“Everyone expects returning veterans to adapt to civilian life immediately, but it’s definitely not easy,” says Jon Luker, a Vietnam-era veteran. “Only another veteran can truly understand that.”
Luker is one of more than 130 ex-service members who volunteer with Buddy-to-Buddy, a program that helps veterans of all ages and all branches of service adjust to civilian life. He lists just a few issues facing veterans: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger management, anxiety, hypersensitive situational awareness, physical disabilities, terrible memories, problems sleeping, and a fight-or-flight mentality “that won’t quit.”
Initially, two Vietnam veterans, Don Behm and Tom Devine, took the initiative, Luker explains. “They recognized the looks on the faces of the men and women returning from the Persian Gulf–the same looks Don and Tom had on their faces when they returned from Vietnam. They wanted to make sure that young veterans had a warmer welcome than they themselves had received and the kind of assistance they weren’t offered.
Launched in 2009 as a joint research program with the U-M Depression Center and the Michigan National Guard, Buddy-to-Buddy has evolved into a boots-on-the-ground outreach program funded entirely by grants and private donations.
Program manager Adam Jando is a veteran who became a social worker after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Most of the staff here are veterans” or have family who are, he says, “so we have that people-to-people connection [with clients].” The shared experience, he says, helps “reduce the stigma associated with veterans seeking help.”
As the program grew, Luker says, “volunteers began focusing on their own areas of expertise: a corporate executive who could help with job searches, a former medic who helps veterans navigate the health system, an educator who helps people find continuing education programs.”
Luker has seen the need from both sides. Four decades after sustaining an injury while in the military, he was diagnosed with PTSD–but only after losing his marriage, his home, and his law practice. Life was looking pretty grim when he met Don Behm. “Don found me a place to stay, and he worked with me one-on-one, encouraging me and finding me the resources I needed,” Luker says.
One afternoon, Behm invited him along to meet another veteran, and Luker discovered a new calling: volunteering. Among his greatest challenges was a veteran with PTSD so severe that during a screening at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center, “he ran screaming out of the hospital,” Luker says. “I found a civilian doctor–a Vietnam veteran–who would meet him in a park, to help him begin the healing process.”
Mark Lindke is a Vietnam-era veteran (Thailand, 1968-69) who eventually headed Washtenaw County Department of Veterans Affairs. When he retired seven years ago, he immediately volunteered with Buddy-to-Buddy. “You don’t just walk away from that type of career,” he explains.
Now Lindke walks veterans through their applications for medical care and disability benefits. He also spends many weekends attending Michigan National Guard drills and exercises, making himself available for anyone who might need assistance. He sees something of himself in the young soldiers: “I was a kid of nineteen when I joined,” he says. “When I came back, I was left wondering who I was and what I’d do with myself for the rest of my life.”
To date, Buddy-to-Buddy has helped more than 5,000 veterans answer that question. Some just need support through an immediate crisis, Jando says, while others may stay in touch with their volunteer buddy for years.
Buddy-to-Buddy has already served as a model for similar veterans’ programs in West Virginia and Illinois. And it still has of room to grow: Michigan is home to more than 650,000 veterans, with more National Guard members returning home from overseas on a daily basis.
“Our goal is to continue to evolve,” Jando says, “to reach out farther and invite many more volunteers to help many more veterans.”
This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2018 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of Don Behm’s name, the number of veterans helped by Buddy-to-Buddy and the list of programs modeled on it have been corrected, and staff members’ connection to veterans has been clarified.