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John Paradis: Mediating for veterans

Having entered the general lexicon, the term is now overused, but it’s the best way for me to describe what will result from an important training program next month in Northampton.

Veterans, active-duty military members, family members of veterans and those working with veterans will gather at the Franklin Hampshire Career Center on Industrial Drive for the first day of a five-day, intense 30-hour mediation training program on how to resolve conflict and mediate disputes for veterans.

To me, the program is far more than training. It’s a far-reaching insurance policy for our region in complimenting and, yes, multiplying the efforts of local, state and federal programs in providing needed personal attention for our veterans.

Launched in 2007 by Quabbin Mediation, a nonprofit in Orange, and with the help of veteran leaders such as Hampshire County’s Steve Connor and Franklin County’s Leo Parent, the training involves skill-building exercises, role-playing and mediation techniques.

The training is supported in part by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. At its conclusion, the participants are certified in mediation skills and techniques in compliance with court and state statutory requirements.

The idea is to build a skilled repertoire of veteran-savvy mediators as a way of helping veterans solve problems. So far, 25 people have been trained. We need a lot more.

Veterans using the mediation can have their issues heard, whether it is a family squabble, a landlord disagreement or a business dispute.

It’s also cost-effective — the service is free or at nominal cost for veterans. That’s important because the sluggish pace of the justice system and costly, conventional legal processes can hinder a veteran from resolving matters themselves. With a myriad of laws and forms to fill out for benefits and programs, veterans also find the idea of seeking help too complex.

The training is organized on the theory that veterans often consider local social services, government programs and counseling services out of touch with the veteran experience or their military culture. They need someone who is understanding, empathetic and willing to listen.

Ted, a young Army veteran, is one such person. Since returning from multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other difficulties that he relates, in part, to his war experience, including substance abuse, relationship problems and unemployment. He says he left the Army without the skills and the sense of identity needed to function in peace.

“Many of us are afraid of what other people think,” he says. “You’re taught to be self-reliant, to fix your own messes, only they don’t know how. And, when they turn to people to get help, the people they turn to just don’t get it.”

Returning combat veterans face transitional issues and sometimes mediation can help, says Sheila Davies, a social worker who leads the program at VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds to assist veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “A trained and skilled mediator can assist by helping participants focus on the issues and not the emotion,” says Davies, who was part of the first group trained by the program in 2007.

Underpinning the strategy is the fact that veterans trust fellow veterans and others who understand their experiences and are more willing to talk, seek help and settle disputes peacefully before they harm themselves or others.

By expanding the number of community leaders and people trained in helping veterans mediate problems, the community can break down barriers between veterans and law enforcement, veterans and government and the court system. “It’s community organizing at its best,” says Sharon Tracy, executive director of Quabbin Mediation and a self-described Army brat.

Tracy said the program has touched home for her after seeing Vietnam veterans return and not receive the support they deserved from the community.

Today, she is further concerned about the growing civilian-military divide in our country. That diminishes the common experience members of the public have with veterans. Tracy says she wants to train as many community members as possible and spread the practice of mediation far and wide.

“It’s a way in which we can all begin the process of turning around the perception of veterans needing help,” says Tracy. “It’s the least we can do for the men and women who have served our nation.”

To become a mediator or to learn more, write to Quabbin Mediation at
vets@quabbinmediation.org, call 888-924-2600, or visit quabbinmediation.org.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the public relations manager for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

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