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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Veterans Find Healing Through Peer Veterans

December 3, 2013

Christina Valenzuela, Peer Support Specialist, answers Veteran’s questions. 
All alone and no one to help.

That’s how some Veterans might feel after coming home from war, even years after a traumatic event.

A new peer support program aims to break the stigma and connect those Veterans with others who understand, because they’ve been through it too.

In August of 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order to improve mental health care for Veterans. 

As part of this Executive Order, the VA was able to hire mental health service providers for a program called Peer Support.

Peer Support is a nation-wide program that was formally initiated in 2006, and helps Veterans feel empowered during the recovery process, and offer help in many programs including those addressing mental health, substance abuse, trauma, homelessness, women’s health and more. 

There are more than 800 peer support specialists nation-wide, 14 of which work at the Houston VA.

“Our peer support specialists are a very diverse group of people, and I believe more vets will be able to relate to them and receive extraordinary care,” said Rebecca Lancaster, Ph.D., MEDVAMC Psychologist and Local Recovery Coordinator.

Peer support specialists wish to serve those vets who have served, not only because vets have fought for our country, but also because they themselves are vets who have suffered.

“We have all [peer support specialists] have been in the military and have suffered from something which we are still recovering,” says Leonardo Bryant, Peer Support Specialist in the Trauma Recovery program at the Houston VA.  “We tell our own stories in order to help suffering vets relate to us.  Hopefully our stories will make them more receptive and willing to let us help them.”

Bryant himself has suffered from post-traumatic stress, and recalls moments in combat when he was unable to reach out to his family for support, but was able to get support from the person standing right next to him. 

“I just want to help fellow vets in any way I can,” says Christina Valenzuela, Peer Support Specialist at the Houston VA’s Community Resource and Recovery Center.  “I sometimes see that there may be a gap in understanding from someone who is a Veteran, and someone who isn’t.  I hope to bridge this gap and help Veterans heal.”

Valenzuela, who comes from a military family and served the military as a health care provider, is very familiar with some of the difficulties there may be on the way to recovery.  She shows other Veterans how this program can be successful, through her own story of success. 

“My own recovery has taken me on a spiritual journey, and by our managers supporting our recovery, we are able to lead other Veterans down the road to recovery,” says Valenzuela.

All of the peer support specialists at the Houston VA embrace their own recovery, and feel by helping other Veterans heal, they are helping themselves heal.  VA Peer Support Services are at VA’s nation-wide, and continue to help Veterans during the healing process.

The Peer Support Group at the Houston VA, and at the Beaumont VA Outpatient Clinic, encourages Veterans to seek help within the program. 

“We all have the ‘nobody is left behind’ mentality, and this program is our way of continuing that promise to each other,” says Bryant.  “This is our way of continuing on with one of our greatest traditions.”

For more information about the Peer Support Program at the Houston VA, please contact Rebecca Lancaster, Ph.D., HSPP at (713) 794-7144.