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Therapists offering free help to veterans

Feb 25, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The Soldiers Project in Riverton will provide psychological aid to military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The physical structure that will house the Soldiers Project -- Wyoming Chapter when it opens this year in Riverton offers a fitting metaphor for the work Lander therapist Charlie Wilson hopes will take place at the facility.

"We're taking this house that's kind of beat up and hurting and sort of retooling it into something pretty great and functional," Wilson said, adding, "It does sometimes take a long time."

He got the building from Habitat for Humanity about five years ago, thinking the house would be perfect for the Soldiers Project.

The nonprofit organization provides free, confidential psychological services to military personnel and their families who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wilson said most Soldiers Project facilities are more homey than clinical, making the residential structure in Riverton ideal.

"(It's) more organic and comfortable for folks to come to," he said.

Therapists donate their time to the Soldiers Project and commit to working with one client each, staying on the case as long as there is a need. The group limits its services to veterans who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily due to a lack of resources, Wilson explained.

"We don't mean it in any way to slight anyone or say one vet is more important than the other," he said.

Instances of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder are higher for people who saw conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, and Wilson said therapy has been shown to help in such situations.

"There's certainly a shift toward the success of therapy around working with trauma, and especially war trauma," he said. "The therapies today are pretty effective. ... They're not overnight -- they can take years. But the process is effective."

It is gratifying to work with Soldiers Project veterans, he continued, because they tend to be younger people with a sense of civic duty.

"That's in place already -- they've served," Wilson said.

During that time in service, he said some soldiers have "very intense" life experiences that force them to do "a whole lot of growing in a really short amount of time."

"There's a richness in their experience," he said. "But the same thing that drives that growing also really costs people sometimes psychologically. ... And how they internalize it (can) go two ways."

One pathway can result in destructive behavior, he said. But clients who successfully overcome any negative psychological effects of their service often go on to help others in the community.

"The experience the individuals had that brought them into this symptomology generally, if well treated, plays out into some pretty life-changing and life-improving phenomenon," Wilson said. "(It can) be nurtured along and be very fruitful in terms of a person's development."

All veterans

Wilson plans to invite other organizations serving area veterans to use the Soldiers Project facility, which is located on the old Riverton hospital property at North 12th Street East and East Lincoln Avenue. He also wants community members to use the center if they have questions about veterans issues in general, and he hopes to coordinate with St. John's Medical Center in Jackson to offer free cognitive testing for local service members.

In addition, the Soldiers Project has a program called Adopt a College that educates school faculty and administrators about the challenges veterans face when returning to school after serving. Wilson said he'd be interested in bringing the program to Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

For now, though, he is focused on getting the Soldiers Project house open in Riverton.

"We're very close," he said last week. "We're waiting basically on the final 'It's OK to take occupancy' inspection. ... As soon as I have that, I'm going to set an opening date and have some open houses."

One event will be for the community in general, but Wilson said he also plans to host a separate celebration for the people who have helped him with the endeavor. The Soldiers Project organization hasn't paid for any of the work so far -- Wilson said the group will fund any advertising or promotional efforts once the facility is open -- but community members have offered donations and discounted services to get the house ready.

Another open house will be for therapists and law enforcement officials who may have questions about the project. Wilson said police -- many of whom are veterans themselves -- are often the first to witness the effects of PTSD on a patient.

To set up an appointment through the Soldiers Project, call (877) 576-5343. Once it is open, the local facility can be reached by calling 856-1244.

Correction: This story should have said local realtor Richard Emond transferred the house to Charlie Wilson for the Soldiers Project.

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