Helping a friend

The guy has been a friend of John Powers since their middle-school days in Cumberland, R.I. When Powers headed for the University of Rhode Island, his friend headed for the Marine Corps.

His friend came back from Afghanistan in 2005.

“I saw his life fall off the face of the earth,” says Powers. “He couldn’t get a job.”

It has been two years, and still Powers worries. His friend will be OK for a couple of months, then get caught in that dark, frightening confusion that the Marines never prepared him for. He’ll stop calling.

So Powers did something. He is 23 and he did something extraordinary. He looked at his friend and saw hundreds and thousands of others lined up behind him with the same terrible uncertainty about what’s going wrong and what should be done about it.

“I started reading and writing,” he says.

And he started talking to people. He’d meet them in markets, in bookstores. There were Vietnam veterans, some wearing their salty bush hats and willing to share some hard-earned wisdom. There were veterans of the current wars, willing to let Powers have a very close look at their ongoing struggle.

Powers has turned his concern for a friend into a project that could turn that friend’s hard times into easier times for other veterans down the road. He handed it to me a few days ago, dozens of unbound pages in a folder. It’s “Veterans Resource Guide: Healing Our Veterans and Families.”

This is some piece of work. Powers spent more than 10 months on it. He went to a lot of places, talked to a lot of people and spent a good chunk of his own limited funds. The volunteer office at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Vets Center in Warwick, R.I., were among his stops.

“I’m pro-veteran,” he says. “Seeing my friend go through what he went through, it got me started.

“I want to be a friend for these people.”

Oh, he’s that, all right. What Powers has done — and it’s all the more amazing that he’s done it as a non-veteran — is see the inability of more and more veterans to fit back in. It is, it seems, even more difficult for veterans now than it was for the veterans of Vietnam, who came to redefine the hazards of coming home as post-traumatic stress disorder.

So his resource guide includes information on coping with deployment separation, stress-management tools, VA eligibility information, mental-health resources and hot lines and homecoming and family-support services. It has contact information for dozens of service organizations and support groups. It even has a listing of documentaries such as “Gunner Palace” and “Baghdad ER” for those who want to look at the wars beyond their newspapers and TV.

It has what returning veterans need to deal with things they night not have anticipated in those first heady days of deployment. It makes the hard questions easier to ask.

Powers hopes his guide will become a tool of the new Veterans Task Force of Rhode Island. He is on the peer support committee of the task force. He also hopes it will be available online in two to three weeks. His twin brother, David, is helping him put together the Web site

In a few weeks, Powers will begin classes at the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College.

“This (the resource guide) is building a foundation,” he says. “I want to be a good social worker.”

The early signs are promising.


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