An addiction and PTSD treatment center launched a 12-step program earlier this year for military, veterans, and first responders.
Warriors Heart was co-founded in 2016 by retired Army Master Sgt. Tom Spooner, a former special forces soldier who served 21 years. Over his career, he saw several friends die by suicide or turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate the wounds and trauma of war.
After his retirement in 2011, Spooner teamed up with Lisa Lannon and her husband, Josh, to launch the first accredited treatment program in the U.S. exclusively for “warriors” faced with the self-medicating struggles of alcohol addiction, prescription and drug addiction, PTSD and mild TBI, according to a press release.
Spooner was able to self-manage an undiagnosed traumatic brain for several years before realizing he needed to get some help.
“I went from being the guy who helped people to being the guy who needed help. And that was really confusing for me. Everything I’ve done in the Army guarantee a lot of things. The two most important things they guarantee are that number one, I won’t quit, and number two, I’ll never ask for help. So, it was really messing with my mind that I needed to seek out help. For a long time, I knew I had stuff going on but my priority was war,” Spooner said.
He said he self-managed his condition for several years in part because it wasn’t affecting his job, but also because he was worried about how his need for treatment might be perceived.
The breaking point came when he realized he wasn’t the husband and father he wanted to be. Decisions to seek treatment for active-duty service members are often difficult choices to make since each command climate differs in its receptiveness to mental health-related issues, but Spooner says the military made progress.
“Where I was working, there’s a lot of TS stuff happening all the time and I wondered if I were to be honest about what was going on, if there was a chance I’d lose my job or my TS. But today’s climate is completely different than the 2010s. The military has come a long, long way in improving that stigma and backing up what they say about seeking treatment,” said Spooner.
With a receptive command chain behind him, Spooner went in search of treatment for his issues. For roughly a year, he participated in cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, and vestibular therapy. One thing that struck him immediately was the separation between behavioral health and substance abuse treatment. In the military healthcare system, they’re kept separate, which raised concerns for Spooner.
Spooner’s sobriety helped him avoid the common pitfall trap of service members who experience trauma resulting from combat and turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.
“If a soldier goes in for treatment for their chemical dependency and they start talking about war trauma, the doc tells them that it’s not the place to talk about it. The converse is also true,” Spooner said.
The disconnect Spooner saw while seeking treatment for his TBI stayed with him after he medically retired in 2011.
“No one really knew the veteran suicide rate of 22 a day back when I retired. And it’s hard to intervene in veteran suicide because they just do it. They don’t reach out because that’s how we’re trained,” he said.
Making matters more difficult to address is that most veterans who die by suicide are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time.
Spooner says the best way to address the issue of veteran suicide is to address the issue of veteran and active-duty substance abuse.
“Going through treatment, I realized everything was so segmented and siloed. And then adding in the TBI piece — which affects decision making for soldiers who are working through trauma and guilt and are self-medicating, their decision-making skills aren’t the best. It’s not easy to find treatment. They have to run around everywhere. It’s the chicken or the egg. Is it the trauma that they’re using, or is it the drinking that brings up the trauma? It doesn’t matter. Just treat them both,” Spooner said.
Warriors speaking to warriors
One of the challenges service members face in seeking treatment is finding like-minded therapists and a peer network to speak openly about their issues, Spooner says. Warriors Heart understands that veterans are going to be more comfortable speaking to veterans.
“Our clients have the common bond of trauma and a common bond of being strong. We’ve had guys who have been in the same battles from different platoons, and then they’re telling their story, and then someone speaks up and says I was right there when that was happening,” he remarked.
Warriors Heart serves first responders and law enforcement officers, as well, and Spooner says there is commonalities between those groups and those who serve in the military.
“The physical differences of a combat vet and a stateside EMT might be much different, but the things that eat them up at the same,” he explained.
The programming available at Warriors Heart includes individual and group therapy, but the real magic happens when they’re sitting around the fire pit at night.
“You have that guy or gal who’s on day three, they’re trying to think about leaving and then you have the guy or gal who’s been there for 40 days and a mentorship forms. That’s what happens in our population anyway — when we see someone struggling, we help them. That’s our nature, and that’s our training,” Spooner said.
That connection with others helps them remember that they’re not alone. The private, 60-bed facility is located on a 543-acre ranch outside San Antonio, Texas, where it does everything it can to be the opposite of a hospital setting. It’s catered to the military demographic, both in terms of treatment choices and the overall approach to the program.
“I am the population, so it’s not a doctor or nurse practitioner saying what needs to be done. At the end of the line, there’s a warrior that’s making the decisions because I know what they can tolerate and what they can’t,” Spooner said.
He notes these military members come to Warriors Heart at the lowest point in their lives, so the staff tries to make it familiar to them, starting with an accountability check at 7 a.m.
“Everyone has been in basic or through an academy, so it’s a familiar flow to their day. This helps remind them that you’re this person now, but you weren’t always. Let’s get rid of the stuff you don’t need. We remind them who they are,” he added.