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Military veterans share a special bond – a connection that often makes it difficult to discuss war and the toll it takes with people who have not served.

“When I returned from my deployment, people asked me, ‘How was Afghanistan? What did you encounter?’ It was like they were asking about a trip to the amusement park,” says Antonio Nieto, a veteran of 27 years. “Unless you served in the military, you don’t understand. I didn’t want to talk about my experiences with someone who was not there and didn’t care the same way I did.”

The Elizabeth resident, who served in the Navy, Naval Reserve and New Jersey National Guard, did not witness combat during his deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. But, he says, he was affected by the human toll through his work at military post offices overseas. “I was responsible for verifying the personal effects of soldiers who had been killed before the items were returned to the families. I saw a lot of things I regret seeing,” Nieto says. “I got to see what war does, how it affects the serviceperson’s family and friends. I also discovered how it affects people, like me, who didn’t know these men and women but were connected through their deaths. I felt extreme guilt that I cheated death, that I returned to my family while so many others did not.”

In 2008, Nieto found his connection to someone who understood his plight when a military supervisor suggested he call New Jersey Vet2Vet, a 24/7 confidential peer support helpline (866-838-7654) coordinated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. Launched in 2005 and funded by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the helpline offers support for veterans, members of the Air and Army National Guard, and their family members. It is staffed by trained peer support specialists who have served in the U.S. military and clinicians.

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