November 20, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Veterans heal themselves by helping others

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Philippine military personnel carry a man to board an evacuation flight at the airport in Tacloban, Philippineson Tuesday. More on Nemitz 2 3gggg.

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Children play on the playground of the typhoon damaged Pawing Elementary School in Palo town, Leyte province, central Philippines Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, which tore across several islands in the eastern Philippines on Nov. 8.

AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Nevertheless, when some of his longtime civilian friends finally stepped up and told him he wasn’t quite the same guy they knew before he went off to war, Szafran had the good sense to seek help from the Department of Veterans Affair. He sees his monthly counseling sessions (down from weekly) as an “intelligent move” and has persuaded some of his old war buddies to do the same.

Helping oneself, however, doesn’t lift the spirit quite like helping others. Only after he signed on with Team Rubicon late last year and attended his first training session, in the White Mountains with a group of fellow Maine veterans, did Szafran know he’d found the perfect channel for his post-military energy.

Thus last week, when the alert went out for a second strike team to relieve the one already in the Philippines, Szafran looked at his busy work schedule and reluctantly concluded he couldn’t be in Los Angeles for the Friday morning mobilization deadline.

But there he was on a plane to California early Saturday morning, more than happy to fill in at Team Rubicon’s national headquarters for a week – half of it vacation time, the other half paid volunteer time that Martin’s Point offers to all employees – and help stage the relief effort.

“Then last night, we get the tornadoes going through Illinois,” he said. “Probably within a couple hours of those storms passing through, we had a strike team mobilizing to go into that area and do damage assessment. And we’re working on sending two more strike teams in there today.”

It’s not the free trip to Florida or the T-shirt with the uplifting slogan or any of the other myriad gestures that have sprung up in recent years to honor the country’s latest generation of war veterans as they begin to heal physically, emotionally or all of the above.

For Szafran and the many others now proudly attached to Team Rubicon, it’s something vastly more profound than all that: a welcome opportunity to turn the trauma of war into a force for good.

“We’re the first organization I know of that has successfully started changing the conversation about what PTSD is like and how to engage veterans who might be suffering from stuff like that,” said Szafran. “We give people the tools to get involved.”

Earlier this fall, Team Rubicon veterans from all over New England flocked to a three-day training session organized by Szafran at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport. There, between war stories, they learned the do’s and don’ts of using a chain saw to clear debris from a disaster site.

“That’s a huge need,” said Szafran. “To have people who can effectively and safely operate chain saws to get debris cleared goes a long way for families on the ground trying the recover.”

No doubt. But you’ve got to believe removing all that rubble goes even farther for guys like Szafran.

Dangerous as it is to handle, after all, a chain saw is not a weapon.


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be reached at 791-6323 or at:

Twitter: @billnemitz

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