One hallmark of the nation’s military and veteran community is seasoned, more knowledgeable members passing on lessons gleaned through hard-fought experience to younger up-and-comers.
Building on common experiences, mentorship—especially among severely injured veterans—has proven a significant factor in creating a “new normal.”
Take for example Past National Commander Jim Sursely, a triple amputee wounded by an anti-tank mine explosion in Vietnam. In 2016 at the Boulder Crest Retreat in Bluemont, Va., Sursely stepped into the role of mentor for Marine veteran Josh Brubaker, who lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
“I think the primary purpose for us as mentors is to connect with this younger generation of veterans,” said Sursely. “It gives us a chance to share common bonds, common interests and generates more conversation. My end goal is to share some of my experience with the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and hopefully make life more enjoyable for them.”
The retreat is the nation’s first privately funded rural wellness center dedicated exclusively to veterans and their families. It has been supported by grants from the DAV Charitable Service Trust since December 2015 and welcomes about 700 guests each year, facilitating mentorships like the one between Sursely and Brubaker.
“Jim really impressed me,” Brubaker said, “a triple amputee who had to live life without all the ramps and before [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance laws were created. I deal with all the struggles [I have], and then I see guys like him who paved the way for guys like me; it makes me more humble.”
Together with DAV and Boulder Crest, the Gary Sinise Foundation helped pair mentors with mentees. Sinise, a longtime supporter and partner of DAV, said that while things like adaptive homes and augmented vehicles can improve the lives of injured veterans, the common bonds of mentorship are just as important.
“We’ve found that injured veterans—especially those with profound wounds like amputations and traumatic brain injuries—can benefit tremendously by learning from people who are further along on a similar journey,” said Sinise. “Partnering with DAV and Boulder Crest gives us the chance to create relationships that will improve the long-term quality of life and help veterans see the full range of possibilities their future can hold.”
Ken Falke, chairman and founder of Boulder Crest Retreat, said operations like the retreat are invaluable assets in caring for ill and injured veterans.
“As a life member for nearly 15 years, I have grown to really know the value DAV brings to its members,” Falke said. “Partnering with DAV to help our post-9/11 community transition to a life of meaning and purpose here at home is extremely rewarding to all of us involved.”
Mentorship, as many veterans know, is a self-fueling fire. Experiences like those at Boulder Crest often lead mentees to take on roles as mentors themselves. Brubaker himself now makes it a point to visit with fellow injured veterans who recently returned home from overseas.
“I would go into Walter Reed and show the newer veterans there the latest prosthetics and new gadgets,” he said. “Having the older guys pass things on to the younger generation—that’s what it’s all about.”