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Peer support specialists in Pa. funded by VA grants

A national program of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will fund suicide prevention programs through 2025. Pictured is the VA Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre.
A national program of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will fund suicide prevention programs through 2025. Pictured is the VA Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre.

Returning to civilian life after years in the military felt like going from “hero to zero,” said Robert Brands.

“When I was in the Marine Corps I had responsibility – I had purpose,” Brands said. “When I came back to civilian life, I certainly didn’t feel like a hero. You’re looking for a job, there’s so much that you have to deal with.”

He acknowledged that many former service members struggle with that transition. Some become depressed or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Other veterans – whether or not they were deployed to combat zones – grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder from their time in the military, Brands said.

Last year, Brands founded an organization called Victory For Veterans (VFV). Its goal is to improve veterans’ mental health and prevent suicide in Carbon County. Brands employs veterans who can share their experiences with others who are struggling.

Brands, a Persian Gulf War veteran, served in the Marines from 1987 until 1991 then later worked as a correctional officer and a security manager. But now he’s a peer support specialist, giving back to other veterans.

“Peer support is our number one service,” he said. Including brands, all four peer specialists at VFV are combat veterans, and the two care managers come from veteran families. Veterans who seek support from VFV do not need to be combat veterans, he said.

The trauma sometimes associated with military service means the veteran community has higher suicide rates than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The group Together With Veterans found that Carbon County has the highest suicide rate of all of Pa.’s counties.

“We want [veterans] to feel comfortable and we want them to understand that we are a source of support and a resource for them,” Brands said.

When Victory For Veterans opened its doors in January, it expected to provide behavioral health counseling to 50 to 60 veterans and their families in its first year. But the group is on pace to far exceed that number, Brands said.

Though at first, Brands said it was a challenge to connect with local veterans. Adding outdoor, informal networking events may help VFV meet more people who could benefit from peer support. VFV will be organizing “rucks” or hikes around Carbon County from June until November.

“I found many years ago that hiking was a place that I could really relax and think and clear my mind,” he said. “I found that to be true for other veterans.”

Brands’ group formed after the Penn Foundation, a St. Luke’s-affiliated nonprofit, received a $534,000 grant and supported his vision. The VA’s Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program is expected to give $174 million to public health initiatives through 2025. The program was named for 25-year-old Staff Sgt. Parker Gordon Fox who died by suicide in 2020 after six years in the Army.

Victory For Veterans is based at the St. Luke’s Hospital Carbon Campus and, for now, only veterans who reside in Carbon County are eligible for one-on-one care. But Brands said he’d be happy to include veterans from other parts of the region in group hikes.

Other VA Fox grants in Pa.

Including Victory For Veterans, three Pa. organizations received more than $2 million in VA Fox grants last year.

The Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC) received $740,000 to support veterans’ mental health in central and southeastern Pa. through the grant program. Earlier this month, Philadelphia-based VMC opened a Harrisburg office, but the organization also has branches in Berks, Clinton and Chester Counties as well as in New Jersey and Delaware.

Among other programs, VMC provides housing, unemployment and behavioral health support to active duty military members and veterans, according to its website. Services are offered to those in

The VA also awarded $750,000 to the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pa. A full list of 2022 awards can be found here. Grant awardees for 2023 are expected to be announced later this year.

If you’re in need of support, you can dial 988 to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Veterans can also dial 988 and press 1, or text 838-255 for the Veteran Crisis Line.

More information on Victory For Veterans at St. Luke’s Carbon Campus.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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