SOUTH WINDHAM – Last month, two Vietnam-era veterans who have spent their professional careers providing mental health and substance abuse support started counseling groups designed especially for veterans.

The free weekly group sessions take place Wednesdays from 5:30-7 p.m. at SMART Child and Family Services on Route 115 in North Windham. Another group for those in the Portland area meets at the same time on Tuesday nights at the Portland Recovery Community Center at 468 Forest Ave. in Portland.

The leaders of both groups are John Herrick, of Portland, and Santos Pastrana, of South Portland, who met while working at a methadone clinic in Westbrook where they counseled those struggling with drug addiction. Herrick was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966 and served a year in combat in Vietnam. Pastrana served in the Army in Europe during the war.

Both are licensed clinicians, and they are trying to get the word out on the new group, which has yet to attract a participant.

“If you can reach a couple people and help them with their personal struggles and give them ways to come to terms with it and cope with it, that’s my hope,” said Herrick. “Because when you get into a really down mental health/substance abuse situation with depression and PTSD and who knows what else, it’s hard to climb out of it. And it’s certainly harder to do alone.”

While Herrick recently retired from a career in counseling, Pastrana works at Tri County Mental Health Services in Lewiston as a licensed social worker and substance abuse counselor. He also works part time at SMART in Windham as a counselor. SMART’s mission revolves around providing support for those involved in foster care.

As part of their work, both Herrick and Pastrana have counseled veterans with substance abuse issues and a range of mental health issues caused by war experiences. Both agree the need for a weekly support session in the area is urgent, especially for the returning veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“For returning soldiers, post-traumatic stress disorder is rampant as well as opiate abuse and addiction. I worked at a methadone clinic for six years, so I’m very familiar with that,” Herrick said. “And it’s a dual diagnosis a lot of times. [There is] opiate/painkiller addiction plus PTSD, and if they don’t get some sort of help or support, before too long it’s going to get worse and worse.”

Drafted into the infantry, Herrick spent March 1967-March 1968 dodging enemy fire in the jungles of South Vietnam. After coming home to New Jersey, Herrick suffered from PTSD, and relives, still today, recurring scenes of combat. Herrick, who said he has learned techniques to control his PTSD, said modern-day soldiers, despite more support from their communities than Vietnam vets received, have it even worse than his generation, and need counseling as a result.

“I think the situation for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is pretty bleak. They’re coming out of this with a whole lot of issues,” Herrick said. “And I think these guys have probably been through a worse experience than we had. If we survived after a year in Vietnam, we were out and that was it. Some would re-up, but that was an individual decision.

“These people now can’t get out of the service. They’re National Guard, so they keep being sent back. They’re doing four, five, six tours. And how they hold up under that I don’t know.”

Pastrana said he and Herrick can fully relate to veterans because of their time in the military.

“We like to think we can identify,” Pastrana said. “We try to be clear we’re not affiliated with the VA, that we’re independent, and that we want to let them know we’re available to talk.”

Herrick said the feeling of isolation is a reality for many returning vets. He said many have difficulty coping or processing their war experience, and are depressed and listless. When Herrick returned from Vietnam, he said, he suffered similarly. He discovered he needed to talk about his experiences, and that the best listeners were those who had also experienced war.

“Yes, it’s a different war now, but war is war, and military is military,” Herrick said. “And I think you’d find that enlisted men have similar experiences from almost any war.”

Asked whether veterans of all ages can interact in a group setting, Herrick said the dynamic depends on the individuals who show up.

“If they trust the other people there, perhaps. They may just want to go and listen. But if they find there are kindred spirits there, maybe they’ll open up after a while,” he said. “But just showing up is Step 1. If and when they want to open up, we’ll give them a chance. If they just want to come and listen, that’s fine.”

Pastrana said while the group has only recently commenced and no one has showed up to session yet, when veterans do come knocking, the welcome mat will be laid out.

“I think their coming and listening is important,” he said. “They can certainly expect confidentiality. What’s discussed there stays there. They can also expect a nonjudgmental attitude about the things that they say. We’re there to support them.

“They can also expect a sense of camaraderie, that they’re not alone. And again, it’s not about talking as much as it is just being there and knowing that they’re not alone.”

With the addition of the SMART-based group, Windham has two counseling groups designed for veterans. While Herrick and Pastrana are focused on group support, Dr. Clifford Trott, of the Portland Vet Center, has conducted individual counseling sessions since May of last year at the Windham Veterans Center. The sessions begin at 9 a.m. the first and third Wednesdays of the month.

Trott, who said the Windham Veterans Center provides central access for veterans living in the Lakes Region, reports a steady amount of veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan taking advantage of the free counseling.

According to Toby Pennels, president of the Windham Veterans Association, the existence of two veterans groups in Windham is not a surprise. Pennels, who has served three tours in combat zones, including two in Iraq, said he doesn’t know figures concerning the amount of local veterans seeking support, but “if the need is there, God bless these guys.”

As an officer overseeing units that would travel through combat zones on diplomatic missions seeking out tribal leaders in Iraq, Pennels said war “is a pressure cooker that affects everyone differently, and there is a definitive need [for counseling] both during and post and maybe prior. At least that was my observation. So you won’t get an argument from me that this is unnecessary. Will everyone take advantage of it? That’s the million-dollar question. Some people are reluctant to go and say there’s a problem.”

Herrick and Pastrana said some veterans, especially those who are still in the military, need counseling but avoid it since they don’t want to jeopardize their promotions. Retired veterans avoid it, as well, out of fear for their retirement benefits. The free groups that meet in Windham and Portland, however, are not affiliated with the Veterans Administration, so participants’ mental health records won’t reflect the visits.

“A company commander has access to all soldiers’ records, and soldiers can be worried about the stigma if they seek the help of a mental health counselor,” Herrick said. “But their wives are begging them to go see someone about it, but they don’t. So these people slip out of sight, and I think it’s more prevalent than any of us would like to be aware of.”

Phil del Vecchio, executive director of SMART Child and Family Services, is glad to offer a non-VA program for area veterans.

“We were very fortunate to hire two ex-Vietnam veterans and both have credentials to work in mental health and substance abuse. Both were very interested in offering service to veterans for any PTSD or substance abuse-related issues,” he said. “And they’re two wonderful gentlemen with long rich histories, and I think they have a ton to offer.”

Santos Pastrana, right, of South Portland, and John Herrick are the co-leaders of two new veterans counseling groups, one in Portland and one in Windham.    

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