The VA and a Charlotte-based non-profit have teamed up to try a new approach to mental health treatment for veterans. They're reuniting entire units for therapy in a pilot program called Operation Resiliency.
The first will be the 2009-2010 version of Bravo Company of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which will brought together again in April.
It was picked because nine years ago it had a tour in southern Afghanistan that was beyond tough.
"We were going out on patrols and finding or hitting IEDs almost every single day," said Lukas Collum, who was a corporal during the deployment. "That deployment I saw a lot of my friends come back missing legs, one of my really good friends missing an arm."
Collum is a 28-year-old college student in Illinois now. But back then, he was a young soldier barely out of high school trying to stay alive in the deadly orchards of the Arghandab River Valley.
There were improvised bombs seemingly everywhere. His job was to walk at the front of patrols with a metal detector, hoping he found each bomb before it found him or his buddies.
Of about 110 men in Bravo, three were killed in action on that tour and more than 50 wounded, Collum said.
He was among those injured. A suicide bomber in a car packed with explosives blew past a checkpoint and detonated near his unit's small outpost. Collum was buried in ruble and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
He said it wasn't the explosion, though, that gave him post traumatic stress disorder.
"It's the stress of that deployment, because when you look back at that deployment, you can sort of see yourself slipping from one extreme to another," he said.
"When you first get there, you're there to take on the world," he said. "Six months in, you're just ready for it to be over, one way or another."
Some soldiers in the unit were medevaced out in mid-deployment and flew home. After the deployment, the rest went their own ways. For many with PTSD, civilian life hasn't been easy.
"We really avoid situations where it's going to be high stress, high population of people," he said. "We don't really know where we fit in any more."
That alienation was too hard for some. Several from the unit have died by suicide. That's a big reason Bravo Company was picked to be the first in the pilot program.
"We want it to be a cross between respite, healing, and reunion," said Sarah Verardo, the CEO of the Independence Fund, a veterans advocacy group that is working with the VA on the project. The program is concentrating on units that experience high casualty rates, particularly stressful deployments, or high suicide rates among their veterans.
For Verardo, it's personal. Her husband, Mike, was part of Bravo Company.
"He's at Walter Reed right now recovering from his 119th surgery since he was wounded," she said in a recent interview.
He had survived being blown out of the top of an armored truck by one bomb, but a couple of weeks later leaped over a wall into the detonator for another bomb, which tore off one leg and much of an arm.
"In September, one of my husband's buddies killed himself, and I felt like the only time we were back together as a unit was when we gathered for funerals," Verardo said. It's tragic enough when you have a friend killed in action, of course. But it's really tragic when they come home and lose their battle at home."
"It got to the point where I'd mention one of his friends, like, 'Hey, do you remember so and so?' and he didn't say, 'Did he get promoted? Did he have a baby?' He'd say 'Did he kill himself?'"
Verardo said the soldiers have been enthusiastic about getting back together for the program.
She said the VA will provide the mental health experts and the curriculum, with an emphasis on helping the soldiers continue their transition to civilian life and encouraging "regrowth after trauma." Data have shown that veterans who get VA mental health care are less likely to kill themselves.
Another goal is simply getting guys back together who still need each other and understand each other in ways no one else can.
"A lot of the guys from my platoon left extremely quickly or they were medevaced out for injuries," Collum said. "You never get a chance to tell these guys they shaped your entire life."
After Bravo's reunion, the plan is to spread the program to other units across the services. Verardo said a dozen units have already contacted her group to ask about signing up.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.