For decades the U.S. military has equipped its members with the tools and training necessary to face possible death in war zones around the world. But are they prepared for life once they return from the battlefield?
In the case of Bren Briggs, the answer was no.
A decade ago he came back from Iraq with serious injuries that required six surgeries and two years of medical care. The government addressed his physical issues, but not the toll they took on his family. Ultimately the situation drove Briggs and his wife to divorce.
“During my recovery, my wife and I struggled with reconnecting and communicating,” said Briggs, a major with 28 years of military service at the time. “Neither of us were prepared for the man who came back. I felt empty, hollow, I could not focus, and I had trouble connecting emotionally with anyone around me.”
Accustomed to being in top physical shape, he required assistance with simple physical tasks. He struggled to find words after years as a skilled communicator.
“I became frustrated with myself and with my best friend who was incapable of helping or understand me because I did not know how to understand ‘me,’” he said. “We became increasingly more distant and grew apart. We began to argue over minor issues and spent more and more time apart. The things we once enjoyed we no longer participated in together. We began doing more and more things apart which created even a bigger gap and more frustration and tension.”
The couple received professional counseling but it came from a civilian who had no point of reference when it came to the unique strain that can envelope military families, of which far too many suffer the same fate or worse without proper help.
Experiencing these struggles firsthand led Briggs to seek out programs designed specifically for the military community and to also have a hand in creating a new one at the local level.
He and his children attended a weekend retreat organized jointly by GratitudeAmerica and the Twin Lakes facility outside Atlanta. It was an overwhelming and life-changing experience for him.
“From the phone calls to set up the weekend to the very last goodbye the staff and team of volunteers made my kids and me feel so welcome and cared for,” he said. “There were only 15 families included in this weekend retreat but it was the perfect size. I felt as if we were the focus.”
The personnel at the camp were on hand constantly to meet every family’s needs, and this became especially clear when Briggs was unable to participate part of the weekend because of his medical issues, at which time camp officials were able to assist him without his children even being aware of the problem.
A former medical officer who currently leads group events and provides small group interventions for veterans, Briggs had high expectations going into that weekend and was not disappointed.
“This was the first time my kids and I have had the chance to bond and interact like this. This was their first time at a camp with other kids with military parents,” he said. “This will be a memory we will cherish for a very long time.”
Because of his own experience with his family, Briggs felt compelled to help the veteran community locally. He has created the Eden Project, a veteran-run 501(c)3 organization founded and centered in Fayette County specifically to focus on local veterans, conducting small group meetings for peers and for couples.
“The sessions are kept small and intended to allow veterans and their spouses to openly share in a safe non-judgmental environment,” said Briggs. “I have seen these groups change lives simply by relearning how to communicate with each other. The retreats however, take it to a completely different level.”
Fayette County has one of the largest veteran populations in the state, and Georgia has one of the largest veteran populations in the country, according to the Eden Project. “But there is no national support for our veterans and their families for many of the issues they face.”
Those issues include post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, drug and alcohol addictions, underemployment, divorce and homelessness among others.
The Eden Project has placed homeless veterans in stable homes and assisted veterans with employment concerns, substance abuse issues and crisis counseling for their families. Couples have also received reintegration classes.
The veteran population is made up mostly of those from previous wars, but more than 1,600 veterans in Fayette County served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.
“Each group has its own unique issues and concerns ranging from depression, educational concerns, employment, dealing with the Veterans Administration and reintegrating after long separations from the families,” according to an Eden Project spokesperson. “It does not matter if a veteran served 20 years ago or 2 years ago, scars and issue from their service may be just under the surface and affect all aspects of their lives.”
The Eden Project is sponsoring a golf tournament Monday, April 17, at the Newnan Country Club. Its stated purpose is to raise funds and awareness for veterans issues in the area. Golfers and sponsors are being sought. All proceeds will support veterans and their families in Fayette and Coweta counties.