How Bush Institute's program prepares veterans for the next battle

How Bush Institute's program prepares veterans for the next battle
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At a time when 20 or more veterans commit suicide each day, when close to 20 percent of all warfighters who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from significant post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), the difficulty of transitioning back to civilian life has perhaps never been more difficult.

One effective approach to helping veterans transition is extreme sports, which combines the positive impact of exercise with re-bonding and teamwork.

I witnessed just how effective this is, as warfighters assumed a military-style formation behind their former commander in chief during a “Warrior 100k” mountain-bike ride at President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. 

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Leadership and role modeling are keys for healing, and “Bush 43” is perhaps the most important link to veteran leadership because he sent these men and women to war in the first place. I have experienced, up close, his brand of personal, compassionate and jocular leadership, and he is well-loved by all the veterans I’ve met. In one of the paintings featured in his book, “Portraits of Courage,” Bush focuses on Master Sergeant Roque Urena and his wife, Marlene, as they exchange loving gazes and Urena gently grasps her shoulder.

Marlene spoke to me about the unexpected boost they received when President Bush came, seemingly from nowhere, to give them a hug. Bush is well aware of the difficulties of transition. “You can’t write ‘Sniper’ on an employment form,” he says.

Col. Miguel Howe, a retired Special Forces officer with 24 years of experience commanding in combat throughout Afghanistan, Iraq and Latin America, knows firsthand how difficult it is for a vet to return to civilian life as a socially minded leader. As a fellow and former director of the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, Howe helps lead the curriculum and development of the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program (VLP). “It is America’s only leadership development program specifically designed to help committed leaders better serve our nation’s veterans,” he told me. The program “educates, inspires and positions our graduates to drive systemic change and improve veterans’ lives, wherever and however they serve them.”

Not everyone in the program is a veteran; some are active-duty, some civilians. All are brought in for six months to work on post 9/11 transition issues. Civilians provide an outside perspective that is frequently useful. President and Mrs. Bush meet with the scholars to discuss their projects.

I contacted two members of the first graduating class about their goals.

Meaghan Mobbs — a West Point graduate, Afghanistan veteran and former Army captain — is a clinical psychology predoctoral fellow at Columbia University, Teachers College. Mobbs is committed to addressing all the stressors, beyond PTSD, that veterans often face. She told me their experiences are “remarkably heterogenous and multifaceted. Until recently, there has been a failure to appreciate the collective complexity of the transition into and out of the service. Soldiers and veterans are undeniably resilient, both by selection and by training, but they are not superhuman.

“The process of transitioning and reintegrating back to civilian life is often stressful and can generate lasting psychological difficulties,” she said, yet “almost no resources are available to address the cognitive, emotional, behavioral or psychological impacts of the soldier-to-civilian transition.”

As she explained, the answer is not simply job or educational opportunities: “There must be an acknowledgment that, just as service members are transformed physically and psychologically from civilian to soldier, they must undergo a similar process on the back end.”

Mobbs was impressed by the Bush Institute’s program: “In their adoption of ‘Stand-To,’ it presupposed there will eventually be a ‘stand-down,’ a recognition that the threat has been met and diminished, the danger has passed, and all is well. ... (The) Bush Institute is a combat multiplier, empowering every Bush VLP scholar to take on that mission with vigor and hardiness. In our individual contexts, we are tackling the current threats impacting post 9/11 veterans and diminishing them.”

I also heard from William Parker, senior quality improvement coordinator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Central Ohio. With his time in the Stand-To program, he built a health care-specific employment program focused on educating and preparing veterans for opportunities while educating health care organizations on the value of hiring veterans.

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Parker described the program as “extremely well thought-out and strategic ... Not only do we have access to high-profile government and private-sector leaders, the Bush Institute has also deliberately set aside a portion of the program to focus on our own personal leadership development.” 

The second class of the Bush Veteran Leadership Program will begin in June. Each participant has a leadership project and meetings with senior leaders and renowned experts, as well as those they serve. Participants are identified as rising leaders from a wide range of sectors who are working to improve veteran, military family, survivor and caregiver outcomes.

Participants must commit to a rigorous executive MBA-style curriculum. By the time they finish, they’re ready to bring their new skills and networks to bear on civilian life. 

On Memorial Day, we honor those who died heroic deaths while defending our country. We also should honor our heroes still struggling to make it all the way home — some of them with help from the Bush Institute.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to clarify Col. Miguel Howe's role in the Stand-To program.

Marc Siegel M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @drmarcsiegel.