Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Finding Purpose
Ryan Britch, an OEF veteran, talks about his experience with PTSD and how prolonged exposure therapy helped him overcome it.
I really appreciated Ryan's willingness to be open about his experience with PTSD and how he worked through it. He also shared how he found a new sense of purpose after leaving the Army through his involvement with a volunteer group, the Peace Corps, and eventually in his current role at IAVA.
Links & Resources
- Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)
- IAVA Quick Reaction Force Call Center Information 855-91-RAPID
- Take Action through IAVA - contact your representatives to let them know how important various veteran issues are to you.
- Scott's Note: This is really quick and easy to do. Just enter your name, email, and home address then click send. A message will be sent to your Senators and Representative for your district. It takes less than 5 minutes total.
- Prolonged Exposure for PTSD VA Info Guide
- Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act
- Clay Hunt Act
- Wes Black Episode 13 discussing his experience with cancer and burn pit exposure. Episode 14 discussing his experience in Afghanistan and the day my brother Steven DeLuzio was killed in action.
- Valerie Palota Episode 27 talks about her experience losing her son Josh to suicide after his struggles with PTSD.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:00:03 Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast where we talk about issues affecting Veterans after they get out of the military. Before we get started, I'd like to ask a favor if you haven't done so already, please rate and review the show on Apple podcast. If you've already done that, thank you. These ratings help the show get discovered so it can reach a wider audience. And while you're there click the subscribe button so that you get notified of new episodes as soon as they come out. If you don't use Apple podcasts, you can visit DriveOnPodcasts.com/subscribe to find other ways of subscribing, including our email list. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio and now let's get on with the show.
Hi everyone, today my guest is Ryan Britch. Ryan served with my brother in Afghanistan back in 2010 with the Vermont Army National Guard. He currently works for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Ryan, it's great to get you on the show and to chat with you. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and what you do with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America?
Ryan Britch: 00:01:11 Scott first, it's a pleasure to be on the show with you and thanks for creating this podcast and sharing all these stories for fellow Vets. So, my name is Ryan Britch. I grew up in very rural Vermont and graduated high school in 2009. I joined the Vermont Army National Guard because I wanted an adventure and grew up poor wanting to go to college. So, I thought it'd be a great opportunity for some college money. I joined Alpha Company, 3rd of the 172nd about two months before we were supposed to deploy to Afghanistan. I was assigned to be a saw gunner and third platoon first squad alpha team. Your brother, Steve was my team leader. Also in our team was Corey <inaudible>, he was our RTO and then our grenadier, Jesse Garcia. Steve was a pretty unique leader, made a really conscious effort to share his knowledge with us and to ensure that we were always safe from digging foxholes, eating chow, prolonged four hours of guard duty out at the Op or joking around and playing basketball.
Ryan Britch: 00:02:15 Steve was always with us. So, I'm always very thankful for the experience to be in Steve's team and for everything that he imparted on me.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:02:26 Yeah. That's awesome. A little background there and that personal story too. We had spoken last week, and you told me a little bit about his impact on your life and everything. I shared that with my parents over the weekend and it was good to hear those types of stories; who he was and who he's impacted throughout his life. Because, you know, as people grow up and they become adults and they move on their own path, you don't always know all of their friends and everything like that, and so it's cool to hear these stories from people who knew him. That was one of the more selfish reasons why I wanted to have you on the show and talk with you, even though we talked the other day a little bit, but one of the reasons, there are a few reasons why I wanted to have you on the podcast, but one of them is that when we spoke last week, you told me about some of the therapy treatment situation that you went through after getting back, the Prolonged Exposure therapy.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:03:29 Would you mind going back a bit and telling us about what prompted you to start seeking this therapy and then we can get into what that's all about and everything.
Ryan Britch: 00:03:40 Yeah, sure. I think I’ll backtrack a little bit first and really just highlight how the war impacted me. And I think my deploying to Afghanistan left a profound impact on me and not necessarily the combat and the posttraumatic stress and the moral injury. But I think the men that I was exposed to and I'll use that terminology because this is back in 2009 women are allowed to be in combat arms. I never had the chance to serve with women. So I'm sure there's some great female leaders out there in the Army, but I've just never got to serve with them. So I'll talk about the men that I served with and particularly the Green Mountain Boys. And there were a bunch of troublemakers and at the same time they were intelligent, humble, composed professionals. Well-read, hard drinking, skiers, outdoorsmen, adventurers, wholesome, mountain men.
Ryan Britch: 00:04:37 and sometimes they were abrasive and would often resort to settling disagreements with their fists. We spent a lot of time drinking and getting into shenanigans sometimes; probably more than time we spent honing our military skills. At the same time, they were men of virtue and they left an unspeakable impact on my soul. And I don't think I ever felt more home my entire life, but at the same time, I think that the love that we had for each other made the pain of losing a brother, even more soul ripping. When I came home, I was pretty lost. I was very irritable, unsure where I thought life was going to take me, pretty angry and numb at losing Steve and Tristan.
Ryan Britch: 00:05:27 I hope that the war would kind of become like everything else in my life, distant. And it took a really long time for me to come home. I think PE was definitely one of the right steps for me. So, I had done a pretty good job of managing my adjustment issues after coming home from Afghanistan. I felt like I had things really under control. It wasn't until I went to a New Year's Eve party in Burlington, 2018. So, this is eight years after my deployment to Afghanistan. It was a great night. There was a live band, people were celebrating, we had a few drinks; I'm a big gin and tonic guy. So, I had a few gin and tonics and at midnight the balloons came down, people were cheering, people were kissing.
Ryan Britch: 00:06:18 I felt like I was on cloud nine and then a couple seconds later after the balloons came down, people started popping the balloons. And that was the trigger to what I now know was a flashback. I don't know if you've ever experienced one yourself, but it's a pretty horrifying experience. All of a sudden, I had this wave of all these unwelcome memories come rushing into me. And it felt as if I was in combat again, you know that feeling when the Valley you are patrolling and just erupts in fire and my mind was telling me to seek cover. At the same time, I knew that I wasn't in combat, I knew I was at this venue at a New Year's Eve celebration. I felt very helpless. There was nothing I could do. So, here I am at this venue, just hysterically and uncontrollably sobbing and bawling my eyes out. Luckily my best friend and my ex knew what was going on and they got me outside into a cab and they got me home. And the next morning she was like, you need to go get treatment.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:07:33 Yeah. And that there are so many different things that are triggers. And I think we talked a little bit about this last week, but everything from sounds to smells to feelings, other senses, they all are really closely tied to your memories. I think I told you this story last week. My wife was cutting some peppers in the kitchen. And just the smell of it brought me back to my grandfather's garden, when I was a kid. And that was a good pleasant memory. It was a fun time. It was a happy time. Things were good. But it brought me back there and I was like, keep chopping those things,
Scott DeLuzio: 00:08:16 because that's a good thing. That smell had a positive connotation associated with it, but there are things that smell, sounds, sites, things like that, that are definitely tied to those negative emotions; a firefight that you were in or especially a firefight that was traumatic where you lost somebody in that situation, that is tied to those memories as well. And when you start hearing sounds that remind you of that, it definitely could take you back. So, at this point you've realized there are some issues going on and you start going, it was at the VA that you went for this treatment. Is that correct?
Ryan Britch: 00:09:01 Exactly. So Prolonged Exposure is actually like the perfect treatment for what you're talking about now, those unwanted memories that are coming up from a traumatic experience that you've had, and there are a lot of triggers; smells, as you highlighted, sounds, are the other triggers and Prolonged Exposure is one of the two evidence-based trauma-focused psychotherapies that the VA offers in order to help Veterans identify it and fix the root cause of posttraumatic stress, which is those traumatic events. I reached out to VA pretty much. And it was either the day or the day after that had happened. It took a couple months, you gotta do your intake, your assessment, and you gotta wait until there's a therapist who's available, unfortunately. It was a huge staffing issue at that VA, but it's there, it's an issue that they're very well aware of.
Ryan Britch: 00:10:03 And we've got some legislation that we're trying to fix that staffing issue, but I finally got set up with a mental health professional at the VA. I met with her, I think about twice a week, doing 90-minute sessions; I did that for about 16 weeks. Depending on your schedule, work or family obligations, they might ask you to come in once a week, might schedule you for a longer or shorter period of therapy. And your therapist will go over your specific goals, your specific experiences and topics that you're going to cover over each session. That's a much laid out process and you know what you're going to be getting into. And my therapist even gave me homework to take home for Prolonged Exposure is definitely what I would classify as high risk, high reward. There's a really high dropout rate because it's hard. You have to deal with all these repressed memories that you've had from really traumatic experiences.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:11:11 and what is the process like? I can tell based on our conversation, I know more about it, but for the people who might be listening in and are not familiar with what Prolonged Exposure therapy is all about, what does that process look like?
Ryan Britch: 00:11:29 Yeah. There are two main aspects of Prolonged Exposure and the first is what they call Imaginal. This is like a repeated retelling of your traumatic memory or numerous traumatic memories, as most of us, combat vets have. So that's the first person retelling of your trauma, to your psychotherapist. Each session you could retell that trauma, 10, 12, 15 times, and the focus is really spent on bringing the intimate details of these memories that you block out, memories like what type of footwear the dead insurgent had on, or what they looked like once when you saw them. So very intimate details. There were things that I had completely forgotten probably most that I had avoided or blocked out, but it was a really interesting experience, retelling the trauma that you experienced in such a detailed manner. It's crazy the memories that you block out and what that feels like when you retell them and they come back to you.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:12:53 Yeah. Your mind can do some crazy things too by suppressing some of these memories. And I don't know, I'm not a doctor and just for a clarification for the people who are listening neither are you, and so, what you're talking about here is from your own experience with this and your own personal background, not any medical or technical stuff that goes into this outside of your own experience. I don't want listeners to think that you're the subject matter expert on this, that you've created this therapy, or a form of therapy or anything like that. You're talking from your experience, but your mind can certainly suppress lots of different things. And I don't know if it's for self-defense mechanism to protect you from too much exposure to this bad stuff, or whatever the case may be.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:13:51 But it certainly can affect how your mind works and you can get five people who were exposed to the same situation and you'll have five different ways that they tell you that the situation went down because their memories just played different tricks on them. It's kind of crazy when you see all that happening, but then you go through something like this and some of those memories start coming back out.
Ryan Britch: 00:14:27 I couldn't agree more and that's actually avoidance right there. That's one of the five symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I think you're right. It is a self-defense mechanism that our brains will block out those memories so that it is our unhealthy way of trying to move on.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:14:47 Yeah. I'm sure it serves a purpose. If we were doctors with a little more knowledge of the situation or whatever that we knew what was going on with the brain, I'm sure there's a purpose. Our brain is conditioned to protect us, to get us through a situation. You're good friend just dies in front of you or something like that. Your brain has to do something to get you through that situation so that you don't become the next casualty in that situation. So, the brain does some crazy things. And I learned about this with my wife. This was a little over two years ago now she started having some seizures, first time ever that she was having this.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:15:40 and afterwards, after she got out of the hospital and everything, her brain just wasn't connecting. She was having trouble forming sentences and things like that. And just the way the brain works, and I know these are two separate things. One is a traumatic experience that you had versus a trauma to the brain itself. But when your brain goes through a trauma of any sort, it's not going to come out on the other end functioning a hundred percent the same way that it was before.
Ryan Britch: 00:16:16 Yeah, I couldn't agree more. And I think that's one of the key aspects of a Prolonged Exposure is teaching your brain to gradually confront those situations rather than avoiding them. Because if you're just going to block them out, they're always going to be there unless you confront them and deal with them in a healthy way. That's the only way that you're going to move on from your trauma.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:16:40 When you are going through this, you said, in some cases you're being exposed to the thing that triggered this event that this trauma, many times over and over and over in the same 60, 90 minute sessions or whatever they are. How soon after you started going through this did you start noticing that these outside influences were not affecting you the same way that they did at that New Year's Eve Party?
Ryan Britch: 00:17:21 It was gradual, but it was very evident by the end of the six weeks. And sorry, I forgot to mention the other aspect of Prolonged Exposure, but that's the in vivo experiences. So the first part of PE is doing the imaginable. So that's retelling the traumatic memory, but then the in vivo exposure is when you gradually go out and confront, whether it's the situations, the places, the things, that are reminders to you of that trauma that you experienced. And so for me, that was kids crying, balloons popping, fireworks, getting caught in traffic. So what they do is for homework, they'll obviously start you out with a very low risk assignment. So you'll go on YouTube and watch a video of kids crying for five to 10 minutes.
Ryan Britch: 00:18:20 You do that for as long as it takes until you start to feel so stressed where you can't do it anymore. The next week, you'll probably bump that up to like 15 minutes and you keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. You might watch a YouTube video of balloons popping, and then maybe like the next week you go out and try to pop some balloons yourself, or watch some YouTube videos of fireworks and then go out on July 4th and then see them in person. And these were really intimidating things for me. I couldn't even be around my niece and my nephew growing up because when they cried or even when they played, it remind me of seeing dead and dying kids in Afghanistan.
Ryan Britch: 00:19:09 It was such a weight off my chest going through this program. It was a life altering experience. I can go out on July 4th now. I used to have to either lock myself up in a basement or go camping in the middle of nowhere on July 4th, so I can get away from fireworks and not able to spend time with my family. So it's a really amazing experience. You might be familiar with the cap scale. So, I believe it's the clinician administered PTSD scale. So it's how your mental health professional at VA will measure your PTSD. Before I started treatment, I was in the eighties. And so that's severe for posttraumatic stress; by the end of the 16 weeks, it was down to single digits, that's nearly undetectable. So for me, it was just a life changing experience and one I'm very thankful for.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:20:02 It sounds like, in your case anyways, it worked wonders, from going to where you had to lock yourself away on the 4th of July to being able to go out and experience it and the fireworks and all the other things. I'm sure that the same type of thing would happen for people who have trouble with being in crowds or other things like that, where they can solely and gradually work their way to getting more and more comfortable with being around other people being in crowds and in whatever. So, there's lots of issues that come to mind when I'm thinking of how this type of a therapy and this exposure to these stressors would help.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:20:56 It seems to me, just hearing your story, that it will really work wonders for lots of people, but like you said, it's not easy. It's not a simple thing to do. And so we do need to be careful about this and do it under some sort of supervision with mental health professionals and not just have people go out on YouTube and start watching videos of balloons popping and guns being fired off and all this other stuff, because that might send them down the wrong path and we don't want to do that. So definitely, go to the VA, check out other mental health options that are out there and work with them, work closely with somebody to do it the right way so that you're not leading yourself down the wrong path and unnecessarily torturing yourself with that type of thing.
Ryan Britch: 00:21:57 No, you're spot on. I think you mentioned this earlier that it's not a one size fits all approach. And so PE worked wonders for me, and it really changed my life. It might not work for everybody. Everybody has different traumas and different experiences and different things will work for them. So there are a variety of different treatments and therapies that are out there. If you want to go use an alternative therapy, all the power to you. In my experience, I really loved my VA psychologist. She was wonderful, very culturally competent. She knew everything there was about military and veteran culture. She's been doing this for years, very trained and professional, and very thankful for the experience.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:22:38 Now, we also talked last week when we were on the phone, chatting with each other that you told me about how after getting back from Afghanistan, getting out of the Army, you felt like you needed a sense of purpose, and you had that little hole. And I think a lot of people who are recently separated from the military, they feel like they're missing something, missing that sense of purpose. You ended up with the Peace Corps, which took you to Africa, took you all over the place. And so, take a step back and talk a little bit about what prompted you to get involved with the Peace Corps and what you ended up doing with that.
Ryan Britch: 00:23:32 I'm coming home from Afghanistan. I joined for the GI bill, so I wanted to go to college. I applied to UVM, got in, I think the year after we got home, it was a pretty rough start and I had a lot of adjustment issues. I don't think I slept for two years, 2.0 average. So I was getting straight Cs. It was a pretty rough experience. On a whim, I just started volunteering with this alternative education program called Youth Build, for high school dropouts, young adults who've had minor run ins with the law. What they do is they spend half their time in the classroom doing the basic reading, writing, and math skills they need for their high school diploma or GED. And then they spend their other half the time on construction sites getting a certificate.
Ryan Britch: 00:24:23 I spent a year with these students mentoring them on construction sites, in the classroom, and then every other Friday we'd go on a volunteer service project. I think working with these students, I got to see that a lot of them were just dealt a bad hand, bad childhoods. A lot of them had posttraumatic stress too from having messed up parents and messed up childhoods and really bad experiences. I got to see the positive impacts of my relationships with these students. And I think volunteering with the organization really helped change my life around. I started sleeping, my stress disappeared, I brought my GPA up to a 4.0, and I think it was that experience that had re-instilled my sense of purpose and sense of belonging again. And one of the things that led me to the Peace Corps.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:25:13 I think you touched on a couple of points there that are worth mentioning. One is that sometimes when we hear PTSD and we just instantly think military people who were deployed in a combat zone and those are the only people who can have PTSD, and that's not necessarily true. You can be in a car accident, you can grow up with abusive parents or you could have experienced all sorts of assaults, sexual assault, all types of things that go on could create PTSD. It is exactly in the name; it's post-traumatic stress. And after a trauma of any sort, you can come up with this type of stress and so I think that's important to point out too, so that we don't have that stigma just attached to military service members, Veterans, and things like that.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:26:13 The other thing too, that you're talking about is that sense of purpose and how that helped reduce some of your stress and reduce the issues that you were having that you were working through and how volunteering for this organization helped you out to get through some of those issues. And I think that's something that I think is not valued enough these days is the volunteer service. When you started volunteering, you didn't necessarily, based on what you said anyways, I don't think you were necessarily seeking out a way to reduce a stress. You were just doing it because it was a thing that you wanted to do, but as a result, it helped you with some of the issues that you were going through, your sleep and your stress and other issues. You ended up getting into the Peace Corps. What brought you specifically to the Peace Corps?
Ryan Britch: 00:27:25 You hit it right on the head there. I was pretty naive to the idea of help yourself by helping others. And to be honest, my first six months, the organization was part of an internship for college credit. And I started out with me just wanting to get some work experience, and I really found out the benefits of volunteering and spending time with the students. With Peace Corps, I was looking to continue serving and wanted that sense of purpose. I had studied French in college and I was supposed to go to Cameroon, but in 2015, Boca Harambe was becoming active and they canceled the program in Cameroon and said, well, we have a spot open for you in Swazi land.
Ryan Britch: 00:28:09 And I was like, well, even though I don't even know where that is, but sure. The big issue in Swaziland is HIV and gender-based violence and the highest rate of HIV in the entire world, especially among young and pregnant women. There is a really unhealthy culture of rape and gender based violence there, and women are really encouraged to stay at home, to cook, to clean, and are very dependent on a man. And so there's a huge culture of relying on McCombs sugar daddies. Often the men have multiple concurrent partners. There's a lot of abuse going on, interesting power dynamics. And so HIV is just run rampant and very similar to youth builds, these kids didn't have good mentors, unfortunately HIV, before PEPFAR, which was a program from George Bush, and the introduction of antiretroviral therapy.
Ryan Britch: 00:29:09 A lot of the older generation died off in Swansiland by and from HIV and AIDS. A lot of these young kids didn't have role models to look up to. And so I was working for a male mentoring project there called Glauca Envotsa, which just in the local dialect means to build a man, really awesome organization, taking young men, giving them a positive third space. So that's a way from school and away from work where they can come and be themselves in a healthy environment away from any potential abuse that's going on at home, being away from a drunk uncle, giving them a space where they can learn what it really means to be a man, how to interact with a significant other, taught them business skills, life skills, also really encouraged condom awareness and male circumcision, which reduces the transmission of HIV up to 40%. So, an amazing program.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:30:14 That's great. And you still found a way to serve, even after the military through this. And I think that's great too. So, I applaud you for that. And I think the people who are coming out of the military finding a hard time, trying to get that sense of purpose and that meaning and still want to serve and give back to other people, this is another option that sometimes might get overlooked by some people.
Ryan Britch: 00:30:48 It was an amazing experience. I spent two and a half years living in rural Africa and in a cinderblock shack. And sometimes it was pretty rough, not having water, electricity; I had to wash all my clothes by hand. So it was an interesting experience, but one memory I'm very thankful for. I met this African farmer, named Jacob and Jacob was actually the COO of this local company that ran sugar cane Safari retail operations throughout South Africa. And in Swazi land, Jacob was a former Colonel in the South African defense force during apartheid. He fought in an angle and Bush war. So we definitely bonded over being former soldiers turned farmers. So, he's a pretty jolly guy. He's got a big Santa Claus belly and a pretty ruddy complexion from spending so many years in the African sun.
Ryan Britch: 00:31:46 And we built a really close friendship and South Africans, they love to host. And I honestly, I can't quite describe the feeling of a hot shower, freshly brewed cup of coffee and in a proper meal after spending months in the Bush. He was a great host, but I remember, one night after polishing off a couple of bottles of red wine, Jacob asked me into his study, and there on his bookshelf where some pictures of him and his buddy on APCs in Angola. He spent a decade fighting there. He showed me some framed metals he had for Valor. And it was a really personal moment for him. And I don't think he had many fellow Veterans to share that with, being a farmer in South Africa. I looked into his eyes and it was clear that he was in a lot of pain and he started to cry and we hugged and it made me think that Jacob’s war was 40 years ago, he was in Angola back in the eighties.
Ryan Britch: 00:32:46 And I think then that's when it clicked for me that the war is going to be with me for the rest of my life. But it's not going to prevent me from achieving what I want up. He was able to get advanced degrees in business and soil science, and he married the love of his life. He has a beautiful family and yeah, the war might be with me for the rest of my life, but it doesn't mean that I'm not going to be able to have a long, happy and meaningful life. And I think I spent a lot of years trying to become that person I was before the war. I don't think that you can ever really heal from the war. I mean, you're not going to be the same person you were before. I think you got to come to terms with the person you've become now and try your damn best just to carry on and live a happy and long and meaningful life
Scott DeLuzio: 00:33:37 Well said! I think that's a hundred percent true. I would suspect that some of the issues that people are having are trying to get back to that person that they once were before the traumas of war took place. And they're swimming upstream. It's an uphill battle and it's not an easy thing to do to get back there. In some cases it may not be possible nor should it be, I don't think. We all have had experiences throughout our life, good and bad that shape who we are. And we just sort of have to accept the fact that this is who we are and try to make the best of it. Don't get down on ourselves. Don't blame people for what we are, what we've become, try to make the best of the situation, the hand that we've been dealt, if you will, the situation that we find ourselves in, make our future, brighter by learning and growing from these experiences. We don't all learn from good experiences.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:35:01 We learn from bad experiences too. We grow and we come better people because of it, depending on what we do with those lessons that we learned, or if we learn anything from them at all. You definitely did that.
Ryan Britch: 00:35:21 Well, I think you're describing post-traumatic growth, the idea that you can come out of a traumatic experience, and once the dust settles be a better person because of the suffering you went through. I think people, often they'll be more spiritual, they'll be more connected, the deeper meaning of life. They're going to have a greater appreciation for life, and you're not really going to sweat the small things. So I think that it is very possible to become a better person, a more developed person after traumatic experiences.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:35:51 I think you just need to let that growth happen and instead of fighting to get back to who you were, you have to allow that growth to happen and see the positives from the situation. I lost a brother and that was a pretty traumatic experience to me. I've talked about this a little bit before on the podcast, but shortly after finding out that Steven had died, probably within a half hour or so, our unit started getting attacked from insurgents that were in the area. And I had a squad to lead. I had to go in and take care of that and make sure they had everything that they needed, that they were positioned where they needed to be all the things that a squad leader does.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:36:43 I had to drop my emotional baggage on that Hill and leave it there and go take care of my guys, because I don't know if I would have been able to forgive myself if I let my emotions overtake me and something happened to them because I wasn't fully there. I very quickly had to move on from that negative emotion that I was having, not to say that I didn't still have them, but I had to push through the cloud that was there hanging over me and see the situation for what it was. And I had to get clear on things real quick.
Ryan Britch: 00:37:32 I'm sure it wasn't an easy thing to do.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:37:34 No, it was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but that moment changed me forever. From the time that I found out that he was killed to the time that I got off that mountain, I remember details from that day, like they were yesterday. So we're talking about how our mind and our memory do crazy things, one person going to have a traumatic experience and completely forget certain things of it. And then someone else who over 10 years later still has very vivid memories of that experience. It's really crazy how the mind works. It's an interesting thing, actually. So switching gears a bit, one of the other reasons I wanted to have you on the show was to talk about what you do with the Iraq and Afghan Afghanistan, Veterans of America. When we spoke last week, you told me about some of the legislation that you were working on getting pushed through and how people can get involved with the various legislation that is being proposed now and in the future. Could you tell us a little bit about all the things that you do and how people can get involved?
Ryan Britch: 00:38:54 Yeah, so, 2015 we lost the mortar man in our platoon to suicide, Joshua Perlata; and good buddy of ours, Wes Black, diagnosed with very aggressive cancer. And I wanted to go down to DC and advocate on behalf of the men and women that I served with. I was really lucky to find this great job working for IAVA. So my official title is Government Affairs Associate. What I do is I research a variety of different issues that are affecting post 9/11 Veterans. We go up to the Hill and advocate for the healthcare and benefits that the post 9/11 Veterans need. So IAVA, we're the largest post 9/11 Veterans service organization, we have 425,000 members across the country. We're usually more of an online based organization, but we do have two in person advocacy events every year.
Ryan Britch: 00:39:58 We call them our storm in the Hills. So every Spring and every Fall, we'll bring in members from across the country, spend about a day, give them advocacy skills, then we'll take them off to the Hill. They'll meet with their elected officials and talk about the issues that are most relevant and the issues that they're really passionate about. It's always an amazing experience. I think it's pretty powerful to be able to take a personal story that you have and go up to the Hill. Not many people can say that they've gone to lobby their congressmen or their Senator about an issue that is so important to them. So beyond the advocacy, IAVA, we also have a 24 hour resource referral and peer support line called Quick Reaction For Us.
Ryan Britch: 00:40:43 If you're a veteran in need of housing, you want to be connected to benefits, or if you're just looking for a peer to talk to, it's a great resource to reach out to. Everybody who works for the quick reaction force is a fellow veteran. All of them are certified counselors. They know exactly what you're going through. So, if anybody is in need of talking to one of our QRF specialists, they can be reached at 855-917-2743 or 855-91RAPID. You can also check them out on our website as well. If you're looking to talk to somebody later, it's a great resource for Vets and definitely, I'm always there for you if you're needing any assistance.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:41:21 I will have a link to the IAVA website and also to the quick reaction force, some information about that. I'll have links to that all in the show notes for this episode. I'll also have it up on the veteran resource page that I have on the Drive On Podcast website, where you can go and check that out. So, if you are not sure about it and you don't want to just pick up the phone and call, and you want to find out more information about it? There's a link going to be there, that you can go and check that out and you can see if it's the right thing for you as well as plenty of other resources that are out there.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:42:02 So, ultimately I want to help get people in touch with the right resources. So, whether this is the right one for you or not is up for you to decide, but it's definitely going to be an option that's on our website with resources. You spoke about Wes Black earlier. I had him on the show last year. It was around this time last year, the time that we're recording anyways, by the time this episode comes out, it'll be a few months later. So, he served with you in Afghanistan and his message was really inspiring, talking about the burn pit exposure that he went through. So inspiring that I look back at some of the stats, the downloads and episodes and of the two episodes that I did with Wes last year, those are the two of the most listened to episodes that I've ever had on this show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:43:03 So many people resonated with it, they really liked his message and how positive he was. He's really a great guy and has a really great message. For anyone who wants to go back and listen to those episodes, those are Episodes 13 and 14. You can go back to look for those. You mentioned, Josh Perlata. I had his mom on the show a few weeks later. She talked about the issues that he was going through after getting home and how unfortunately he ultimately took his life. That was a hard episode to listen to; the struggles that not only he was going through, but also what she's going through after losing her son in that manner. So really lots of traumatic things have come out of war.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:44:07 A lot of times, we just think of war as the traumas that are involved with war as the combat, the shooting, the grenades, the missiles, the bombs, whatever, as those things are pretty traumatic because they're high impact and they literally can blow up in your face in a moment's notice, but there's these slower, ticking time bombs, if you will, that also have a big impact and not just on the soldiers who are on the battlefield, but on their families and their communities and their friends and everything else. Wes with the cancer that he's fighting, this is now 10 years later that he's struggling with this and going through all of this and it's a terrible experience to have to be going through. If you go back and listen to that episode, the positivity just is oozing out of this guy, it's crazy to be given this kind of diagnosis, this cancer diagnosis that is not a good outcome expected for him. He's still probably top 10 positive people that I've ever met in my life.
Ryan Britch: 00:45:29 I'd say number one, Wes is a pretty rare guy. And I was speaking earlier about the band. I was exposed to an Alpha company and then how they were just men of a virtue. And it was very, very rare to meet somebody like Wes, his positivity is infectious. He will always be positive no matter, if we're pinned down by the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, or if he's battling Stage 4 colon, lymph node and lung cancer; he's a really, really rare character. I'm very thankful that they he’s in my life.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:46:07 Yeah, absolutely. I think everyone who he has met and interacted with is better off for knowing him. I know, after speaking with him last year on the podcast, some of the things that he was talking about, I just changed my perspective on things, changed my perspective on life. And I feel like I'm a better person for just having that two hour conversation with him that we broke out into a couple episodes here. Just getting the opportunity to speak with him was a blessing, and then the flip side to that is it almost is like two sides to a coin, where there are people who experienced the same deployment, same situations, a lot of them, obviously each individual has different experiences, but where two people can take two different paths. Someone like Wes is a fighter and is a positive, upbeat kind of guy. That's just who he is. And that's great. On the other hand, there's someone else who wound up going down a much different darker road and you never really can tell what way people are going to go with that type of stuff.
Ryan Britch: 00:47:34 I think that's human nature. We all deal with things differently. And you also have to factor in your childhood experiences, what adverse things happen to you before you even joined the military. And also Veterans, aren't a monolith. We all deal with things in a different way. And I think that kind of leads into our suicide prevention efforts. IAVA is championing one of our top priorities since we passed the Clay Hunt Act years ago. Every year IAVA does an annual survey where we poll our members on a variety of different issues. So everything from the GI bill, experiences using VA healthcare, the VA home loan, and we always ask about suicidal ideation, and it's unfortunately a statistic that continues to grow year after year.
Ryan Britch: 00:48:24 And I believe it's 44% of our members report personally having suicidal ideation since leaving the military. And that's a 13% increase in just the last six years. Shockingly two out of three of our members report personally, knowing a veteran that they served with, who has died by suicide. This is a statistic that continues to grow year after year. It's very clear that we need a different approach. IAVA worked very closely with Senator Tester and Senator Moran on the Commander John Scott Hannon Act. Commander Hannon was a Navy seal who, after he got out, moved back home to Montana and was really active in Veterans mental health initiatives up there, and unfortunately lost his battle to suicide a few years ago. This legislation is named after him.
Ryan Britch: 00:49:21 I guess the main provision of the legislation is that it would establish a community grant program, very similar to the VA housing initiative SSVF. So it supports services for Veterans and their families, a really powerful program, completely eliminated veteran homelessness. VA calls it a functional zero. Veteran homelessness still exists, but it's essentially very close to being eliminated. I'm sure you've heard this statistic that 20 Veterans suicide are Veterans die by suicide every year. I'm sorry, every day. And 14 of those Veterans aren't even in VA care. We have to find a way to address those 14 out of the 29 that aren't even getting VA care. So, this grant program would address the Veterans living in the local communities. These community based nonprofits who interact with these Veterans on a daily basis would be able to get them the services that they need if they don't want to go to VA for whatever issue that they have.
Ryan Britch: 00:50:27 It's beyond just the community grants. So there's additional funding for camp therapies. Those are alternative therapies like yoga, acupuncture, Reiki therapy, nutritional counseling, also some additional staffing plans that help fix the shortage of VA mental health professionals. I think if a clinic has a couple of psychologists, they're going to be overworked and not providing the best possible care that our Veterans deserve. This legislation recently passed the Senate. The House Veteran's Affairs committee just had a hearing on it yesterday. We're pretty hopeful this legislation is going to be passing in this Congress before the end of the year. So, we'll definitely keep you updated on the happenings.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:51:15 Yeah. And this episode won't be coming out for a few weeks. So we're recording, it's actually September 11th today when we're recording this episode. It won't be coming out until sometime closer to Thanksgiving time period. So, definitely keep me posted and I'll put something in the show notes, if there's any positive changes that come out from this. If they pass it in the House, that would be great. Obviously, we all know that the steps of all this, so there's obviously one more step to go through to get the president's signature on that bill to make it official, make it law. When all that happens, assuming it does, I don't want to jinx it by saying anything here, but let me know, and I'll update this episode of the show notes and everything to let people know that's another thing that's out there for them to be able to help out.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:52:19 So, we covered quite a bit today. We talked about the Prolonged Exposure therapy; we talked about finding a sense of purpose through the Peace Corps, your role now with the Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans of America, and a little bit of reminiscing on some old friends and things like that too. So we touched on quite a bit today and it's been a pleasure having you on the show, speaking with you. I really appreciate you joining me, but before we wrap up, is there any place that people can go to find out more about how to get involved with some of these legislative initiatives that you guys have going on where. There's a place that they can go to their senators or congressmen and things like that.
Ryan Britch: 00:53:16 Yeah, Scott, that's a great question. And we actually have a webpage you can [email protected]\take action. I'd happily provide you with a link, so you can include it in your podcast notes so Veterans, their families, Veterans supporters can go to our website, access our take action page. We actually have, prewritten emails to your elected officials, whether that's your congressmen or your Senator on a variety of different issues. So that's our legislation on burn pits and airborne toxins, combating suicide, ensuring that women Veterans get the same health care that male Veterans do, education benefits, empowering Veterans who want to use medicinal cannabis.
Scott DeLuzio: I'll definitely include that link in the in the podcast notes.
Ryan Britch: And definitely if you're interested in getting involved with IVA legislation, definitely visit our website and you can take action. And these prewritten emails are a great resource and would love to have your support on all of our priorities.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:54:24 Great. And again, all of these things that we talked about, I'm going to have links in the show notes, including, the different legislation that we talked about. I'll try to have links to all that. So you can read up on it, educate yourself, see if that's something that you want to get involved with and do more to help push these things through. I'll put all that information in there. So, again, it really has been a pleasure speaking with you, Ryan, and I really appreciate you taking the time to share your personal story. I know sometimes that's not the easiest thing to do, but that's certainly is beneficial to a lot of people. So I really do appreciate that. Thank you for everything that you do; really appreciate it.
Ryan Britch: 00:55:13 Scott. It's been a pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity
Scott DeLuzio: 00:55:16 Before we wrap this episode up. Ryan had shared with me after we stopped recording a story about my brother and his time in Ramadi during his first deployment. And the story was a really good story, and it tells a story of the harsh realities of war. And I wanted to share that with you. I know we wrapped up the episode already, but it was such a good story that I want to cut it in here at the end so that you can hear the story and some of the realities of the things that go on with the people who are on the ground, fighting the war. It's a really good story. Like I said, hopefully you'll take a second to listen to it. I'm not a long story, but it's a really a good and powerful story. So hopefully you take a second to listen and get something out of it.
Ryan Britch: 00:56:14 So, I forget when exactly it was during a deployment, I think early in the deployment. So probably like March, April timeframe. We were on our FOB in Afghanistan, and I think we were in the showers. I noticed that Steve had the face of a woman with a shroud tattoo on his shoulder. And I was curious, so I asked him about it and he told me the story. When he was in Ramadi, and it was 2005, 2006, and he was driving his Humvee and there on patrol was this female civilian. She just ran out in front of his vehicle, waving her arms at him, and she stopped them, stop their patrol and warned them about an IED roadside bomb that was buried up in the road ahead. And essentially the woman saved his life, probably the lives of everybody in his vehicle or the lives of everybody in a vehicle, in his patrol.
Ryan Britch: 00:57:12 And, I think Steve and the entire platoon were pretty thankful for this woman warning them. And so they went back later that week and tragically, they found that the woman and her entire family beheaded. So he told me that was the reason behind the tattoo. He had her image permanently and memorialized on his back to highlight her sacrifice for life, for his, and probably one of the most profound stories I had ever heard from Steve. He just wanted to highlight, permanently what this woman, who didn't even know him, wasn't even his same religion or nationality, she gave up everything to save his life.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:58:06 Not just her life, but it was from what I understand that the whole family, her whole family paid the price for it, her decision to save these people who she didn't even know, and you're right, it is a very powerful story. And it does tell some of the horrors of war and having that type of experience and seeing it, I can only imagine what it felt like to see that this family was slaughtered for helping these Americans. Uh, gosh. I don't even know, it's just a terrible situation. I really do appreciate you sharing that story. It's a difficult story. I think it's good for people to hear what goes on over there, because there's the saying “War is Hell.” It really is not a fun, happy time.
Ryan Britch: 00:59:24 Yeah. I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have guys like Steve watching out for me. Our entire deployment, Steve watched very closely over me and the other guys. I'll never forget in June, our platoon had just dismounted from our trucks and pretty close after dismounting, we heard the whips and the cracks of bullet's flying by us and almost instinctively Steve had grabbed me and he pulled me behind cover to our M wrap. And you just look to me, and he said, “don't you fucking move.” And he was always looking out for us. And I think the safety of his men was always more important than his own. And it's rare to find leaders like that. Somebody will give everything for you. I'm very thankful for my short experience with Steve.
Scott DeLuzio: 01:00:22 I think that comes from his years and years of playing hockey, where he was sort of the enforcer on the ice. He consistently had the most penalty minutes and he'd be the guy who knocked people off their feet and he was just there to make sure…he was a defenseman. He was making sure his goal was protected and his teammates were protected and things like that. He was a bruiser. He definitely could throw his weight around. I thought he was a huge guy, he wasn't, he wasn't the biggest guy out there, but he knew how to use his weight and knew how to throw it around.
Ryan Britch: 01:01:09 It's real. And I think I was probably 140 pounds soaking wet back then.
Scott DeLuzio: 01:01:15 Yeah. Well, he did bulk up during that deployment and leading up to it. He definitely bulked up, but he wasn't always that big. Being his big brother, I remember him as a little runt, so I can pick on them for that.
Ryan Britch: 01:01:33 And I think that's one of the reasons I looked up to Steve the most is because he was the skinny, young guy on his deployment to Iraq. I think I really looked up to him because he could empathize with me and where I was in the platoon. I was young, I had just turned 19. So a young, private first class and I think he looked out for me and stood up for me because he was in my shoes. And so it was really refreshing to have a leader like that.
Scott DeLuzio: 01:02:08 He had that tough side where he could definitely be a bruiser and he could definitely throw his weight around and he could take care of people when he needed to. But he also had a, a lighter side to where he could make you laugh no matter how bad you were feeling. I just know from my experience. I know that that's just how he was. It wasn't just like a family thing where he just would do it with us, but he would do it with other friends and family and stuff like that. We'd be sitting around talking about something mundane and boring to him or whatever. And he would just completely fall on the floor and pretend like he passed out sleeping and he would just get everyone cracking up because he was like, I'm done with this conversation, I'm out.
Scott DeLuzio: 01:02:57 And he would just fall on the floor. It didn't matter, like a tile floor, hardwood, it didn't matter what it was. It didn't have to be like a soft padded carpet floor and he would just plop right down and everyone would just be cracking up because we knew Steve was done. He didn't want to talk about this stupid thing.
Ryan Britch: He was always pulling pranks and I think it was really refreshing.
Ryan Britch: And I don't know if you ever read any Vonnegut, like Slaughterhouse 5 or Catch 22. So it's like this dark humor I've really only found from those WWII American authors. I think it's a pretty rare perspective to have after going through really traumatic experiences. So Vonnegut, he was an Army infantry guy, got captured, was a prisoner in Dresden when it got bombed. So he used this black satire as a way to cope from the war. And I think that was something very helpful for our deployment. Steve was always there pulling pranks and cracking jokes, especially in the darkest moments. We could be on an LP getting snowed on and he'd be cracking jokes and smiling. And so I think sometimes that's the best way to process something really awful is being able to find the humor in anything.
Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, for sure. He definitely had that great sense of humor and could really use it, and it would sometimes get annoying, but he definitely knew how to get to people, how to push their buttons and get them to laugh.
Ryan Britch: That's what a younger brother is good for.
Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. Well, alright.
Ryan Britch: Scott, I really enjoyed this.
Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. I really appreciate you sharing that story as well as well as all the other stories that we talked about today. So, I really appreciate it.
Scott DeLuzio: 01:04:56 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast.
Scott DeLuzio: 01:04:59 If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website, DriveOnPodcast.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @driveonpodcast.
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