SignalCast sat down with Ryan Kules, Director of Wounded Warrior Project’s Combat Stress and Recovery Program, to discuss their mental health initiatives for American veterans.
SignalCast: Welcome to Signal Cast, the podcast from Signal Group. Signal is a bipartisan modern public affairs firm located in Washington, D.C. I’m your host, Andrew Deerin, Creative Director at Signal.
SC: There are more than 52,000 service men and women physically injured in recent military conflicts and a half a million living with invisible wounds from depression to post traumatic stress disorder or experiencing debilitating brain trauma. One of the organizations that has really stepped up to help is the Wounded Warrior Project. Joining us today in the Signal Cast Studios is Ryan Kules, Director of Wounded Warrior Project’s Combat Stress and Recovery Program. Welcome Ryan.
Ryan Kules: Thank you for having me.
SC: Tell me about your role WWP.
Kules: I run our Combat Trust Recovery Program. The main push of that program is facilitating Project Odyssey, which is a 12-week program that starts off with a week-long mental health workshop. All of it is focused on increasing resilience and the psychological well-being of our warriors. A good way to think about Project Odyssey is much like an Outward Bound program where we’re using adventure in the outdoors to teach coping skills, but with a goal setting and follow-up that takes place afterwards.
SC: What year did you guys put this program into effect?
Kules: Project Odyssey started in 2007 and saw a need with returning veterans to really focus in on some of the mental health challenges that they were experiencing and was developed over time to really help folks cope with what they were doing.
SC: I know, yourself, you were wounded in Iraq in 2005. When you came out and came back, was there anything like this program that was in place, or were you one of the folks that sort of really saw the need for something like this?
Kules: When I was wounded in 2005, the big part of my recovery, initially, was the physical aspect. I lost a leg and was missing an arm from an attack in Iraq. And so, the physical aspect was the big part. About a year into my recovery, the mental health stuff really started to rear its ugly head. I lost two of my soldiers in the attack, and the guilt associated with that really set in, and the understanding that I was going to be missing those limbs that I lost for my whole life. I was able to talk with some peers. I returned from combat and had been able to get some assistance from VA and get some assistance from some folks who were providing support. That was my entry into really starting to process what had happened to me.
SC: Project Odyssey is named after Homer’s famous poem about overcoming adversity and finding your way home. Tell us a little bit about what these Project Odysseys are. I know that you mentioned they’re sort of like Outward Bound. You have men only versions, women only versions, you have couples versions. Tell me a little bit about the programs.
Kules: Project Odyssey serves those Wounded Warrior Project alumni, of who we have 130,000 alumni and about 30,000 family support members in our database, that have experienced some significant mental health trauma in their military service and are at a point where they’re ready to work on themselves and, in a cohort model, be able to work through some of the symptoms they’re experiencing and learn some coping skills on how to deal with some of those challenges.
SC: How does a single soldier’s Odyssey compare to a couples? Are they similar things? Are they completely different?
Kules: They both have significant similarities between an Individual Odyssey and a Couples Odyssey. Individual Odysseys are focusing on the trust in having a cohort model, again, much like folks who have come out of the military and are starting to miss that comradery. The Couples Odysseys are focusing on that communication with the couple, but then also that trust and developing that camaraderie with a larger group. So folks understand that they’re not alone in the challenges that they’re experiencing with PTSD, with traumatic brain injury, and really being able to bond with one another.
SC: And are you guys starting to see success? Are you starting to make a difference in lives? Are you able to see tangible results or are we still too early in the projects?
Kules: We’re a very heavy metrics-based organization and really able to see in the surveys that we send out that are using evidence-based measurements to see some tangible results in decreasing the level of PTSD, increasing resilience, increasing psychological well-being. Also, we’re seeing some increase in the satisfaction of relationships for those Couples Odyssey. We are actually seeing some tangible measurements of when folks come in and folks come out in a nonclinical delivery model are actually seeing clinically relevant results.
SC: That’s awesome. I know last year you guys served around 3,000 folks on Project Odysseys. Are you seeing that there’s a need for even more? Are you guys looking to expand the program as we move into the future?
Kules: We at Wounded Warrior Project do an annual survey of our alumni and about 76% of the respondents to that survey indicate that they experience PTSD. So we know that the population to serve is out there. PTSD tends to be a matter of avoidance. It’s always our role to make sure that folks understand that Project Odyssey is out there, and if we could serve 10,000 folks in a year, we would. But really we are focusing on those folks that have identified they need the assistance and are really ready to work on themselves.
SC: Are Project Odysseys open to everyone, to any vet that comes back?
Kules: Project Odysseys are open to any of our Wounded Warrior Project alumni. We have a screening process to ensure that those alumni or those couples are ready, themselves, to work on Project Odyssey and they’re bought into the fact that it is a 12 week program, does have that a week-long mental health workshop at the initial point, but then also has that 12 weeks afterwards. Folks that are ready and willing to commit to that and have some challenges that they are experiencing from their military service are the ones who are the best fits for Project Odyssey.
SC: They need to be invested in getting the help.
Kules: Yeah, most certainly.
SC: I know Wounded Warrior Project has other mental health programs other than Project Odyssey. Can you talk a little bit about what else you guys have going on?
Kules: Certainly. Wounded Warrior Project has Warrior Care Network, which is a collaboration with four academic medical centers that provide intensive outpatient program focused on increasing resilience and psychological well-being of warriors that are experiencing PTSD or traumatic brain injury. It’s an amazing program that seeing some really significant beneficial results for those folks.
Kules: We have Wounded Warrior Product Talk, which is an emotionally supportive listening program that’s conducted by our teammates who are calling warriors or family support members for 20 minutes a day, once a week, for anywhere up to six to nine months to really provide an opportunity for those folks to get someone to listen to them and then set a goal for what’s next for them.
Kules: We also are able to connect warriors with a provider if they need some direct counseling services. And then we also have a partnership with PATH, who is an organization that provides equine therapy and are able to connect our warriors with that organization if that is a treatment model they would like to use.
SC: That’s incredible. Thank you so much. Well, that will do it for today’s show. My many thanks to Ryan Kules from Wounded Warrior Project. You can learn more about all the amazing things WWP is doing by checking them out on the web at woundedwarriorproject.org. For our entire production staff, I’m Andrew Deerin, and we will see you next time.