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Keeping Veteran Mental Health Top of Mind

This month marked the fifth annual Nebraska Behavioral Health Conference, Success, Hopes and Dreams in Lincoln, Nebraska. In addition to the fabulous key note speakers and numerous breakout sessions, this year we welcomed the talented actors of Outside the Wire for a free presentation of Theater of War.

On Monday evening, actors Julianna Francis Kelly and Glen Davis, read two scenes from Sophocles’ Ajax, which was followed by a panel and an hour of community discussion. Theater of War is a project that brings ancient Greek plays by the play write Sophocles to military bases across the country. The project is based on the idea that ancient Greek plays were a form of storytelling, ritual purification, and reintegration, for Veterans by Veterans (

With nearly 200 people in attendance you could feel the intensity and the heaviness of the room. As the cast began to read the powerful dialogue, I immediately got chills. Ajax is a play about a Greek soldier who struggled with intense feelings of betrayal and loss after losing his dear friend, Achilles, in battle.

Ajax felt betrayed and cheated after he was denied the honor of receiving Achilles’ armor. When Ajax finally gets home from being away at war, his wife immediately notices that he is not the same man she once knew. Ajax was suffering from what she described as “divine madness.”

As his “madness” worsens, it is clear that Ajax is struggling with what we now call posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The play comes to a close after Ajax can no longer deal with his anger and grief. He decides that the only way to end his suffering is to throw himself upon his sword, ultimately killing himself.

Sophocles’ play demonstrates that even twenty-five-hundred years ago soldiers endured extreme tragedies and were forced to witness horrendous acts of violence. These experiences were sending brave and strong men home with invisible wounds. It’s believed that these plays, which were performed for nearly 17,000 soldiers over 80 continuous years of war, were used as a form of therapy.

Ajax’s story hit particularly close to home for Veteran and Certified Intentional Peer Support and Wellness Specialist, Ryan Kaufman.

“Theater of War brought back a lot of memories of the struggles my wife and I went through,” he said. “My body and my mind were giving me different messages. Not until a doctor that I had never met with before, wrote down the symptoms of PTSD on a marker board, did I realize that he was describing me.”

In a study from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of twenty-two Veterans die by suicide every day as a result of posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, amounting to 8,030 Veteran suicides annually. To put this staggering number into perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, there were 4,412 U.S. military casualties during Operation Iraqi Freedom over the course of seven years (The News Eagle).

Kaufman shared his personal journey through drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, family separation, a suicide attempt, and his struggle with PTSD, during his keynote presentation at the Success, Hopes and Dreams conference. He has used his personal experiences and genuine passion to help other Veterans like himself, to attain a career with Lutheran Family Services’ At Ease program.

“I have never climbed a mountain from the top down,” he responded, when asked what he thought that we as a society needed to do to improve Veteran mental health services. He explained that, “rather than waiting for changes to happen from the top down, WE as individuals needed to be the ones to make the first step.” It is this strong desire for change that has helped drive peer support forward!

“Peer to peer support removes the element of unequal power between patient and professional,” says Kaufman. “It puts both peers on an equal level, giving us the ability to renegotiate service and terms with one another on an individual basis.”
Whether it’s sharing battle stories or helping another Veteran apply, interview for, or maintain a job, his role as a Certified Intentional Peer Support and Wellness Specialist allows him to help Veterans with almost anything they need assistance with. These “cases” never close either, because At Ease understands that needs could arise at any time.

“When I meet with someone for the first time, I always refer back to the same three questions that I was once asked,” says Kaufman. “How are you doing? How is she doing? How is work going?”

These three simple questions reveal a lot about how the individual is coping. Some Veterans that he works with may be hesitant to receive this kind of support initially. Unfortunately, some still view PTSD as a sign of weakness, rather than it being the brain’s natural response to an unnatural circumstance.

“I often have to tell them that we are not surrendering, we are simply redirecting our fire. “

I would like to give a sincere thank you to Ryan Kaufman for taking the time to speak with me and willingness to offer your expertise.



About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator
Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank, and YWCA. Since becoming Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation in April 2014, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, the Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, the Metro Area LOSS Team, and is helping lead a community-wide health improvement initiative with the Douglas County Health Department called, “Just Reach Out,” which is focused on improving the people’s view on mental and behavioral health treatment.