Vet to Vet program saving lives with a safe place for veterans and active duty to meet

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Michael Silverman, El Cajon resident and founder of Vet to Vet San Diego completed two 13 month tours in Vietnam and when he got back all he wanted was to be stationed at MRCD San Diego. He wanted to be home and wanted to stay with the Marines. He received two purple hearts and a bronze star and the Combat Valor. “Out of 164 corpsmen that went with me to Vietnam, 114 died and I am one of 47 that came back alive,” he said.

Michael Silverman, El Cajon resident and founder of Vet to Vet San Diego completed two 13 month tours in Vietnam and when he got back all he wanted was to be stationed at MRCD San Diego. He wanted to be home and wanted to stay with the Marines. He received two purple hearts and a bronze star and the Combat Valor. “Out of 164 corpsmen that went with me to Vietnam, 114 died and I am one of 47 that came back alive,” he said.

When he started Vet to Vet, he was chairman of the Mental Health Advocacy Council at the VA Hospital and in his capacity he travelled other VA hospitals in Southern California and Nevada. Los Angeles had 22 Vet to Vet programs, Loma Linda had eight.

“And we didn’t have any,” he said. “We are the second largest population of veterans per capita in the United States, second only to New York City. It’s like, you complete Anger Management PCT or any of the other alphabet soup classes the VA has, and after 22 week’s they say, ‘Well, have nice day,’ and there’s no follow up. There’s nothing.”

But in founding Vet to Vet San Diego

Vet to Vet sponsored by the Veteran’s Museum, Balboa Park where its first group started, then a second group became just as successful in South Bay, but Silverman knew there was a great need for this program in East County and started the third group of Vet to Vet that meets in El Cajon each week.

“It’s a drop in group. It’s a safe place to be two hours of the week,” he said. “Sometimes you’re extending a hand to someone; sometimes you’re receiving the help. In Balboa I’m the oldest in the group, then we have 19 and 20 year olds from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

He said the facilitator in Chula Vista is female veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

“We’ve somehow been able to span together both the age spectrum and also gender. I’ve been counseling for 40 years and I have never seen a military type to bring men and women together without the butting of heads, but here we are all veterans,” he said.

He said the groups have active duty and veterans joining the group and that this style of healing is working as they help each other in open discussion.

“In the last six month alone, we’ve prevented five suicides and one homicide,” he said. “I saw a need for something that was support. Vet to Vet is not therapy in the traditional sense, but it is therapeutic. We are very careful not to step on the toes of the doctors, and the VA Hospital welcomes the program.”

Each Vet to Vet is independent, but every group is trained by the Vet to Vet national program. There is no charge, but in the El Cajon meeting he puts a cookie jar on the table, tells first timers that the meeting is free and for everyone if you can contribute you can, if you cannot, that is alright.

“I tell people we are not about fluff, we are about substance. So we actually have topics. One of the members of the group picks one of the topics that they want to discuss,” he said.

When faced with a situation that the group does not have the ability to deal with, they have the resources to get veterans where they need to go. But overall, it is the common binds that they share that makes the groups work in positive ways.

“They need to feel that it is safe, a safe environment,” he said. “I’m a 22 year U.S. Navy veteran, and did two combat tours in Vietnam as a hospital corpsman. I’ve been homeless, wiped out financially, went back to college and earned a degree in psychology and this program is helpful.”

He said if there is one thing that he still deals with today since the war is his survivor skills. And this is something that these young veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan can relate to.

“I was 23 when I got back from Vietnam, and I was older,” he said. “Yes I received some declarations, but I also had a lot of young Marines die in my arms.”

Now, seven years in the making, Silverman said Vet to Vet San Diego is working, even if it is with one person at a time.

“It’s small right now but it is bringing the service to East County,” he said. “It’s the same with military or Homeland Security, if you seem something that is not right, tell someone. The same thing goes for veterans and the military. If you know someone that is having a hard time dealing, let them know about Vet to Vet. Let them know there’s a safe place to be.”

Silverman said the reach out in East County is much more difficult because there is no local clinic, so he is getting the word out by putting flyers up at the nearest VA facilities, and passing them out wherever he goes. He said the important thing to remember is that “we’re not alone, you are not alone.”

Vet to Vet is a national peer-to-peer oriented program that focuses mainly on mental health problems and each veteran’s support group believes in its “Each One, Reach One, Teach One” model. All local groups are drop in groups with no advanced notice required and utilizes peer mentoring capacity to help both veterans and active duty.

The Vet to Vet San Diego in El Cajon meets once a week at the Denny’s at 665 North Mollison Avenue every Wednesday from 4:00 p.m. to 6 p.m., and is sponsored by the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park, the primary Vet to Vet San Diego.

In Chula Vista, Vet to Vet meets every Monday at the Chula Vista Public Library from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and the central location is on Tuesdays from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., at the Veterans’ Museum at Balboa Park.

For more information you can follow Vet to Vet San Diego on Facebook. For more information about the program contact Michael Silverman, USN/USMC at michaelsilverman45@yahoo.com or call at (949) 842-8276, Other contacts for the Vet to Vet San Diego are Hugo Haynie at (619) 249-6355, Loretta Gabaldon, USMC at (505) 920-6571, and Chris Clark at (619) 831-7489.

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