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Northport VA workshop for veterans, partners can be a lifesaver

"Warrior to Soul Mate" is a free relationship workshop for veterans and their partners that is offered four times a year at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Nortport. The day-and-a-half-long program is not couples' therapy, but a hands-on workshop that involves role-playing exercises, training in how to communicate effectively and a group setting where couples can meet others struggling with similar relationship challenges. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Former U.S. Marine Felton Wright was in the midst of another argument with his girlfriend, Barbara Grant, when he had a revelation: If something didn’t change — soon — he might harm the woman he loves.

“I could see us putting our hands on each other,” said Wright, 58, of the argument that evening in the fall of 2015. A veteran of the U.S. invasion of Panama, Wright lives with Grant, 53, in Deer Park. “I could see it coming, so I needed help.”

While many relationships go through difficult periods, veterans and their partners often deal with a unique set of challenges: long separations during dangerous and often multiple deployments; confusion as household and financial responsibilities shift before, during and after deployments; and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Paul Swerdlow, lead chaplain at Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

A free program called “Warrior to Soul Mate” that Swerdlow runs is meant to address those issues.

“Before you go into combat, you spend months to prepare,” Swerdlow said. “But you’re given only 24 hours to return to civilian life. In other words, you fly from the combat zone, you process out, and you’re home.”

In the case of Wright and Grant, the retired Marine corporal said his private battle with PTSD was at the core of the couple’s problems. They made that connection through “Warrior to Soul Mate,” which is offered four times a year at the Northport VA. The center will hold another workshop on Friday and Saturday, which the couple will attend.

Swerdlow, who leads Northport’s program, said the day-and-a-half-long session is not therapy, but a hands-on workshop involving role-playing exercises, training in how to communicate effectively, and a group setting where couples can meet others with similar challenges.

One exercise has couples perform a “Daily Temperature Reading,” in which partners reflect on what they appreciate about each other; things that are puzzling or bothering them; new information to share; and their wishes and dreams for each other. They are encouraged to do the exercise daily to build emotional intimacy.

Wright and Grant had been together for more than three years when they first attended “Warrior to Soul Mate” in November 2015. Grant’s children and grandchildren accepted Wright. He was baptized in her church and they attended Bible study together.

Then came the yelling and door slamming.

“We were always at each other’s throats,” Wright said. “She couldn’t understand why I was so distant ... Everything made me upset. I was really isolated. I would take so much out on her verbally. And it wasn’t fair.”

“Sometimes I felt like he didn’t love me,” Grant said, tearfully describing their life before that first workshop. “I was hurt ... He was there, yet I was still in the relationship myself because he wasn’t communicating.”

Grant said their breakthrough came when Wright opened up about his PTSD during the workshop.

Suddenly, so many things made sense — like the time she found Wright alone instead of celebrating Fourth of July fireworks. Or his refusal to do anything involving large crowds. Grant said the most puzzling had been the way his eyes fixed in a far-off gaze, peering through what was in front of him.

“I understand now, when he gets in that stage just to leave him alone for a minute,” Grant said. “I learned it wasn’t about me.”

Wright said living with PTSD is living in a state of constant vigilance. A necessary survival skill during wartime, it had outlived its usefulness and had become detrimental to their relationship.

“I don’t want to sit in my house when everybody’s laughing and I’m, like, stuck to the ceiling,” Wright said. “I don’t even know how to get into the laughter. My mind is somewhere else. I get so blank.”

Wright learned through the workshop that his long silences and periods of isolation made Grant feel ignored and unloved. The workshop helped them incorporate the communication tools they learned into their daily life.

“I learned to listen,” Wright said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers the workshops at 49 sites nationwide, including all five VAMCs in the metropolitan area. It uses a curriculum developed by PAIRS, a Florida-based nonprofit, and is open to military couples, regardless of marital status or sexual preference.

Wright and Grant, who will celebrate their fifth anniversary in February, said that while their relationship improved dramatically after “Warrior to Soul Mate,” they’ve recently hit another rough patch.

Wright returned to some of his old habits in December, isolating himself and being noncommunicative, leaving Grant with pangs of hurt and loneliness.

Wright said he is now working to regain Grant’s trust.

“I just want her to know me,” he said, wiping away tears. “That’s what I got out of that program. She looks at me like I’m somebody. I really want to make her happy.”

The couple will continue “Warrior to Soul Mate,” and Wright is pursuing PTSD treatment at the VA. They both have hopes of a future together, including marriage.

“I want to show him there’s a better life out there,” Grant said. “We have a big life in front of us.”

‘WARRIOR TO SOULMATE’ WORKSHOP

“Warrior to Soul Mate” is a day-and-a-half long workshop that helps military couples improve their communication and relationship. It is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ new focus on healing the nation’s wounded veterans.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers the workshops at 49 sites nationwide.

The Northport VAMC offers the program four times a year. It was first offered at Northport in 2011. Each session can accommodate up to 12 couples.

The next session in Northport is 5-9:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28.

To learn more or to enroll in “Warrior to Soul Mate,” call Juliet Ahl at 631-261-4400, ext. 5928.

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