Belle Bennett Landau has been called “The Godmother of Veterans.” As executive director of Returning Veterans Project, her mission is to provide Oregon’s war veterans “all the care they need to come all the way home.”
With a background in not-for-profit leadership and fund development in organizations focused on prevention and early intervention of sexual assault and family violence, Belle is no stranger to facing the challenges others shy away from. “My background is in helping children and families. Now I am helping military families – these men and women are making tremendous sacrifices for us every day.”
Returning Veterans Project recruits healthcare providers including counselors, massage therapists, chiropractic doctors, naturopathic doctors and acupuncturists to provide free treatments to war veterans and their families. Last year, 144 providers donated 3,096 hours of services to 274 returning veterans, 14 active duty service members and 165 military family members – the equivalent of $261,500 worth of services, earning the Volunteer Innovation Award from Hands-On Greater Portland.
Returning Veterans Project treatment sessions are offered to veterans, active duty service members, members of the National Guard, Reserves of the current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. Belle asserts it is our collective duty to provide care and support for those serving in the military. “As the second leading state in the nation for multiple deployments,” Belle points out, “the need in Oregon is great.”
What is the story behind the founding of Returning Veterans Project?
I am the first full-time director and I have been in that position for the last four years.
Returning Veterans Project was founded by Carol Levine, a licensed clinical social worker. Carol founded this organization because she thought reintegration would be really challenging for someone who has just come home from a war zone.
In two days, she gathered together 25 local therapists who were willing to donate their time to provide healthcare services for returning veterans. Carol has definitely been my mentor and role model. (She is now Board Chair of Returning Veterans Project).
Do you have a personal connection to the military?
Yes. When I became involved with Returning Veterans Project, my youngest son had recently returned after serving in the Navy for eight years. He went in at age 18 in 1999 during a time of peace, and ended up on a destroyer in the Gulf during the “Shock and Awe” period of the Iraq War. He worked on the ship’s missile system. Although it was in many ways a very tough experience, it really caused him to grow – the military pushed back when he needed it. He is a now a person who always does what he says he is going to do and the Navy taught him a lot of that. Because of the electrical engineering training he received while in the Navy, he has a great job.
Which types of treatment services are particularly helpful to returning veterans?
Many seek counseling after military deployments to get help with renegotiating family roles. Some veterans need to figure out their new purpose or what will come next regarding their goals. Some couples have sought counseling before a deployment to figure out what their plan will be after a deployment, so they are ahead of the game. Many of our counselors also work individually with children and parents in military families, while some provide bereavement counseling for the families of fallen service members.
What are some of the greatest challenges veterans face when they return home?
Returning veterans who are struggling with anxiety and depression on returning home can experience feelings that are very overwhelming, so they might choose to drink alcohol or take drugs to help numb them out. And, of course, drugs and alcohol only make things worse, especially for those who have sustained a traumatic brain injury, often the result of improvised explosive devise blasts. We connect veterans with help to heal all of that, and make those challenges more manageable on a day-to-day basis.
Many veterans are more comfortable asking for help on someone else’s behalf than for themselves. On a combat mission, people work together to solve problems and get a job done, so it can feel like you are going it alone, relatively speaking, when you return home. One returning veteran has shared that he went to one of our therapists seeking help for one of his buddies, and he ended up seeing the therapist himself for two years.
The healthcare practitioners on your roster also include acupuncturists, chiropractors and massage therapists …
Yes! Somatic services are very popular with returning veterans, and very beneficial. Somatic services refer to acupuncture, massage, chiropractic and naturopathic medicine. Many come home from war zone missions with physical issues that can be treated and managed with these types of services. The equipment active duty service members wear and carry can weigh up to 100 pounds, so many benefit greatly from massage, acupuncture and chiropractic care. Additionally, we know that trauma is stored in the body, so we believe our integrated healthcare model helps release some of that trauma. I think body work opens some returning veterans to counseling, and some may get relief from stress reaction symptoms like insomnia and headaches from bodywork alone. Many returning veterans may not feel that they necessarily need counseling, but a massage, absolutely!
We always need more mental health providers and our somatic practitioners are often booked, so we could always use more chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists.
Are treatments offered through the Returning Veterans Project completely pro bono?
They are. We ask licensed, insured independent providers to open up one treatment slot in their practice for a Returning Veterans Project client. Our providers agree to serve returning veterans and their families the same as they would a paying client. The providers create treatment plans with their client and then they work through the plan. Some providers are very kind and open up more than one pro bono slot. One incredibly generous therapist in Salem who is a veteran himself has sometimes served five veterans for us at one time.
Most providers have a general practice that is not made up specifically of veterans. About 50 percent of our providers have some personal connection to the military. Right now we are up to about 155 providers throughout the state who are listed in our directory, up from 60 providers when I started in 2009.
How does Returning Veterans Project recruit healthcare providers?
We reach out to organizations like the Oregon Counseling Association and the Massage Therapy Association through placing ads in their publications, or by tabling at their conferences.
Returning Veterans Project also hosts about three continuing education trainings each year to support our providers, so that they have current information on best practices for the specific types of health concerns that are common with veterans. The trainings are free to our providers and to our referral service partners, and include continuing education credits. We sometimes host trainings in partnership with the Portland VA and the Oregon National Guard.
A recent training we offered was on treating survivors of military sexual trauma. Because of my background, I feel this is an especially important issue. Thirty percent of women who serve are sexually assaulted by another service member, as are about one out of every 100 men, so this is a very important matter to address.
Other topics that have been covered in our trainings include suicide prevention, treating combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the treatment needs of military families and military culture. A psychologist from Israel recently came and did training on art therapy to help relieve PTSD that she uses with veterans in Israel.
I also do a lot of public speaking to pretty much anyone who will listen about the needs of returning veterans and their families during and after deployments, and I have taught some workshops for churches, agencies, service clubs and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
And how are the services that can be obtained through Returning Veterans Project made known to military families?
The National Guard has held Yellow Ribbon pre- and post-deployment events for the last few years. We go to those several times a year, so that the military families know what we are offering. They can get connected to treatment services by just going to the “Find a Provider” page on our website to select the type of services they would like to receive and to find a provider available in their area.
I am really proud of the relationships that we have been able to create that have enabled us to get a large number of referrals from a variety of sources, whether it’s local mental health agencies that work with veterans (including homeless veterans), the National Guard Reintegration Team (in 2012 they made 401 referrals to us for mental health services alone), and several teams at the VA who refer their clients to us – especially family members of current war veterans. It was important for us to communicate to the VA and the National Guard that we are not going anywhere, that our services will be consistent.
What is your favorite part of your role?
Learning more about people who choose to serve in the military. They are amazing! Most of the folks I have met just really want to serve their country. I also have to hand it to their families, because if a mother or father is serving, then their family is serving as well. In some families, both parents are serving. People are making remarkable sacrifices. So, really, it is just an honor to do this job.
Do you have a favorite Returning Veterans Project success story?
Participation in the program is, of course, confidential, but we do have a few people who are willing to step forward and say what they have gotten out of their treatments. They want a way to say thank you, so they will let us use their stories in our outreach efforts. One woman who came forward had been an Army Captain in Iraq, and her family history is unique in that it was always the women who were serving in the military – her grandmother, her aunts, and then herself. She was in charge of moving an incredibly large piece of equipment in Iraq, and had to take her troops through incredibly dangerous places. Her best friend lost a limb and she felt very guilty that she was not there when that happened. When she returned home to Vancouver, there was a fireworks display that no one told her was going to happen, and it triggered an episode of PTSD. She heard about us about a year and a half after returning home, and went to see one of our providers. She says it really helped her. Now she is a social worker and a new mom – doing great! She is one of my very favorite people.
How are services provided through the Returning Veterans Project similar or dissimilar to services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs or other organizations?
The somatic services are not available at Vet Centers or the VA, so they refer veterans to us for those treatments. They will sometimes refer family members of veterans to us as well. There is a new caregiver program at the VA, where there are funds available for caregivers (usually a family member) of very disabled veterans, and many use our services.
We also share resource/referral information about other services available for veterans around Oregon and in other states – we get about 25 calls per month.
How can the community support the efforts of Returning Veterans Project?
I would like to challenge licensed health care providers like counselors, massage therapists and chiropractors who do not currently serve veterans to give it a try.
For everyone else, Returning Veterans Project will be featured in this holiday season’s Willamette Week’s Give!Guide! Or with a small donation folks can post a picture of their favorite veteran or service member on the Returning Veterans Project Wall of Honor.
Wall of Honor?
The Wall of Honor was the brainchild of one of our Board Members, John Cimral, who is the Chief Information Officer at Cambia/Regence Blue Cross. He also happens to be a veteran himself. In return for a donation of $25 or more, anyone can ‘salute’ a veteran by posting a picture and a personal tribute. Corporations are asked to make a minimum $500 donation. Since it creates goodwill and supports Returning Veterans Project’s mission, it is rapidly becoming a popular way for people and organizations to show that they care about veterans, especially around the holidays. This project is reflective of Returning Veterans Project’s desire to make veterans feel appreciated, hopefully causing their transition back into civilian roles to be a little easier.