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Family Ties program treats vets and their loved ones

Roseville veteran credits therapy group with saving his marriage
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Dirk Ellena returned home from war and, as many veterans do, struggled with feeling “like a freak."

“You don’t think on the same level anymore, you don’t do things the same way, you have bizarre worries,” Ellena, 29, said.

He was without work and homeless for a while, and didn’t know how to redirect his energy to something productive. He felt isolated.

“I was just trying to move forward, but I was just spinning my wheels,” Ellena said.

Yet, somehow he was expected to assimilate back into society and rebuild a healthy relationship with his family. This is easier said than done, said Carolyn Fink, clinical director of The Soldiers Project-Sacramento.

Ellena, now a Roseville resident, found assistance through this nonprofit organization, which provides free, one-on-one psychological counseling to active military members or veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, he participated in the group’s Family Ties program.

Family Ties is a group therapy session intended for active military, veterans, reservists and parents, spouses and siblings.

The military member is not related to anyone in the group. They aren’t paired with relatives or spouses as a way of providing the space for participants to speak openly.

Sixteen people have gone through the eight-week program since it launched in July 2011.

The veterans can talk about their experience in combat, and family members discuss what it was like for them while their loved ones were gone.

“You don’t have to walk in and spill your guts,” Ellena said. “You can just listen.”

During combat, soldiers may not tell their families certain things that might cause worry, but when they return home they remain emotionally closed down, Fink said.

“We need to get service members and veterans and family members talking about what it’s like now that they’re home and their fears and concerns,” she said.

Having this open discussion normalizes the experience of sharing, and helps give veterans the impetus to speak with their own families.

One mother whose son showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder role played with Ellena, trying to figure out how to urge her own son to seek help. In other instances, a female partner may encourage the veteran to open up to them.

“(Spouces) say, ‘You can talk to me.’ The reality is they didn’t want to know all of the details,” Fink said. “It’s OK not to want to hear everything.”

Male vets often aren’t comfortable sharing details with their moms or wives because they don’t want to burden them, Fink said. Ellena agrees that the toughest relationship is often with the person the military member is closest with, such as a spouse.

“You need someone to confide in and to take out your aggression, and a lot of these spouses don’t know what to do,” he said.

Ellena served a partial tour of Iraq as a medic in the Marine infantry before breaking his leg while on patrol. Being in war is extremely stressful, he said, so soldiers joke about the death and destruction around them.

“It’s your way of bracing yourself,” Ellena said. “You come back and it’s the same thing. You become super fragile.”

Back in the United States, he served as a medical liaison between soldiers and their families. He helped soldiers cope with missing limbs and had “funerals for some of my guys.” He left active duty in 2008.

He married his girlfriend Courtney Sargent in September. She has seen the before and after effect of therapy on her husband.

“Without the Soldiers Project, I would not be married today,” Ellena said. “I didn’t realize how bad I (was). I am able to be more myself with my wife so we have a better relationship.”

His wife said he didn’t used talk to her about his time in the military or his post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He is now able to trust me with how and why PTSD affects him, which has allowed our relationship to grow closer and become more meaningful.” Sargent-Ellena said. “Without Soldier's Project there would’ve been a wall and a lack of understanding between us and I don’t know if we would have made it as a couple.”

Ellena now has a job with the Placer County Veterans Service Office and was accepted into the nursing program at American River College.

He’s helping develop Peer 2 Peer, a new program by The Soldiers Project-Sacramento that will train veteran facilitators to run support groups in their communities.

“One cool thing about a group is it helps you trust just a little bit, and increase little by little until you’re sharing personal, intimate things,” he said. “You learn to trust yourself and others.”

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.

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Family Ties group starts in January (date to be determined) and runs from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Sierra Mental Wellness Group, 333 Sunrise Ave. Suite 701 in Roseville. For more information, call (877) 557-5888, email sacramento@thesoldiersproject.org or visit www.thesoldiersproject.org.