Sunday, August 9, 2009

LifeRing for Veterans

Dave R., a convenor who has been working to set up a LifeRing meeting at a Veterans Administration facility in San Francisco writes:
Before last week's meeting, [convenor] T__ and I had a 20-minute Q & A session with [program director] J__, a few VA staff members from departments connected with J__'s substance abuse program, and 2 resident interns.
All of these folks seemed genuinely interested in learning about LifeRing. T__ and I fielded a lot of questions about LifeRing as a whole, our approach to recovery, our meeting formats, and the similarities and differences between LifeRing and 12-step programs. Everyone seemed very engaged by what T__ and I had to say, and there wasn't a hint of (as AA puts it) "contempt prior to investigation".

The meeting itself went very well. The vets who attended (about 15 or so) were very enthusiastic about what LifeRing has to offer, to the point that they've already expressed the desire for a second weekly on-site meeting (J__ is also strongly supportive of this, and has already told me that she has a time slot or two where we could make that happen).
When I talked with J__ yesterday, she also said that one of the vets who attended our [VA facility meeting] had even made a point of getting himself over to one of our regular open S.F. meetings, liked what he found, and plans to go more often... and this guy is apparently a big 12-step advocate. Others had a lot of interest in the "outside" meetings as well; T__ and I will make sure to connect them with those resources.

One thing that became evident from the vets' questions, though: recovery plan-wise, they're probably looking for a bit more structure and guidance than the normal "how was your week" meeting format provides. Many of them wanted to know if we had anything similar to AA's Steps (and sponsorship), and in line with that, they expressed a lot of interest in what the workbook had to offer.
This might be one place where it would be helpful (if financially possible) to follow AA's lead and donate workbooks to the meeting. For one thing, most of these vets are essentially homeless and jobless, but the second consideration is that J__ did tell me that selling our workbooks in the [VA] facility may actually run afoul of some VA rules regarding "outside vendors".

And one final note: J__ said that she's planning to give a presentation on recovery options to one or more of the associated VA departments from which she gets treatment referrals. Her idea is to invite representatives from LifeRing, SMART, and AA, not as a debate type of thing, but rather an equal-time presentation of what each organization has to offer.
In any event- that's the news from the front! It's actually time for me to prepare for our second meeting this afternoon; I'll keep you posted!
It isn't surprising that LifeRing is getting a good reception from veterans. Several counselors from VA substance abuse programs in different parts of the country, whom I met at one or another professional conference in the past few years, have told me that combat experience drives people in different directions. Some become more religious and immerse themselves in religion like a hermetically sealed bubble. Others want nothing more to do with God stuff and look for realistic solutions that make sense.

When a government-run program like the VA pushes people into God-based treatment programs, it's a lawsuit waiting to happen. Federal courts have ruled repeately that the 12-step approaches are religious, for purposes of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and that government agencies have to give clients a choice between religious and secular programs. More info.

Notwithstanding the constitutional prohibition, government agencies have purchased trainloads of 12-step books and given them out free to substance abuse treatment clients. To the clients, it may seem that AA is giving the books away, but it's really the taxpayer's dime. We aren't privileged to see the ledgers of the publishing arm of AA World Services, but it's a fair estimate that a very substantial proportion of its revenues are from government subsidies.

LifeRing Press is a shoestring operation by comparison. There's no way that we can afford to give away books in quantity; not only the Press but the LifeRing Service Center as a whole would soon be out of business.

The best we can do right now is to start a special fund, Books for Vets. If you go to and make a donation, earmark it "Books for Vets," we'll credit it to the Vets' Book Fund, and we'll give free LifeRing books to vets that want it. Deal?

The San Francisco facility isn't the only place where LifeRing is connecting with veterans. Convenor Kevin B. writes:

Our Thursday afternoon meeting at the VA in San Bruno has been going well. It's not a huge facility and our most highly attended meeting had 10 people - we barely fit in the room. On the other hand we've had some great meetings with just 4 or 5 people. Instead of how was your week, we talked more about the deeper reasons why we drank or used or gambled. Dave, I know what you mean about the Vets being homeless and jobless. Coming to a meeting requires them to take a long bus ride, and they can barely scrape together the money for the fare. I've been trying to bring in the current military. They're a bit hesitant. They're young, they don't see angry drunken shenanigans as a problem and they're wary of the stigma of going to a meeting. Usually they'll only attend if they have to. Anyway, I'm continuing to put the word out and we're happy to have a slot at the VA.

This is all very good news. A few years ago, at the request of some veterans down on the Peninsula, we applied to the powers that be to start a LifeRing meeting at the VA facility in Palo Alto. They stonewalled us. Wouldn't answer letters or phone calls. Now the doors have opened a crack.

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