A different kind of normal: Veterans Transition Corps helps soldiers become civilians

By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly

Ian LaVallee

 Ian LaVallee, a veteran of the Iraq War who served in the Army from 2005 to 2006, found that serving his country was difficult before, during, and after his service.

“[Military personnel are] indoctrinated into a world that is very different than civilian life,” he explains. “The military takes a lot of time to train us to live in this military culture and in combat zones. Serving can be very life-changing, very stressful, very visceral. It can be difficult to come back from these extreme situations of life and death to a different kind of normal.”

Through his newly-founded nonprofit, the Veterans Transition Corps, LaVallee is aiming to help other veterans ease the transition from military to civilian life.

In LaVallee’s view, military personnel aren’t given adequate resources to help them come back from their experiences serving.

“There’s very little provided for transition,” he says. “There’s no boot camp to bring you back to civilian life.”

As a result, many veterans suffer from the lingering effects of their service in a tortured silence. “It can be post-traumatic stress,” LaVallee explains, “it can be just alienation, and it can be physical injuries. There’s a large prevalence of military sexual trauma, for example. The Department of Defense numbers of women … claim that one in three female soldiers will be assaulted by fellow soldiers during their time serving. And that’s the DOD’s numbers, which are often lower than the reality.”

Perhaps even more painful than the psychic injuries, though, is the rift that some veterans see between their perspective and that of those around them.

“For many returning veterans,” he explains, “everyday American life can seem inane, and the things that people care about can seem meaningless. We have a different level of what we see as being important, worth knowing about and paying attention [to]. Seeing someone care more about some reality television show than what is happening to their neighbors, their city, or the world can be very alienating and disconnecting.”

Even after the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, queer veterans can run into even more problems of abuse and alienation.

“People who served under DADT and were outed for revealing their sexual identity are sometimes seen as ‘evil soldiers’ amongst some veterans [for being discharged],” says LaVallee, who identifies as queer. “Even without DADT, there’s rampant homophobia and misogyny in military culture, and folks are still afraid to stand up to it for fear of repercussions.”

In order to ease this transition for all veterans, LaVallee started a dialogue with fellow veterans he met while participating in the Occupy Portland protests.

“We wanted to do something that created space in the community for veterans to meet one another and approach their experiences, and to help one another out,” he says.

From this inspiration came the Veterans Transition Corps.

“We are a non-partisan, non-political organization that is open to all veterans — be they combat or non-combat, U.S. Military or otherwise. All of our founding members and board members are post-9/11 veterans, but we’re also working with veterans from the Gulf War era and the Cold War era,” LaVallee says. “We even have some Vietnam veterans who are working with us, as well as people from the Israeli Armed Forces. We want to help all veterans to self-actualize in the most healthy, productive ways that they can.”

The VTC’s pilot program, Boots to Roots, aims to provide veterans with sustainable agriculture-based education, employment, and therapy opportunities through the philosophy and practices of permaculture.
“We have about two-dozen veterans involved in this pilot, being instructed by two military veteran permaculture instructors, one from Australia and another from the U.S. Army,” LaVallee explains. “This horticultural therapy encourages people to work with the land and make it more abundant than when they arrived.”

In the long-term, the VTC aims to unify and connect veterans and resources, both through their own offerings as well as partnering with other holistic veteran transition organizations such as the Returning Veterans Project, the Warrior Writers Project, and the Combat Paper Project.

“Ultimately,” LaVallee says, “I’d have to have a permanent retreat space that can integrate all of these — to have a site where vets can hike, do writing retreats, yoga retreats. My personal interest is to do wilderness therapy, because for me I arrived at my relationship with the land through the wilderness. It was transformative for me to relate to the source of my physical and spiritual abundance through things like hunting and wildcrafting.”

The VTC is a growing organization, and they are actively looking for folks who want to get on-board with their mission of holistic healing for those who have served our country.

“We’re looking for people who want to collaborate with us, be they veterans or not, who are interested in helping us to achieve these goals,” LaVallee says. “Anyone who is willing to help and create open and compassionate community with us to help veterans transition is welcome. And, please, send us your vets! We always want to connect with more vets who are interested in collaborating and participating in our programs.”

Beyond the VA: More innovative resources for veterans

The Returning Veterans Project — Provides free and low-cost mental health services, acupuncture, chiropractic and naturopathic care, and other complimentary and alternative medical services for returning veterans and their families in Oregon and Southwest Washington. 503-954-2259, www.returningveterans.org

The Combat Paper Project
— Hosts art therapy workshops in which veterans create fabric and paper out of their combat uniforms to enable veterans a creative catharsis while broadening the traditional narrative surrounding service and military culture. www.combatpaper.org

Warrior Writers Project — Hosts workshops in writing, painting, photography, and a host of other mediums to facilitate veterans sharing their stories; publishes anthologies of poetry, prose, and art by veterans to bring their narratives to the public. www.warriorwriters.org

The David Lynch Foundation’s Operation Warrior Wellness — Provides scholarships for instruction in Transcendental Meditation, programs for veterans’ groups, and research into meditation as an evidence-based treatment of PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression in veterans. www.operationwarriorwellness.org

The Farmer Veteran Coalition
— Mobilizes farming communities to create healthy and viable futures for veterans by enlisting their help in building a green economy, rebuilding rural communities, and securing a safe and healthy food supply for all. The coalition seeks to simultaneously assist the farming community by developing a new generation of farmers and to help our returning veterans find viable careers and means to heal on America’s farms. www.farmvetco.org

Mosaic Foundation — Hosts Voices of Veterans, Voices of War retreats that bring together returning soldiers with older veterans and mental health professionals in order to create ritual, ceremony, and healing art. www.mosaicvoices.org

For more information on the Veterans Transition Corps, check out veteranstransitioncorps.com or call 360-388-1242.