A local ex-Army officer teams up with a psychologist to create an online healing space for vets.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
The urgency some vets feel to escape a world incompatible with the one they knew in combat is the focus of veteran Jon Elber and psychologist Randy Berlin. They’re trying to address, and reverse, the path toward suicide by speaking a language vets understand.
Tall and tan, with Army-trained muscles and a deep, hearty laugh that carries across a room, Jon Elber is a drill sergeant with world-weary wit.
He knows PTSD. During his late-’80s military stint in Panama, when he helped bring down former Panamanian general Manuel Noriega through psychological warfare (like death metal played at maximum volume), he saw, heard and did things that haunted him for years. But he never publicly acknowledged his struggles until after he attempted suicide in 2006.
He sought help and found Randy Berlin, a Carmel psychologist. “He said, ‘We can fix this.’ No hyperbole,” Elber says. “That’s important, because we’re trained as soldiers to respond to the positive: ‘Take the hill, you can take the hill!’”
Berlin and Elber worked together to bring past traumas to the surface and deal with them. Then they started talking about how many veterans likely needed therapy but weren’t seeking it.
“When you say there’s something wrong with the machine, that’s basically your career and your pride,” Elber says. “So a lot of guys don’t say anything, because that means you’re weak, and that’s not allowed.” Elber thinks the V.A.’s suicide hotline is admirable but outdated; it doesn’t integrate digital-age tools many younger soldiers use to communicate. It also takes, in his opinion, far more initiative than most suicidal people have. “If I’m awake at two in the morning and I’m thinking of offing myself, I just want to push one button and have someone there,” says Elber, who’s now a Cisco software engineer. “I want to connect with a doctor or a vet who understands.”
He built a website that, when active, will use WebEx technology to connect soldiers, their families and friends to one another in real time, like Skype or Google+. The site, www.militaryanonymous.net, also hosts a series of videos Elber and Berlin recorded at Monterey’s community broadcasting studio AMP Media. They feature everything from Berlin talking about how to defeat suicidal thought patterns to local veterans telling their stories of coming back from the brink.
“If you look at what technology can do and how to use it in a proper fashion, you start to realize where you talk isn’t important,” Elber says. “That you talk is.” Berlin stresses the website’s not intended as an alternative to therapy. “What it is,” he says, “is an idea of sharing what it might be like if you decided to go down that path. Hopefully it’ll show that there’s a way out.”
Military Anonymous is still a work in progress, but Elber’s piqued the interest of some key players. He met in late January with former Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the ex-director of the federal Defense Centers for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. (Sutton’s office did not return calls for comment.)
Whether or not Military Anonymous reaches millions, Elber’s dedicated to honing the digital tool through user feedback. “This is just like a military op for me,” he says. “Guys are dying. How do we save them? We do this, and we never stop trying.”