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Older veterans now helping vets of Iraq and Afghanistan

Having 'been there' themselves, Vietnam veterans are better able to listen to and counsel younger vets troubled by their combat experience.

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There is also research involving new treatments. At the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Cmdr. Scott Johnston, director for clinical research, just completed a three-year study using virtual-reality technology to help veterans overcome fear, anxiety, and flashbacks. After five to 10 weeks of treatment, 80 percent of the participants no longer had PTSD symptoms.

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But for some vets struggling to overcome psychological injuries, an important element of treatment involves their peers. The Canadian government and the United Kingdom's Royal Marines have both adopted programs based on veterans helping other veterans with psychological injuries. In the US, informal veterans groups are providing similar services.

"It's not that credentialed professionals have no role," says Dr. Shay, who won a MacArthur Foundation grant for his treatment of Vietnam veterans diagnosed with combat trauma. "It's that they don't belong on center stage."

ACVOW's volunteers, who work from a tiny room in the La Jolla VA hospital as well as a facility on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in San Diego, use their own money and some modest donations along with their credibility as combat veterans to help the new generation address psychological injuries and navigate the VA system. They see firsthand the cost of shortfalls in the mental-health care system.

"What we're seeing is marines committing suicide by motorcycle, or car," or by forcing police to shoot them, says Rider. "They are fed up with the fact they can't get some peace and quiet in their head."

ACVOW formed in 2001. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many veterans of past wars reported troubling flashbacks.

"They were coming out of the woodwork," says Michael Sloan, a cofounder of the group. These days the La Jolla office is usually bustling with young men dropping by, cautiously looking for help.

How one marine got help

Josh, the Marine reservist who appeared at ACVOW's door at the La Jolla VA hospital and asked that his last name not be used, says he found what he was looking for – people who "get it."

The regular group meetings held by ACVOW got him through the week, he says. The group's office was also a place he could vent his anger. Fellow vets were there for him when he hit bottom in April.

As Josh tells it, he and his wife were arguing again, a new development in their relationship since he returned from Iraq in October 2006, and something snapped. His wife called the police, and he found himself in jail on several charges including domestic violence.

When Rider heard Josh was arrested, he contacted an officer in charge of the jail and explained Josh's injuries. "I guess I made an impression because after that they were all very nice to him and understanding. I do that because I know Josh would not tell them," says Rider. "Josh didn't do this because he's a bad person. He did this because he has combat stress and TBI."

Josh and his wife have separated, but hope for reconciliation is still in the air. Anger, distrust and sadness still course through him, he says, but lately he's been a little more at peace.

"He is 100 times more calm than a month ago," says Tim Jordan, a Gulf War veteran and ACVOW volunteer who started the group meetings that Josh regularly attends.

Last month, Josh and a Marine Corps buddy took the first steps to start a company they hope will be able to employ veterans and use its profits for charitable veterans causes. For now, Josh is living at the VA hospital, but he hopes to become one of ACVOW's volunteers. "It's like I need to find a new mission," he says. Being part of helping other veterans, "That's kept me more sane than anything."

It's a feeling Rider and the other ACVOW volunteers understand well. Rider is a decorated veteran of the infamous 1st Battalion, 9th Marines that suffered many casualties in Vietnam.

Both grateful and tormented for surviving war, he views the work today as a kind of penance and a duty. "It's like a balm that you put on the soul," he says.