Building a Community to Improve Veterans' Health

April 2, 2015

BLAYNE SMITH - Executive Director of Team Red, White, And Blue:

The topic of veterans' health is one that has been widely discussed over the past few years, and understandably so.  We know that 13 years of sustained combat has left many veterans physically injured or wounded. We also know that a much larger number of veterans are facing challenges with mental and emotional health as a result of invisible wounds like traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Ensuring the health of our nation's war-fighters is and undertaking that we must get right, and it isn't a simple task. It is an extremely complex issue that reaches across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. But, does it necessarily require a complex solution?

During the course of the Clinton Health Matters Activation Summit, and especially during the Veterans Heal Town Hall with Spike's Veterans Operation Wellness, I heard one word more than any other – community. Healthcare's greatest minds believe that the answers to most of our challenges are local, consistent, and inclusive programs, and I agree. If we want to move away from a disease management culture and into a health and wellness culture, our systems must focus on engagement, knowledge, access, and support. This is especially true for the veteran population, who is less likely to seek care for ailments, particularly those around mental and emotional health.    

The Clinton Foundation and VOW led by example during Tuesday's Military Challenge events, which included a 3k Fun Run in the morning, and GORUCK team-building event in the afternoon. These activities mirror the work of great nonprofit organizations like Team Red, White, and Blue and Team Rubicon that connect veterans to their communities through positive opportunities like fitness, sports, disaster relief, and community service. We've found that by engaging veterans through fun and rewarding activities we can significantly reduce stress, isolation, and depression … all in addition to improving physical health. Since we are an inclusive organization that offers access to all veterans as well as civilian members of the community, our programs don't feel like therapy, and as you might imagine, that is attractive to veterans.   

For many veterans, a sustained or renewed sense of purpose, identity, and support is enough to set them on the path toward health and fulfillment. But even for those that require more acute services, being part of community can provide the knowledge necessary to seek assistance. For some, it may be the knowledge of what programs are available. For others, knowing that other veterans have shared their struggles and have found their way through is a critical step in moving toward care.

When it comes to veteran health and wellness, there isn't a quick or sexy solution. Just as with saving for retirement or losing weight or running a marathon, the secret is…there is no secret. Success requires consistent effort and mastery of the basics:

Get active and stay active. Movement promotes healing. Action begets action. Find what you like and do it.

Spend time with other humans (and not just other vets). Get to know your community. Share a hike or a run or a workout.  Quality relationships are a key driver of happiness and life satisfaction.

Seek and accept help if you need it. Vulnerability is not weakness. It is courage. Trust me, you'll have the opportunity to return the favor.

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.