BILLINGS - This week marked 20 years since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but for some post-9/11 veterans, the transition back to civilian life is still presenting challenges.
On March 20, 2003, the U.S. carried out its first air strikes in Iraq, marking the start of the war.
While that war ended in 2011, some veterans are still dealing with the impacts — like Matt Stetler, who was deployed in Afghanistan serving the Army as a Cavalry Scout.
"I served from '08 to '12. I was deployed to the Kunar Province, Afghanistan," Stetler, a Billings resident, said on Tuesday. "The challenges are just reincorporating into society. Trying to navigate through the VA system, trying to find out what help is out there. Just trying not to struggle on your own, you know, which most veterans do. Struggle on their own.”
Stetler said he has many lasting effects, both mental and physical, from serving his country.
"I struggle with a lot of things. Severe insomnia, PTSD. I was recently diagnosed with a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) that Mike actually helped me with because for 10 years the VA didn’t recognize TBIs. But now they’re starting to recognize them. So he’s helping me along with that process," Stetler said. “I struggle with reclusiveness. Just everything. And I’m trying. It’s been four years that I’ve really sheltered myself from this world. I want to be a productive part of society and I’m trying to get back into that."
Luckily, his older brother, also a veteran, led him to a local nonprofit aimed at helping veterans like him: Veterans Navigation Network (VNN).
“Part of the reason why I ended up here is luckily I have a good family unit. My older brother’s a veteran. And he met Mike McManus from here and asked me to come talk to him. And it actually helped a lot," Stetler said. "There are so many different programs I had never even heard of. Whether it’s a gym to go to, getting help with a claim that you’re trying to deal with, finding a job, he’ll get you in touch with all the right people. And it’s a crucial network to have."
Mike McManus is the program coordinator for VNN and is also a veteran himself. He served 20 years in the United States Air Force and was deployed to Iraq.
“Twenty years ago on this date, things were very much different,” McManus said.
McManus says the work done at VNN is crucial — especially here in Montana.
“We have roughly 89-90,000 vets statewide," McManus said. "Yellowstone County has the largest veteran population of every other county at about 11-12,000 vets."
According to McManus, the nonprofit was founded in 2019 by a former U.S. Army Ranger.
"Our founder, a former Army Ranger, served three tours in Afghanistan. And then on a jump, he jacked up his back and that was the end of that. And it’s really his transition story and some of the difficulties," McManus said. "Now he’s the senior director at RiverStone. But it took a while to get to that point. He just really vowed that he didn’t want any other veterans to go through some of the difficulties that he did in their transition. So he started Veterans Navigation Network back in October of 2019, and since then we’ve helped, as of this morning, 722 veterans."
The nonprofit works to provide resources for veterans navigating the transition back to civilian life, like one-on-one counseling and peer mentors.
"What we do is one-on-one resource counseling and case management, which is very important. That follow-up and that type of thing. We also have peer mentors if that’s what the veteran needs and is agreeable to, to kind of help walk alongside them. Help kind of set up some goals, accomplish some tasks with someone that has some familiarity with the military. Maybe reach a shared experience, because we try to match you know Army to Army or that kind of thing," McManus said.
"But we also do a lot of advocacy. A lot of great groups, like the VA, are doing some great things. But you know, we still have to poke every once in a while so we do advocacy," McManus. "And we also hold our own events where we bring our partners together under one roof, sometimes employers as well. So that veterans, and even members of the community, can benefit from having those service providers in one location."
McManus said VNN serves veterans of all ages, from Vietnam to post-9/11 wars.
“We say transition and it could be that Marine two weeks out of their four-year enlistment, or, we see a lot of Vietnam veterans who haven’t really fully transitioned out. So that transition is kind of a broad term. But really we’ll help them wherever they’re at in that journey. Every veteran’s journey is definitely different," McManus said.
"So we can help them navigate that. Helping make sure they get enrolled with the VA and things like that. Because there’s a lot of physical conditions from service, psychological conditions, depending upon what their experience was in the service," McManus continued. "So we want to make sure their healthcare needs and maybe their behavioral healthcare needs are taken care of as well.”
According to McManus, VNN has helped 722 veterans in Montana since its start in 2019.
“We did a major event with the VA the last week of January. We connected with 246 veterans throughout the state. Typically we see 350, 400 veterans a year, and right there we saw a good chunk just in the first month," McManus said. "So the number of veterans that we’ve been helping has definitely been going up, but that’s what we’re here for.”
But this work is only possible through funding — something McManus said is desperately needed.
“If we want to continue to do the good work that VNN has done in a very short period of time, directly helping 720 vets and then a lot of other veterans from the events we’ve been at, we have to raise funds," McManus said. "So individuals who make donations to VNN, I mean that goes to keeping the lights on. It helps us do outreach and things like that to veterans, as well as sitting here doing that one-on-one resource counseling and following up with those veterans. It directly impacts our ability to reach our veterans and connect our veterans with all these different services and programs that they’ve earned through their service.”
McManus said monetary donations are gladly accepted, as well as donations of time from volunteers.
“If you make a monetary donation to Veterans Navigation Network, we are a nonprofit so that’s how we survive,” McManus said. “There’s a lot of ways to help us. But if you’re a veteran, you need to reach out to us. And we’ll assess what’s going on, and plug you in where you need to be."
Providing guidance is something veterans like Matt Stetler are grateful for.
“He helped me with my claim. Just coming in and talking with Mike has helped. I mean he’s such a good, positive guy. He’s always looking to help. Everyone here at VNN is looking to help," Stetler said. "I mean they just give you a barrage of ideas and things you can do to better yourself.”
And Stetler encourages other veterans to check out VNN.
"At the VA, they don’t necessarily tell you all the programs that are out there. And I know this from experience, I’ve been a part of the Montana VA for 10 years now," Stetler said. "I didn’t know there was a gym I could go to. I didn’t know that there’s outside programs to help people with PTSD. I didn’t know so many different things, and he makes sure that every veteran knows that. And it’s just nice to have extra support groups out there like that.”
To learn more about Veterans Navigation Network, click here.
“Everybody knows, especially with the pandemic, mental health is just really tough. And then you add in the fact that you’re a veteran, that makes it even tougher," Stetler said. "22 veterans commit suicide every day. I mean, you’ve got to push yourself forward. You‘ve got to help yourself as much as you can, and you’ve got to let other people help you as well. You know, the only way we can stop veteran's suicide is to get these people help."