NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Military veterans share a special bond – a connection that often makes it difficult to discuss war and the toll it takes with people who have not served.
“When I returned from my deployment, people asked me, ‘How was Afghanistan? What did you encounter?’ It was like they were asking about a trip to the amusement park,” says Antonio Nieto, a veteran of 27 years. “Unless you served in the military, you don’t understand. I didn’t want to talk about my experiences with someone who was not there and didn’t care the same way I did.”
The Elizabeth resident, who served in the Navy, Naval Reserve and New Jersey National Guard, did not witness combat during his deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. But, he says, he was affected by the human toll through his work at military post offices overseas.
“I was responsible for verifying the personal effects of soldiers who had been killed before the items were returned to the families. I saw a lot of things I regret seeing,” Nieto says. “I got to see what war does, how it affects the serviceperson’s family and friends. I also discovered how it affects people, like me, who didn’t know these men and women but were connected through their deaths. I felt extreme guilt that I cheated death, that I returned to my family while so many others did not.”
In 2008, Nieto found his connection to someone who understood his plight when a military supervisor suggested he call New Jersey Vet2Vet, a 24/7 confidential peer support helpline (866-838-7654) coordinated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.
Launched in 2005 and funded by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the helpline offers support for veterans, members of the Air and Army National Guard, and their family members. It is staffed by trained peer support specialists who have served in the U.S. military and clinicians.
When he called Vet2Vet, Nieto found an empathetic ear in Terrell McCain, who served in the Marine Corps and, like Nieto, had been deployed to Iraq. “It doesn’t matter that we were in different branches,” says McCain, the helpline’s program manager. “We both served overseas and were in the military. We understand each other, and that’s most important.”
Since its inception, the New Jersey Vet2Vet helpline has received approximately 30,000 calls. While veterans call the line seeking assistance to cope with conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and isolation, transitioning back into society is a top concern. “Returning home can produce feelings of excitement and anxiety and getting back to normal can be challenging,” says McCain. “It’s stressful to be suddenly outside of the military, which, in many cases, is the only life these veterans have known.”
Beyond telephone peer support, counselors also assist veterans via live-chat conversations on the New Jersey Vet2Vet (njveteranshelpline.org). They give referrals to a comprehensive network of mental health providers and assist with employment or housing resources, among other concerns. They also sponsor a monthly peer-support group at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel Township.
What makes the line unique is that former military personnel answer the calls and continue to call back the veteran until his or her issue is resolved, even if it takes years.
This ongoing relationship is important, McCain notes. “Veterans are known for holding things in for a long time. I returned from service in 2007 and didn’t start talking about my experience until 2013,” he says. “You feel you can unload a lot of stuff when you are talking to someone who understands.”
Since his initial call, Nieto was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is receiving treatment. He retired from the military in 2016 and continues his peer-support relationship with McCain. “I appreciate talking to Terrell because the only people who understand are those who have been deployed,” Nieto says. “When I call Vet2Vet, I know the person who picks up will be there to just listen.”