camaraderie and belonging:

Veterans can connect with each other through peer-to-peer mentoring programs, combating feelings of isolation during the transition back to civilian life. Peer Mentors provide a sense of community and understanding during the transition—supporting the veteran and easing the transition. 

2. Provision of emotional support and the reduction of feelings of isolation:

Transitioning from military to civilian life is emotionally challenging for veterans. Peer mentors provide a safe space for veterans to express themselves, reducing isolation and helping them process their experiences. This support encourages veterans to seek help when needed.

3. Transfer of practical knowledge and skills:

Experienced peer mentors help mentees with careers, education, finances, and resources. They share their knowledge and lessons to support veterans in transitioning to civilian life and succeeding.

4. Enhancement of personal growth and self-confidence:

During peer mentoring, veterans explore strengths, develop new skills, and set personal growth goals. Mentors encourage their mentees to challenge themselves, take on new responsibilities, and aim for excellence. With peer mentors, veterans can gain confidence, recognize their potential, and achieve post-military goals.

5. Facilitation of successful reintegration into civilian life:

Veterans who participate in peer-to-peer mentoring receive assistance in navigating civilian life, finding jobs, and accessing healthcare. Mentors reduce stress and increase their chances of success in civilian roles.

6. Improved mental health outcomes:

As veterans transition to civilian life, they often experience mental health issues. Peer mentors provide veterans with a safe and supportive space to express their concerns. Having a mentor improves veterans' mental well-being and reduces mental health risks. They help veterans seek help, practice self-care, and develop coping strategies. Mentors share their journeys and offer support.

Now that I live in Florida, I joined a veterans' group called Lutz Buddy Up. We meet regularly to share experiences and provide support. We have a safe environment where we can share our challenges and successes. During my time in these groups, I gained advice on navigating the job market, adjusting to civilian life, and dealing with the emotional effects of those with similar experiences. Transitioning to civilian life has been challenging for us; however, we have supported each other.

We are social beings, and our well-being depends on our interactions with others. For veterans transitioning to civilian life, peer-to-peer mentoring is crucial. During this challenging time, programs like Lutz Buddy Up provide support. In this new chapter, veterans can benefit from practical advice and emotional support from a mentor group. As long as these programs are funded, all veterans can get the help they need during their transition.

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