Samuel Luna is being recognized as a Champion of Change for his dedication to service and his continued support for efforts to reduce mental health disparities among fellow veterans.
My involvement in the community has been my way of sharing the blessings that I have received. Each day is an adventure with my faith, family and community. For many years, little did I know about the pain that lingered in the background after my military service. Much less did I know how that pain would be turned to joy. I am honored and humbled in being named a White House Vietnam Veteran Champion of Change.
For about thirty five years I never knew that my life, and that of my wife and children, had been affected so much by my service in Vietnam. I was stunned when I was told that I had Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) but saw immediately the missing piece of my life. That was the start of an incredible life changing experience. A painful journey that always had healing and hope behind each dark moment.
My plan for retirement was to devote more time to Spaulding for Children, a special needs adoption agency where I have been a board member for several years. Those plans were derailed eight years ago when I got my PTS diagnosis from the Veterans Administration. The visit to the VA was the beginning of my final career path, a Veteran Advocate. As I learned the VA system, I became aware that many of my military friends were not aware of PTS, much less the VA benefits they had earned in their service to our country. I started helping veterans get into the system. I joined almost every veteran organization to learn more and started preaching the “good news”.
My PTS learning curve spiked in 2005 when I attended a Vets’ Journey Home Weekend, whose mission is to create wholeness of being by healing the trauma experienced while in service to our country. That weekend changed my life as it helped me understand my Vietnam experience. It helped me understand the role PTS had played and continued to play in my life. This discovery stoked the fire that would lead to my calling as a Veteran Advocate and starting Vets’ Journey Home in Texas. It seemed that all my friends that had served had PTS and no VA benefits. I now knew why my friends had difficulties in their marriages and had been struggling with alcohol and so many things that made life difficult. I now also knew that my experience in Vietnam as a young man had given me much knowledge of the psychiatric toll that war takes on men and women. A year after I attended that weekend in 2005, the first retreat was held in Houston.
On our weekends the first objective is to create a safe place where participants can build trust with fellow participants and staff volunteers. The goal is to create an environment where the participants can feel safe to say or do anything that will help them “get it out,” as Peter W. Chiarelli, General, US Army Retired, said. The creation of safety begins when they register and contact is made to welcome them. When they arrive they learn most of the volunteers are veterans with similar military experience or civilians with a connection to the military and/or trauma experience. As participants begin to trust the volunteers and the process they begin to see that although they survived their military experience they never really came home. They begin to open up more when they see that their participation is received with understanding and without judgements. When the participant is ready to share his story he is guided by trained facilitators to safely release emotions.
In retrospect, the PTS from my experience in Vietnam that caused my family and I much pain is now my incredible blessing that I share to help men and women of the military. It is a true blessing to hear my wife, son and daughter share their experience on the weekend to help men, women and spouses understand their military experience and the resulting trauma. I want to thank my wife for her support and always being at my side as we journey together to help our military. Thanks to my children and their spouses who are always ready to lend a helping hand whenever “mom and dad need something for the vets.” The involvement of my wife and family in the retreat led to the creation of a weekend for the veteran and his or her spouse. The couples weekend has been very well received. Currently the weekend for couples, two months away, is already full. Hopefully, we will soon be able to create a weekend for the whole family.
Samuel Luna lives in Katy, Texas, and is the Founder of Vets’ Journey Home Texas Inc., a non-profit volunteer organization supported by donations.