Citizens in our community, our country and throughout the world have been coping with the psychological, physical and economic effects of COVID-19 for the past two months or more. For veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress, the struggle is even greater. Two local non-profit organizations have stepped up to the challenge to assist veterans in overcoming the additional stresses of COVID-19.
K-9 Partners for Patriots (K-9PFP) was founded in 2014 by Mary Peter, a Certified Master Dog Trainer. The program matches service dogs with veterans who need assistance in coping with PTSD.
The primary focus is often on the family member, the veteran, who is struggling the most and whose PTSD-related symptoms might be worse as a result of the uncertainty and fear associated with the virus. As a result, the spouses and other family members sometimes feel like their issues are not being addressed. This often occurs under normal circumstances, but it is especially true during this very stressful time.
Denny Brown, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who counsels the veterans states, “Many of our veterans are struggling with that feeling of being isolated again. Many of them are fearful that they might revert back to old behaviors, even when the stay at home order is over.”
To try and help these men and women, K-9PFP is offering weekly online support groups that meet via webcam and one-on-one counseling by phone and/or webcam.
The organization also offers biweekly online spouse support groups that meet via webcam. The spouses can also reach out for assistance on an individual basis.
“Many of the veterans have had their appointments at the VA cancelled due to the COVID-19 virus. The uncertainty related to everything that is going on right
now has resulted in increased feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression
and anger,” Brown continues.
To replace the normal 19-week program in which the dogs and their owners receive joint training in person, K-9PFP is conducting weekly virtual training, live chats on its Facebook closed group for problem solving, and virtual group counseling. Trainers also email the veterans, when needed, for follow up.
Many of the dogs in the program come from animal shelters and are fostered by individuals and families before going into their training program.
“Dogs that were currently in foster at the time the social distancing and isolation mandates were given are still with their fosters. We are not able to test any new dogs with veterans until this mandate is lifted,“ Ms. Peter states.
Despite the challenges of the past two months, K-9 Partners for Patriots is continuing to grow; admitting new veterans into the program.
“Applications are being processed and veterans are being contacted via email by our Veteran Liaison. Interviews will be scheduled once the current mandates of social distancing and gathering together are lifted and we are back in our Training Center," Ms. Peter concludes.
Three hundred eighty-nine veterans have either graduated from the program in the past six years or are in the process of working through their training. These men and women are not just from the Tampa Bay area. They come from thirty-five counties in Florida. There is no doubt that the numbers will grow once the coronavirus crisis has passed.
Veterans H.E.A.T. Factory (VHF) was founded in 2017 by local businessman, Gus Guadagnino. Its mission is to Honor, Empower, Assist and Train military veterans and First Responders who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress.
VHF does this through a fourteen-week program. This includes such activities as yoga and exercise, mental health counseling, stress and anger management, drug and alcohol abuse mitigation and job training. Like K-9 Partners for Patriots, Veterans H.E.A.T. Factory works with the families, as well.
According to Guadagnino, two major challenges the organization has faced since the quarantine began were developing virtual activities to keep the veterans and first responders from being isolated and continuing psychotherapy, case management and groups in a virtual platform. To help with these challenges, case managers are maintaining contact with their clients through texting and weekly phone calls.
Of course, the veterans and their families have unique challenges also.
“Most of our veterans do not have families they are living with. Post-Traumatic Stress causes problematic relationships. For those who do have families, this can be very stressful for all. Those with PTSD do not do well with change and this may heighten their symptoms. Families will feel they are walking on eggshells in an effort to keep everything running smoothly,” Guadagnino comments.
Compounding these challenges is the task of continuing with virtual psychotherapy services due to the lack of trust many of their clients have in the technology regarding confidentiality. While VHF does use a HIPPA compliant software, many do not feel comfortable.
Isolation is another big issue, which can bring on depression, sleep issues, heightened PTSD symptoms and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
“Many of them [the clients] have just started being comfortable leaving the house. They are now stuck in their house and separated from those whom they have formed important relationships with,” Guadagnino continues.
Socialization is an important part of dealing with PTSD and Veterans H.E.A.T. Factory has found a way to do this, even with social distancing.
First, VHF purchased very intricate paint- by-number kits and one of the volunteers put the canvases on a stretch frame. Then they started a painting group.
“We will meet as a group and talk and laugh while painting. This helps with socialization and depression and the mindfulness required to paint helps with anxiety,” Guadagnino remarks.
The organization started a book club, allowing the members of the club to choose what they would be reading. They chose the classics, so their first novel will be The Great Gatsby. They will be meeting once a week to discuss the book.
K-9 Partners for Patriots and Veterans H.E.A.T. are proof that tough times create innovation. Tough times test our resolve, strength and resilience.
Go to www.k9partnersforpatriots.com or call 352-397-5306 for more information on K-9 Partners for Patriots.
You can find out more about Veterans H.E.A.T. Factory by logging onto
www.veteransheatfactory.com or by calling 352-251-7015