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Americans are overall more polite and reserved, Haimov said, and therefore not used to talking about their feelings with others — particularly strangers on the other end of the phone line. That may mean it takes longer for a veteran to open up about his or her problems, but it also means that the training for American volunteers is even more emotionally involved than that for Haimov’s Israeli staff. The American volunteers must resist the impulse to offer easy platitudes, and instead address their own mixed emotions that arise when speaking to veterans each week.
“We want them to stay with the pain, hear the sadness, hear the helplessness — deal with those difficult emotions,” Haimov said.
A.W., a volunteer at WWP Talk in Jacksonville who requested to be identified by her initials only because of the confidential and personal nature of her work, found herself in just such a situation.
“There was a warrior whose story touched me so much that after the call, I really had to take some time,” A.W. recalled. “I was very sad and cried and couldn’t figure out why.” She made a long-distance call to Haimov, in Israel at the time, to discuss her feelings about the interaction.
“My friends had always told me I was a good listener and had a lot of empathy,” A.W. said. She is also the mother of a soldier who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the wife of a veteran, and has a father who was a prisoner of war in World War II, and a grandfather who served in World War I.
“As a mother, I couldn’t help my son with his transition back to the civilian world other than being a mother, but I just feel like I’m sort of the help I couldn’t give my son,” A.W. said. “I just feel like I’m giving back something.”
“It’s almost like being in a confessional,” A.W. explained, comparing the phone call experience to the Catholic ritual. “You’re just letting the thoughts flow without wondering if I’m saying this right, or if this is what the other person wants to hear.”
Along with the tough situations, there are successes. Haimov spoke of soldiers who had already quit drinking in the short time that WWP Talk has been accepting calls (about 10 months), and of one veteran in particular who felt confident enough to leave his house for the first time in six years thanks to WWP Talk’s counseling. And A.W. spoke of a veteran she’d been working with for five months, who had resisted talking to her about his combat experience, or taking her suggestions for outside help, and who is now enrolled in one-on-one therapy sessions with a mental health professional.
“That’s huge for these guys — to be able to come from that place of sort of wallowing in it, and realizing, wait a minute, there’s nothing I can really do about what happened, but there is a lot I can do about what happens in the future.”