"We few. We happy few. We band of brothers." These lines from Shakespeare's "Henry V" capture the bonds forged in combat.
The bonds are the same whether forged in the Battle of Agincourt, France, in 1415 — the battle at the heart of Shakespeare's play — or in the Arghandab Valley, Afghanistan, in 2009, where U.S. soldiers performed a tough mission at the heart of the global war on terrorism.
These bonds last a lifetime, and an innovative program — Operation Resiliency — seeks to take advantage of these bonds to help end the epidemic of suicides among U.S. veterans.
Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs say that each year more than 6,000 veterans take their own lives.
OPRES — as folks call the program — grew out of a real experience. Sarah Verardo, whose husband was catastrophically wounded during his service in Afghanistan, started The Independence Fund to promote independence for veterans. Her husband served with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.
The unit was deployed to the Arghandab at a very tough time and roughly 50 percent of the soldiers in the unit had been awarded Purple Hearts by the end of the deployment, Caroline Arey, strategic messaging director for The Independence Fund, said.
The dying didn't stop when the unit came home. Two soldiers in the unit took their own lives. At the funeral for the second veteran, in a supreme example of gallows humor, one veteran told another, "Guess I'll see you at the next one of these."
"Sarah told herself, 'This has to stop here,'" Arey said.
"In 2018, Sarah — whose husband Mike was in my unit — gave me a call and told me she had this idea to bring together hard-hit combat units … for a kind of reunion, but more for the healing aspect and the reconnectivity of it," said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Donald McAlister, who was the first sergeant for Bravo Company in the Arghandab. "She felt that if she got the guys back together, … we could use that teamwork, that bond we have and that group resilience to basically keep each other alive."
Operation Resiliency was born with the idea that the bonds forged in combat would help the soldiers deal with the trials they faced coming home. The VA bought into it quickly and the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention "was super-supportive of this from the beginning and have worked with us to really partner to bring Operation Resiliency to life," Arey said. "They provided a lot of services for us at the very onset that included training. They trusted us with the ability to grow it, and they helped create some of the training that we've done."
The group tested the concept on McAlister's Bravo Company. It's a free, four-day retreat for the members of the unit. The company leaders bought into the concept and worked to get the other soldiers of the unit to attend. "These allow us to experience that sense of brotherhood that we had in the 'Dab,'" McAlister said.
Almost 100 Bravo company soldiers attended the retreat, held in North Carolina. Some were still on active duty, some were retired, some were out of the Army.
"I knew that when we got those guys together, that for me to still be their leader, I had to lead by example," McAlister said. "And, to me, leading by example was being open and honest, and letting them know that mentally, physically, I'll never be the man I was before. I went through all the things I went through. But at the end of the day, that's OK. And when I told them, 'You know, it's OK for us all to not be OK, as long as we, as long as we acknowledge it. We can see the enemy, see what's coming at us.'"
OPRES keeps the connection going with follow-ups to maintain contact between the veterans.
The Independence Fund has hosted 468 combat-tested service members through Operation Resiliency, and the results have far exceeded expectations, Arey said. The retreats are held where the service members are — Texas, California, North Carolina and more. The group hopes to host six retreats this next year.
For more information, point your browser to The Independence Fund.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or emotional distress, please call or text 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24-hour, confidential support.