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K-State Today

July 5, 2016

The Institute for the Health and Security of Military Families takes action in helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder

Submitted by Anne Rubash

June was the month set aside to acknowledge and bring awareness to post-traumatic stress disorder. As our military troops are deployed into war zones and unsettled areas, more soldiers are returning home and facing the challenges that occur with PTSD.

K-State and Fort Riley are interconnected and supportive of one another, and it is important to note that Fort Riley is currently in a cycle of units preparing to deploy in the coming months. To improve the well-being of military families, Briana Nelson Goff, director of the Institute for the Health and Security of Military Families, has created a team that offers retreats for post-9/11 service members and veterans dealing with PTSD.

With the institute, part of the School of Family Studies and Human Services in the College of Human Ecology at K-State, Goff is using combined knowledge and resources to better equip our veterans with the tools needed to help their PTSD symptoms and relationships. Those with PTSD do not suffer alone and their family and friends can encourage and support any treatment or coping method.

Partnering with the institute are Victoria Bruner, clinical director of the retreats and program expert formerly with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; Adrian and Diana Veseth-Nelson, co-founders of Invisible Wound, a veteran's service organization that helps veterans manage their post-traumatic stress disorder; and Joshua's Hands, an organization dedicated to service with an outreach component that provides quilts for wounded warriors.

Additionally, Kali Summers, K-State alumna and executive officer of the institute under Goff, serves as the retreat's director of operations. Together, these entities develop, organize and host periodic regional retreats for veterans and a primary support person, who attends the retreats with the veterans. In 2015, they received funding from the Walter Reed Society, which has allowed them to expand the program. 

"The support from the Walter Reed Society has allowed this program to reach even more veterans dealing with PTSD," said Goff, who also is in charge of conducting the research for the program.

Currently, Goff's team is analyzing pre-, post- and follow-up data from 10 retreats since 2013. Goff and her team also are collecting salivary cortisol data during the retreats to look at biometric indicators of stress in the participants.

"Participants report a reduction in post-traumatic stress symptoms and better relationship quality over the four days. We are adding the biomarker data to determine whether there are any physiological changes over the course of their participation in the retreat," said Goff.

These retreats are named "Bridging the Gap" due to the chasm that can open up between soldiers returning from deployments and their loved ones and communities. For each retreat, 10-12 pairs are selected and veterans can choose to participate with any type of support person — spouse, sibling, parent or friend. They have to fill out an application and are chosen by the clinical director, Bruner, who also facilitates the four day retreats.

During the retreats, pairs receive psychological education about PTSD and are introduced to a variety of coping methods, such as yoga, art therapy, meditation, equine and canine therapies, and other complementary and alternative modalities. Sleep issues are addressed as a common companion to PTSD since the veterans have often been on alert for an entire deployment. Returning to civilian life doesn't always restore positive sleep cycles and getting sleep — enough and good quality — is essential to good health.

A unique aspect of the Bridging the Gap retreats is that an experienced peer mentor pair attends each retreat with new participants. This mentor couple can speak to the complexities of PTSD as a veteran and as a support person who is involved in taking care of a loved one who is experiencing PTSD every day. They also have attended a previous retreat together and can speak to the sessions and challenges that the pairs face. The Veseth-Nelsons served as peer mentors for previous retreats. Read about their in-depth experience in Stars and Stripes

The current team has been involved with developing the retreats program since 2011. The first Bridging the Gap retreat funded by the Walter Reed Society was in Washington, D.C., in December 2015, with a second in Chicago, Illinois, in March 2016 and a third in Manhattan, Kansas, planned for August 2016. The Walter Reed Society funding has allowed the program to rotate the areas where the retreats are organized to be accessible to veterans all over the nation. More retreats are in the planning stages for 2017 and organizers would like to explore retreats that would incorporate entire families and children, as well as groups from individual military units.

For additional information about the Bridging the Gap retreats, please contact Briana Nelson Goff at bnelson@k-state.edu.