Veterans Day is not only important to honor those who have served in our armed forces, but also to acknowledge the challenges our veterans face once they return from duty, particularly in Louisiana. On average, 22 veterans each day take their lives in the United States – with Louisiana accounting for one of the highest rates in the country.
“Military life is very difficult,” says Robert Harris, director of Service to the Armed Forces and Veterans for the Louisiana Red Cross and a member of the United States Army for the past 21 years. “Service members return home with unique issues as a result of their deployment. The Red Cross helps them be more functional in their day-to-day lives by identifying and addressing these complications.”
Joining the Louisiana Red Cross in 2014, Harris partnered with the Louisiana National Guard to identify ways to address the increasing veteran suicide rates in our state.
“Many soldiers have seen multiple deployments in the years since 9/11,” Harris said. “The military’s resiliency program prepares soldiers pre-event, but it doesn’t ready them for when the storm finally clears – returning home after a long stay away, readapting to family life, and other everyday stresses. This is where the Red Cross fills the gap, helping them identify and cope with stress, depression, or just adjusting to the new normal.”
One of the ways the Red Cross supports service members—as well as their families and loved ones—to identify and effectively address these issues is through its Reconnection Workshops. Led by licensed mental health professionals, these workshops focus on building skills that enhance the likelihood of positive reconnections among family members, as well as the successful reengagement of the service member in civilian life. Free and available to anyone affected by a military deployment, individual workshops address skill enhancement and developing coping mechanisms, addressing topics such as dealing with stress, managing conflict, and communicating with children.
“Red Cross Reconnection Workshops provide a safe space for veterans and service members to not only discuss how they are feeling, but to see that others in their position feel the same way,” said Ava Carter, Louisiana Red Cross program manager at Fort Polk in Vernon Parish. “Being in a deployed environment removes you from your normal support, making even small things that would otherwise roll off your back seem insurmountable – and this stress can carry over after returning home. Reconnection workshops help individuals pick apart the ways they respond to stressors in an effort to find healthy coping mechanisms.”
When Harris set out to broaden this program in Louisiana two years ago, the Red Cross anticipated demand for 100 participants that year – his team ended up hosting more than 780. For the current fiscal year, Harris plans on hosting 1,250 by the end of the first quarter, with the expectation that number will likely grow. Demand of these workshops is currently so great in Louisiana that the state accounts for nearly 10 percent of Red Cross Reconnection Workshops held nationally.
As the program continues to grow at a rapid rate, Carter stresses the need for qualified volunteers. One of the unique yet limiting factors in terms of recruitment selection is that the program is conducted by licensed mental health professionals.
“I would love to do a million of these workshops; however, we are limited by the number of available credentialed volunteers,” said Carter, who recently hosted workshops for U.S. service members in Kuwait. “Finding more people who are able to hold these workshops would allow us to increase Louisiana’s footprint in regards to improving the behavioral and mental health of our military community.”
Harris says interested mental health providers with the appropriate credentials and experience can reach out to the Louisiana Red Cross to learn more about available opportunities.
“For me, the Red Cross Reconnection Workshops has one of the greatest impacts on our mission,” Harris said. “Stress doesn’t end after combat does – veterans come home and deal with bills, breakups, divorce, and everything else you and I deal with. The increasing demand for these workshops show there is a massive need for this service in our state. We want to empower our veterans to be happy and productive their whole lives, into their twilight years."
More about Reconnection Workshops
Reconnection workshops are a free and confidential program from the American Red Cross to help service members, veterans and their families returning home to friends, their jobs and their communities. Skill-enhancing modules are offered in small groups, and participants can choose from a variety of topics, such as: dealing with stress, communicating clearly, managing conflict, coping with depression and supporting children.
Reconnection workshops are open to National Guard, Reserve and active duty service members, as well as veterans, families and friends. To schedule or attend a workshop, please contact Robert Harris, Louisiana Service to the Armed Forces and Veterans Director, at (504) 915-8229 or Robert.Harris2@redcross.org.
Click here to learn more about pre- and post-deployment services available to service members and their loved ones through the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and Veterans.