The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

August 16, 2013

Warriors help out other warriors

BY MARY WICOFF mwicoff@dancomnews.com
The Commercial-News

---- — DANVILLE — Veterans might be able to lend a helping hand or words of support to a National Guard member.

The Illinois Warrior to Warrior program seeks veterans to be part of a social and emotional support system for members and their families as they transition to civilian life.

The program, which is starting its second year, has been operating in the Chicago area, and now it’s expanding to other communities across the state. It’s run by Health & Disability Advocates in Chicago, in partnership with the Illinois Army National Guard.

“It’s a unique opportunity to get to someone in uniform and help them,” said Laura Gallagher Watkin, Health & Disability Advocates’ director of veterans programs.

Program coordinator Joe Franzese said, “Most of it is peer support.”

Referring to the veteran volunteers, he added, “From serving in the military, they have a familiarity with different things. We build off what they already know.”

Volunteers must have served in the military and have been honorably discharged. A criminal background check will be conducted.

The volunteers may be from any era, from Korean War up to present-day service, and may have served in any branch. Veterans who served during peace time and who were not deployed also are eligible.

Volunteers will go through an initial four-hour training, and then they will be assigned to a National Guard armory close to where they live. Danville has a National Guard unit. The volunteers will be expected to commit to a few hours once a month.

The volunteer will be assigned to a National Guard member, and offer advice or direction for a variety of readjustment issues, such as financial benefits, educational goals, emotional challenges, substance abuse, legal or job issues. The volunteers will receive training in communication skills and community resources.

Volunteer veterans are able to provide resources that may be unfamiliar to soldiers while helping them through whatever problem might be standing in their way. The idea is to get them help before any issues escalate.

Volunteers must be sensitive and willing to listen to the issues combat veterans face, including those affecting their health and mental health. Volunteers also provide outreach in their local communities and respond to calls for assistance from any veteran who may have heard about the program.

Gallagher Watkin described it as having a “battle buddy.”

“It’s good to have someone to talk to outside the chain of command,” Franzese said.

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, the program is especially important now. National Guard soldiers are attached to armories, which can’t provide the services that military bases do. Sometimes soldiers are expected to reintegrate into civilian life without a support system.

In addition to seeking volunteers, Gallagher Watkin said community agencies that have services to help veterans are needed. Those groups — for example, food pantries, the United Way and other civilian resources — will be added to a database.

“We’d like to connect with them and collaborate so we could include them in our network,” she said. Interested agencies may go the website or e-mail ilw2w@hdadvocates.org.

The young program “has been going great,” Franzese said.

“We’re excited about it because it’s a partnership between a community agency and the National Guard,” Gallagher Watkin said.

Warrior to Warrior is modeled on the Buddy-to-Buddy program in Michigan developed for National Guard soldiers and their families by the University of Michigan. Illinois was the first state to adapt the program.

The Illinois program launched in April 2012 and is operating in the Chicago area with about 30 volunteer veterans, with 15-16 in training.

Volunteers are being sought from Danville, Paris, Champaign-Urbana, Mattoon, Decatur, Bloomington and Springfield to work with National Guard units in those areas.

The Illinois Warrior to Warrior program is free and confidential.

FYI For information about the Illinois Warrior to Warrior program, to apply to become a veteran volunteer or to be included in the program's database of community-based services, go to http://www.ilwarriortowarrior.org or call (877) 938-8403. You also may e-mail ilw2w@hdadvocates.org.