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Soldiers Project helps vets cope with war's mental scars

The L.A.-based nonprofit provides unlimited, confidential counseling to service members and their families at no charge.

November 28, 2009|By Nicole Santa Cruz
  • Scott Shore, 34, with his 4-month-old son, Soren, is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scott Shore, 34, with his 4-month-old son, Soren, is suffering from post-traumatic… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Before he was deployed to Iraq, Scott Shore refused to take aspirin for headaches.

Six years later, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he takes six medications daily for ailments ranging from depression to insomnia.

"Just to leave my house and take my kids to the park is a struggle," said the 34-year-old Mission Viejo resident, who also receives counseling from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But another part of Shore's therapy began in January with the Soldiers Project. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit includes a network of mental health professionals who provide free, unlimited, confidential counseling to service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.

"It's helped me open up a little bit more," Shore said.

Judith Broder, a psychiatrist and founder of the Soldiers Project, said the idea came to her after she saw a Hollywood play featuring monologues of soldiers' lives overseas. She was so shaken by their experiences that she awoke the next morning with the idea for the project.

The network, founded in 2005, has expanded from Los Angeles across Southern California and to Sacramento, Seattle, Chicago, New York and Boston. The licensed mental health professionals practice from their private offices, eliminating the long lines and crowds of people often seen at the VA.

The nonprofit can be reached at (877) 576-5343 or at www.soldiersproject.org.

After Shore's VA therapist had to relocate too far from the vet's home, he had to find a new source of counseling. He received a call back from the Soldiers Project in one day.

The organization also offers specialized training for the mental health professionals in the network and provides community speakers for people to learn about "what the war looks like when it comes home," Broder said. Counseling is also available to the extended families of service members.

The network stresses convenience, especially for those who can't drive long distances and might need therapy on weekends.

"They really go above and beyond," Shore said.

Because he lost his job as a land surveyor this summer, Shore's family wouldn't be able to pay for the extra counseling he's receiving free through the Soldiers Project. Just last week, Shore found out that the VA is reducing the frequency of his counseling from once a week to two days a month, leaving him to rely even more on the Soldiers Project.

With rampant joblessness in the U.S., service members experience more of a shock when returning home, Broder said. Veterans are left without jobs and nothing to do, she said.

"Our goal really is to help our service members come all the way home," Broder said. "Not just physically back in their hometowns, but back psychologically to their families and to themselves."

Though the demand for services is increasing, Broder said the organization has more than enough therapists to handle the load -- especially in the Los Angeles area.

"We don't have money to spend on advertising, and it's all word of mouth," she said.

Former service members such as Shore, who served in the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve for a total of 12 years, sometimes don't know how to reach out.

When he returned from Iraq, Shore said, he turned to alcohol. He said he often was withdrawn and angry. His wife, Shawnna, 33, said he didn't know how to express his feelings, something that therapy is slowly helping with.

"I know the more he talks about it and the more he expresses how he feels, the better he becomes," she said.

Shawnna, who now does most of the family driving, confesses to "nagging" Scott to seek help.

"It got to the point where it was an ultimatum," she said.

For Shore, the effects of war will take a long time to heal. Because of his injuries, he may never be as athletic as he used to be. He misses golfing and scuba diving. He once exercised four to six times a week.

But slowly, Shawnna is starting to see differences. Scott is attending more outings such as family gatherings and baby showers. He's becoming more comfortable talking about things other than the military.

"Granted, he's not the man he was before he left," Shawnna said. "I don't think he'll ever be that again."

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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