Konrad Spurling got his first guitar when he was 12.
"My mother and father bought my first guitar from a secondhand shop," said Spurling. "I started out as a teenager by using a playlist. I learned all the rock and roll songs back then, and [then] about 1973, I decided that I would start writing my own music."
Spurling joined the Marines at 16. He did two tours in Vietnam. When he returned, he disappeared into music.
"I spent many a night performing in these clubs and honky-tonks across the United States when I came back from overseas," said Spurling.
He and his wife Rosemarie live in Douglas County now. Before the pandemic, his wife would help him load up amplifiers and guitars to play at the regional VA office in Denver and across the state. Sometimes other veterans would ask if they could play along with their own instruments.
"I can't explain it, just the most wonderful human interaction. Just beautiful," said Spurling.
Music became a lifeline during the pandemic for Spurling as he worked through anxieties about his and his family's health. He said he spent most of the last year indoors to be safe, unsure if it was okay for him and his wife to go watch the buffalo at Daniels Park anymore.
"I think this is probably one of the worst situations I've had to deal with, life threatening that is, since Vietnam," said Spurling. "Nothing could level with Vietnam, but it did come up to that level."
A counselor told him about virtual peer support groups hosted by the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System. He started attending three times a week. Spurling said once folks knew he played music, he started to share songs over the phone.
Many veterans experience isolation. COVID-19 made that feeling worse
The regional VA health system moved services online starting in April 2020, using VA Video Connect to support mental health appointments across the state. Edgar Villarreal, the suicide prevention program manager for the system, said he and his team knew that COVID-19 would put stress on veterans who might already be experiencing isolation.
"Often we hear from our veterans that it's challenging enough to come back from service and to be able to integrate into a community," said Villarreal. "COVID has definitely put a challenge and kind of thrown a wrench in there for veterans and also for our community at large. It has become harder to be able to find those connections and those supports."
He and his team provide education, training and intensive care management for veterans experiencing mental health crises. He said they took a proactive approach last March, identifying folks who might already be at risk in the VA system, and reaching out to connect them with support.
"Mental health can kind of take a backseat and we wanted to make sure that we put mental health at the forefront," said Villarreal.
To increase awareness about the services they provide, he created a partnership with the infectious disease team, so when folks got a call about a positive COVID-19 test, they also went through a screener that pinpointed their mental health needs.
In addition, Villarreal and his team created support packages for around 800 veterans who had tested positive for the virus over the past year. They included things like thermometers and stress balls, a reminder that someone was thinking about them.
"It was something that veterans weren't necessarily expecting. We did get some feedback and calls from veterans that said, 'Hey, who sent me this care package? You know, I just wanted to thank you,'" said Villarreal.
From there, the mental health team developed other outreach services, like the virtual peer support groups Konrad Spurling started attending. The groups are led by veterans who themselves have gone through transition and recovery.
"It gave veterans from across the state another touch point and opportunity to drop in, for them to feel like they had a place to go," said Villarreal.
At first, conversations in the peer groups were about COVID-19. But they became more about support
Cottrell Caldwell, an Army veteran who's worked with the VA for 13 years, is a peer support specialist based in Colorado Springs. He's one of 18 full-time peer support specialists across the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System.
At the beginning of the pandemic, he said he ran a new daily group by phone. At first everyone shared information about COVID, but as the months went on, the conversations shifted to how folks were coping.
"Sometimes when you're dealing with a tough time, you forget that you have strength, that you've already been through stuff, and you've already faced some type of resilience," said Caldwell.
Caldwell said the groups have helped people see that they can rely on each other for support as they navigated the ups and downs of the pandemic. Some groups were more skills-based, said Caldwell, like one focused on PTSD. Others dealt with issues of isolation and health anxiety due to COVID-19.
Peer support groups have connected with more than 1,300 veterans since April of 2020. Caldwell said it's been uplifting to help other veterans, especially during the pandemic.
"I want to let people know that recovery is real," said Calwell. "I think that's why I stay doing what I'm doing, because a lot of people don't believe it. But if you could be that person, just that one person to give somebody some hope, that speaks volumes."
Villarreal and Caldwell both said virtual services are here to stay, it's just a matter of figuring out what it'll look like moving forward.
"I think one of the things that even today, a year into the pandemic, that we wonder is really what is going to be the mental health impact in the long term," said Villarreal. "We're not really able to quantify what the impact of COVID-19 is on our community's mental health, but no doubt it's had an impact on people's lives and our veteran communities, probably in a way that we can't yet comprehend."
Any veteran in a crisis, or anyone concerned about a veteran, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), text 838255 or visit the crisis line's website. To learn more about a virtual peer support group, contact VA Eastern Colorado.
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