Finding Someone Who “Gets It”

Project Sanctuary’s Walton’s Warriors provide peer-to-peer support

Bonnie Walton stands with son, Matt, near a tree planted in Brian’s memory at Winding River Ranch in CO, where the family attended their PS retreat together, and the site of the May 2017 Walton’s Warriors training retreat.

My name is Bonnie Walton. I was the wife and caregiver of Cpl. Brian Walton. He was a combat infantryman with the 76th Infantry Brigade. He served two tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. He was diagnosed with PTSD and battled it for seven years before taking his own life on March 5, 2016.”

On March 5, 2016, after receiving the call that one of our Project Sanctuary graduates had been lost, our team sprang into action. It became our collective mission to give whatever it might take to ensure no warrior felt alone.

Our team of graduate families and team members felt called to reach out and connect with one another, desperate to ensure no other family felt the pain that Brian’s was enduring. But we knew there was more to the task. We sought specific training programs that would create a peer-to-peer support network, ensuring our mentors were equipped with the tools, training, and support they needed to be as effective as possible. When we couldn’t find one, we launched our own—the Walton’s Warriors Peer Mentorship program.

With dedicated funding from the Infinite Hero Foundation, Project Sanctuary launched the first Walton’s Warriors training in February, 2017. Twenty veterans, comprised of Project Sanctuary graduates and team members, as well as  veterans representing other nonprofits, gathered at Project Sanctuary’s California retreat center to create a network of peer support.

“My hope for Walton’s Warriors is for our veterans to feel connected to someone who ‘gets it’ – the shared experience of war, PTSD, and life – someone who understands what it is like to feel isolated in your own pain. Through my own trauma and grief, I found solace and support with other widows of suicide. We are able to share more freely with people who share our experiences. We find compassion in our  commonality. We find strength in the shelter of each other.”

Walton’s Warriors’ ten-month training program was created to address three primary areas:

  • Self-care: Many peer mentors live with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury themselves, making a routine for self-care and preservation critical.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Resiliency and Reintegration: Utilizing a 30-module in-person and online training program created by Lt Col David Tharp, Psy.D., and CPT Daniel   Williams, M.D., peer mentors will be equipped with the tools to thrive following combat trauma.
  • Peer Mentorship 101: Outlining professional boundaries, confidentiality, red flags, and crisis management tools, our peer mentors will approach each mentorship relationship with the training for any challenge.

Members of Walton’s Warriors use classroom time to roleplay common mentorship scenarios as part of the ten-month training.

“Moving the focus from our pain to how we can prevent someone else from experiencing it is powerful and healing. Peer mentoring is not just listening to one another—you are sharing a common issue with someone who ‘gets it.’ Learning from each other is the fundamental purpose of human communication. It is how we survive. We all need to find our tribe.”

 The program has been created as a pyramid of support, with oversight from a program administrator and facilitator. Training is largely led by four veteran coaches. Peer mentors receive support from coaches as they mentor and support fellow veterans. Many peer mentors will transition to veteran coaches in the next training year as new peer mentors join the program.

“No veteran should feel like suicide is the option. I will forever feel broken that Brian ever felt like he was expendable. He was a  loving father. He chose to help me raise three sons from a previous marriage and one we had together. If you had ever heard him talk about any of the kids, they were all his. He was fun, witty, and the first to offer help to someone. It is unacceptable that he ever had the thought that we would be better off without him. He didn’t just take his own life: he took large pieces of ours.”

Warriors place 22 American flags as part of each training, symbolic of the 22 veteran suicides which occur each day in the United States.

The second Walton’s Warriors training was held in May at Winding River Ranch in Grand Lake, CO. This was a particularly symbolic location, being the place where Bonnie, Brian and their children attended a Project Sanctuary retreat just two years before.

 “I share our story to shine a light on preventing suicide among our veterans, to prevent their families from the pain and chaos of losing them and to prevent another mother from having to say to their child, ‘Daddy isn’t coming home. Dad is dead,’ He didn’t want to die. He just wanted the pain to stop. He would have  never wanted to be the source of pain to his family. But it doesn’t make him any less gone, and it doesn’t stop the pain that all of us who loved him feel.”

The 2017 beta-year program will conclude in November, with the 2018 class launching in February 2018. In just its first year, the Walton’s Warriors team has counted at least 11 lives saved as a result of peer mentorship.

If you or someone you know is currently at risk of suicide, call or text Vets4Warriors, 24/7 crisis support, at 855-838-8255.




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