NYAPRS Note: Here’s an extremely touching account of one veteran’s recovery journal by Moe Armstrong. Moe’s extraordinary efforts to found and spread Vet-to-Vet peer support meetings across our country is being recognized this year by the NYAPRS Board with our 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award, which he’ll receive next week at our conference.
My Recovery Journey as a Veteran
By Moe Armstrong
Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 2010, Volume 33, No. 4, 260–261
From 1962 until 1966, I served in the Navy as a Medical Corpsman. During this time period, I was attached to both First and Third Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam and was decorated with a Navy Commendation Medal with a combat V. I was always brave and strong and conducted myself well.
During my time in combat, I experienced a complete and total breakdown trying to save the life of a wounded North Vietnamese soldier. I understood his humanity and that he was just like me. I was going to live, but he was going to die. My experience with this trauma affected my life and I began to fall apart and drifted into psychosis and exhaustion.
Back at our base camp, I was evacuated from Vietnam as a psychiatric casualty and eventually was sent to the U.S. Navy hospital in Oakland, California.
I continued to experience exhaustion and psychosis and felt alone and isolated. People, including me, were up all night in the hospital wandering around and unable to sleep. Although hospital staff thought that I was well and dis- charged me to my family in Illinois, I was not doing well at all. My family did not know what to do or how to help me.
Over time, I wandered about homeless and was vulnerable to people who wanted to get me drunk and high.
Eventually, I went to live in New Mexico and became involved with the VA to get a place to live. By 1976, ten years after the war, I realized that I wanted to stop getting high and focus on my life to be clean and sober. My VA benefits kept me from drifting into homelessness and I was able to do some janitor work and pass out advertising pamphlets to help supplement my income. I showed up to work, learned how to be consistent doing these two jobs and did not break down.
In 1984, I took advantage of the VA’s vocational benefits to attend college and complete two bachelors’ degrees followed by two master’s degrees. As an undergraduate, I graduated first in my class and received a community service award for my work on keeping veterans in school. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the topic of supported employment.
By 1990, I was working in mental health with Donald Naranjo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Donald is the Executive Director of Pathways, Inc. in Albuquerque and helped me to be- come knowledgeable about psychiatric rehabilitation while Gilberto Romero, a consumer activist, showed me what I could do as a member and activist with both state and national consumer ex- patient movements. I traveled with Gilberto to training sites and conferences and began to get a sense of myself as a person in recovery and realized that with my experience with mental illness that I could make a contribution back to the mental health system.
With the help of VA benefits and vocational rehabilitation, I never returned to poverty. I am a product of the VA mental health system and am not ashamed that I came through and continue today to receive VA services for my psychiatric condition. I continue to be tormented by depression, sadness, and my mental pain. Sometimes, I feel crushed with anguish, but I continue on. I have tried to be more aware of my psychiatric condition so that I might help other people. In truth, the VA has become the family that I never had and provides me with a continual safe haven from my personal upheavals.
I have never denounced the mental health system and my care to prove that I am independent. My present job is to share my knowledge and what I have learned in the VA mental health system. What have I learned? I have found the Recovery Workbook (Spaniol, Koehler, & Hutchinson, 1994) a most useful tool for reducing stress and living with mental illness. As there are not enough staff people to reduce my anxiety, peer support is even more critical for my sanity, stability, safety, and sobriety. Thus, I teach or attend VA peer support using this workbook at least once a week.
I attend ongoing educational support meetings, called Vet-to-Vet, almost every day. I also have set up Vet-to-Vet meetings across the United States in almost 40 sites. “Gladly Teach/Gladly Learn” is the motto that I try to live by. VA (Vet-to- Vet) peer support is learning and teaching and sharing knowledge every day.
“Extend my hand of friendship” is my belief. My purpose in life is to try to be helpful to other people. I am commit- ted to working with people who want to work with me. In Spanish, “Trabajamos con los que tenemos” or “work with who we have” is my belief. Someday, I hope to portray those of us living with psychiatric conditions in art, theater, video, motion pictures, and music. The most beautiful people that I have met are people in both the VA and public mental health system.
My life as a recipient of VA services and provider of services has been rewarding. I grew up thinking that I would play football and maybe sell insurance in a small town. I wanted to be a member of a church and the Lions Club. I thought perhaps that I could be a minister.
In the end, although I lost my mind, job, military life, and mother and father, I gained so much more. I gained love and trust from people who have been hurt like me. I gained confidence from people who were lost and re- gained their lives. I regained another life. Not the life I once wanted. I have a good life and there are people who love me, and I love and appreciate many people. My time and friends are mostly in the mental health system where I have met more people and had more great conversations than I ever thought possible.
Life is short and people are precious. I believe that someday when I die that I will return to live more within God.
When I leave this life, I want to be remembered not by the money made or the beauty of my house. I want to be remembered by what I did and who I helped. From the VA mental health services and some individuals, I got a lot of help along the way.
My hope is to live and work with the VA West Haven, Connecticut. Laurie Harkness and Bob Rosenheck have given me purpose as I work to organize Vet-to-Vet educational support meetings all across the United States.
Strange, how 42 years later, my whole life seems to have come back to both working in the VA mental health system and continuing to get care.
This article is dedicated to Mr. Filberto Ruiz and Jack Valencia who found me homeless in the mountains and got me first connected to VA Services through the New Mexico Veterans Service Commission.
Spaniol, L., Koehler, M., & Hutchinson, D. (1994). The recovery workbook: Practical coping and empowerment strategies for people with psychiatric disability, Revised edition. Boston: Boston University, Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.