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Program helps bridge gap between veterans, civilians

Director of Stories We Carry Project Scott Thompson,

Director of Stories We Carry Project Scott Thompson, second right, organizes a group of veterans and civilians in an exercise in an effort to understand what each other are feeling at a meeting at Adelphi University Oct. 9, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

On the outside, they couldn't have seemed more different: Brent Russell, a tall, sinewy Army veteran, and Christen Samuels, a petite lifelong civilian.

But as they sat talking face-to-face during a gathering at Adelphi University on Thursday, her struggle to fight back tears spoke of the emotional bond formed between them in just two hours.

"I could never sit where you do," said Samuels, after Russell, a counselor from Westbury, recalled comforting fellow soldiers who'd witnessed the worst of war. "There are no words."

Samuels, 25, and Russell, 48, were among about a dozen people who met at the university's Garden City campus as part of an effort to bridge the gap that isolates veterans from civilians.

One participant was an emergency room nurse, whose exposure to the death of a young fire victim helped her empathize with the psychological trauma combat veterans endure. Another was the granddaughter of a World War II soldier who lived with her until he died, but didn't speak of his wartime anguish until his final hours. Still another was a former Army captain and Kuwait veteran, who can't shake the fear that terrorists bent on revenge will track her down.

The gathering was organized by Stories We Carry, a program that arranges for veterans and civilians "to share their stories, misconceptions and experiences about war," according to its website.

The program, an initiative of the Mental Health Association of New York City, receives funding from the Long Island Community Foundation. Additional sessions, including one Tuesday at St. John's University in Queens, and Wednesday at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, can be found at storieswecarry.org.

Separation from family and friends, the rigors of training, fear of grave injury and the wartime need to participate in killing have left many of the nation's more than 2 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans questioning the morality of it all and feeling alienated, said program director Scott Thompson, a former Army chaplain.

At the same time, Thompson said, some civilians feel guilty for leading comfortable lives while soldiers risk everything on the battlefield. And relatives of veterans can feel lonely or frustrated when battle-stressed veterans won't open up about what's bothering them.

These conflicting feelings breed mutual isolation -- even contempt -- making it harder for veterans to return to civilian life, Thompson said.

"I think veterans are collapsing under the weight of having to carry the emotional responsibility for war entirely on their own," Thompson said. "We have found that veterans have been relieved when they see civilians are also impacted."

It seemed so for Russell, of Westbury, who counsels veterans with the state-funded Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer Peer-to-Peer Support Program.

"I definitely felt you really cared," he said to Samuels, an Adelphi graduate student from Melville. "That in itself made me feel a connection -- a good connection."

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