Combat veterans helping combat veterans-Columbia-Metro
By Robert Hemphil
Photography by Jeff Amberg
Since its establishment as a nation in the late 18th century, the United States of America has experienced military conflicts from the 19th century through the 21st. Only after WWII was there any attention given to the challenge of a veteran’s adjustment to normal life after serving in combat. Those who fought and sacrificed their lives to protect and defend our nation in the unpopular and controversial Korea and Vietnam wars had a different experience. The latter wars led to the public’s disdain and indifference for the welfare of veterans who fought in those conflicts. Most recently, our nation has been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns fighting a war on terrorism.
The Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts involved jungle and desert warfare where soldiers never really knew who the enemy was. Awareness of the effects of the horrors seen and experienced in war by combat veterans has steadily become prominent. The syndrome is now recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is a unique aspect of mental health and needs particular attention.
Who focuses on these combat veterans, the warriors who endured the horrors and violence of war? Who helps them restore their lives when they return? While there are numerous veteran organizations seeking to help these veterans, about 27 percent of them return without sufficient symptoms for outright diagnosis yet they still have their daily lives seriously impaired. In 2011, a combat veterans support group called The NEPC Combat Veterans Support Group, as it is based out of and supported by the Northeast Presbyterian Church on Polo Road, was established by co-founders Bobby Farmer, Col. Bill Collier USA (Ret) and Col. Steve Vitali USMC (Ret). This support group is open to all military combat veterans and cold war veterans in dangerous jobs such as submariners and military intelligence regardless of branch service, to name a few. The group was initially discussed conceptually in March 2011 with its official establishment in April of the same year. This group was the impetus for establishing Project Josiah Restoration Ministry.
In 2012, combat veterans from WWII to present were welcomed, and participation steadily increased. Bobby indicates that the groups meet 52 weeks a year, even during holiday periods. According to Bobby, the ministry has helped approximately 93 combat veterans.
While there are no designated official counselors or therapists present, the facilitator and other participants peppered throughout the groups are trained in mental health first aid to address a situation, with referral authority when necessary.
Bobby, an ordained minister and Vietnam veteran, discussed starting a ministry to expand the NEPC CVSG. Bobby amusedly recalls how the ministry received its name. Bobby is the national chaplain for the Combat Veteran’s Motorcycle Association. One of the group members, knowing of Bobby’s CVSG ministry, selected the name Josiah for Bobby’s motorcycle given name. Josiah was the person responsible for the reformation in Israel’s history; thus, it naturally followed that it would also be the same for his ministry, Project Josiah Restoration Ministry.
This ministry was established on Dec. 2, 2013, and was granted 501©3 status on Aug. 20,
2014. The ministry has a 15-member board comprised of retired military and civilian members with one of its member currently serving as the Commandant of the United States Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson.
Its mission statement is: “To bring combat veterans together to strengthen, to share, and to improve their lives; to empower them to make choices using Biblical principles to heal themselves and to enable them to help other veterans.”
It is based on the Biblical principles from 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
The Josiah Restoration Ministry has been the springboard for five additional Combat Veteran’s Support Groups who meet around the state at locations in Charleston, Sumter, Aiken, Elgin and Blythewood. The groups meet at different times on different days when convenient and at sanctuaries where the participants feel most comfortable attending.
When asked what his ministry uniquely offers, given all the existing efforts to help and assist veterans like Blue Star Mothers, The Wounded Warrior Project and The Veterans Administration, Chaplain Bobby states, “Ours is open-ended. We are not in a hurry to get the participants to talk.”
There is no set agenda, no particular focus, but just discussions with a facilitator subtly guiding the direction of discussion instead of pressuring the individual to share experiences which can lead to an emotional breakdown. “We prefer a strategy of meeting with others who have served their country during trying times and under difficult circumstances for an ultimate outcome that their service was honorable and what had been asked of them,” Bobby says.
Bobby emphasizes that trust and hope are essential. “There is no judging, and all participant discussion is sealed unless express permission to disclose is given by the individual sharing.” The result: brotherhood and healing among veterans.
Besides support group meetings, the ministry has expanded its activities to include participation in commendation ceremonies, funerals, deployments, coming home celebrations and honor flights. Recently, the ministry sponsored and participated in a 175 mile Combat Veteran Kayak Trip on the Congaree River from Columbia to Charleston to raise awareness of PTSD and to promote efforts to help combat it. The event was prominently covered by the news media.
“PTSD is different from general mental health issues,” Bobby explains. “It possesses a different normal, for example: a combat veteran is driving down the highway and sees an empty cereal box in the road. The box would be, to the average civilian, a harmless piece of cardboard. But, in the combat veteran’s mind, he recalls a similar item in combat theater as an IED. He reacts to it by switching lanes to avoid contact with it. The same reaction occurs when sudden loud noises are heard which simulate gunfire or explosions in his mind.”
As a 501©3 charity, the ministry depends strictly on donations with plans to eventually attain financial self-sufficiency and be financially able to set up additional chapters and establish them on financial footing. Additional plans include providing training and, should circumstances allow, expansion nationally.
“The Project Josiah Restoration Ministry is here to provide a place for our combat veterans to seek help and support by combat veterans,” Bobby says. “It has surely helped me.”