When Robert Hernandez got out of the Marine Corps in 2004 after a tour of duty in Iraq, transitioning back to life in southern California wasn't easy.
He moved back into his parents' house, where he was sleeping on a futon in the living room.
"I was working at Home Depot," he said. "It was pretty much every day, if not every other day, that I was drinking."
Hernandez lived like that for about 11 years until another vet, who had served with him in Iraq, saw him struggling and gave him a call. His friend invited him to join a program in Los Angeles County called Battle Buddy Bridge.
The program is a peer support program, in which former service members become mentors to other vets. They listen to each other's concerns, share experiences, and help provide connections to services like housing, military benefits, and mental health care.
Peer support programs for veterans have become common around the country, both through the Department of Veterans Affairs and through independent groups like Battle Buddy Bridge. Some studies have concluded that the programs can improve mental health, self-esteem, and social functioning for former service members.
When Robert Hernandez got involved with Battle Buddy Bridge, his life began to change. He says he quit binge drinking and enrolled in college courses. Then he trained to be a paid peer support specialist, and he is now the organization's program manager. He saw first-hand the value of having veterans help each other.
"It was easier for us to converse with each other than talk to somebody that was a social worker, doctor, or one of our therapists," Hernandez said.
It's that unique type of connection that makes peer support programs special, said Dr. Shaili Jain, a psychiatrist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Jain said that peer mentors, unlike traditional therapists, often share their own stories of the obstacles they've faced in life. Her research illustrates that vets benefit from working with one another.
"They report being more socially engaged, more hopeful and empowered about their futures, and then more engaged in their mental health care," she said.
That's the case for Joe Augirre, who is one of the mentees at Battle Buddy Bridge. Before joining the program, he served 26 years in the Army and did a few tours in the Middle East. After he got out, he said he enrolled in classes at a Los Angles college. He learned about the peer-to-peer program from the campus veterans center and quickly bonded with his mentor.
"I felt comfortable talking to her about certain things, whereas I didn't with other people," Augirre said. "It is relieving. I could just come in anytime."
Meanwhile, Hernandez, who's been working at Battle Buddy Bridge for five years now, hopes to get a Master's degree in social work so he can do more to help his fellow veterans.
"It's like a little motivation for them to see there is hope out there," he said. "There are people out there that want to help us."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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