Veterans Day Parade in Boise, Idaho where personnel from the Idaho Army National Guard participated in this community event.
Spencer Alan Reiter first got sober in 2005 when he was still in the U.S. Army. He stayed sober for nine years but started drinking again after a divorce separated him from his wife and kids.
“I knew I was doing wrong, but I did it anyway,” Reiter said. “I really wanted a program that would help me with why I drink. I never figured that out in the first nine years. I really needed to research that.”
He called Mark Baylis, founder of the VALOR Clinic Foundation in eastern Pennsylvania. “He literally asked me two questions,” said Reiter. “When can you detox, and do you need a plane ticket?”
Sergeant Major Baylis spent a quarter century in Army Special Forces before being medically retired in 2007. Upon re-entering civilian life, his initial frustration with the Veterans Affairs system combined with the skills he gained in his communications and intelligence roles in the Army led him down a path of activism on behalf of his fellow veterans.
“It has been an adventure to try to start from nothing to build a system wrapped around human care and clinical care that will make better outcomes,” Baylis said. “It’s about people, not about paperwork.”
VALOR addresses a variety of issues facing veterans because Baylis sees them as intertwined. The organization has grown through word of mouth, expanding from helping 50 people in 2012 to more than 1,800 in 2018. “It’s a behemoth,” Baylis said of the undertaking, which is facilitated largely by volunteers.
“I call him the Mind Jedi,” Fuller said with a laugh, referring to Baylis. “You can’t bullshit that man.”
Baylis identified three key facets that many veterans struggle to cope with after leaving the service: social conflict, emotional scars, and loss of purpose. “You try to deal collectively with the ripple that goes out from that. You can’t do it through a straw,” Baylis said. When the issues veterans face are kaleidoscopic, it’s difficult for them to cobble together assistance from organizations that each attack only one part of the problem. VALOR helps from multiple angles simultaneously.
Their Hope for the Homeless program works to find housing for homeless veterans and prepare their new homes with donated necessities. Their Resilient Warrior Program helps veterans with all the bureaucracy that surrounds their situation. “The intent of this program,” their website describes, “is to assist Veterans in maintaining a normal lifestyle in the face of adverse life conditions, and occasionally assist with more than paperwork.”
Reiter engaged with the two other major programs VALOR offers: the Paul’s House veteran sanctuary and the Veterans Unstoppable retreat program.
“I was their test subject last year,” said Reiter. “I was the first person brought from out of state to be a resident at Paul’s House.”
“It’s this Victorian Age old hotel; it’s actually a really cool house,” said Bree Fuller, another recent resident of the former tavern at the base of the Poconos named after deceased Major Paul Syverson III. “If you have any appointments at the VA, they get you rides. All the facilitators pretty much are VSOs (Veteran Service Officers), so they can be your advocate.”
“It’s the only program that I know of where you can go for 180 days, if not longer, and it doesn’t cost you a dime,” Reiter said. “I had a private room, private bath. I could eat any time I wanted, I could walk out the door any time I wanted.”
“You’re fed, you’re housed, the whole crew is just wonderful,” Fuller concurred. “I give the house manager props because it is not easy dealing with a bunch of ornery veterans. They have peer group once a week, so we all sit down and list what our frustrations and joys are.”
“We try to give them a stable platform,” said Baylis, on the goal of Paul’s House, “give them time to get their wheels under them.”
“The military has always been, ‘Just suck it up buttercup and keep moving.’ But you have to touch the wound to heal.”
“I call him the Mind Jedi,” Fuller said with a laugh, referring to Baylis. “You can’t bullshit that man.” She credits his program with helping her reorient herself as a civilian. “The military has always been, ‘Just suck it up buttercup and keep moving.’ But you have to touch the wound to heal.”
While residents at Paul’s House, both Reiter and Fuller attended the Veterans Unstoppable program, which involves multiple four-day retreats. “It’s not a vacation,” Reiter clarified. “It’s a program to fix your issues, anything ranging from alcoholism to military sexual trauma to PTSD or whatever you have going on in your life that’s holding you back.”
“For me it was isolation,” said Fuller. “They don’t give you answers, but they do ask questions that make you think, ‘Oh, that makes sense, that’s why I do this or do that.’ I was able to face it. I was ready to face it. So I made a life plan of making myself get out of the house and go do things and be social.”
The creation of a life plan is the crux of the Veteran’s Unstoppable program. “It sounds stupid, but it’s become the most important document in my life,” said Reiter. “Things I identified on my life plan, I have done, I have scratched them off. Every time life gets in the way, I can go back to that document I have in my book and I rewrite it. I can unfuck that and get back on track.”
Reiter recalled a specific situation that required him to do just that.
“Out of the blue, in a calm voice, my head said, ‘Well, you wanna drink.’ And I had not heard that in 15 months,” Reiter recalled. “And it was kinda scary, and I was like, I need to revisit my plan and make sure that I’m tracking. And then I was able to work through it without drinking and without isolating.”
“The program is what you take from it,” Fuller cautioned. “You have problems in your mind you can’t get through, and they expand that and make you tap it. It’s not like it’s magic and everything’s better. You still need to come home and address the things you need to address.”
Reiter agreed: “When you get home, guess what? Nothing has changed. You literally have to learn to survive in what was normal, and you just added a dynamic to it.” But the Veteran’s Unstoppable life plan that he crafted during his time at Paul’s House has paved a path forward. He plans to move to Alaska and teach fly fishing, a longtime dream — and the skills he learned through the VALOR Clinic Foundation have made that dream possible.
Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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