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Volunteering Helps Mike Pereira Bond with Other Veterans

Through his service to other veterans, retired U.S. Army Sergeant Mike Pereira, 31, has come to terms with the grief and painful memories of his wartime military service in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. 

In Afghanistan, a close friend was killed by a roadside bomb. Many other friends did not come back alive. Like so many fellow veterans, Mike was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"I was almost killed when a helicopter malfunctioned and was forced into an emergency landing," says Mike. "I felt like I should have died. I lived through it in one way, but felt like I died in another way."

Therapy for PTSD ultimately led Mike to seek out Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care in St. Louis in 2012 to serve in the Veteran-to-Veteran Volunteer Program. The need for these volunteers is significant. According to We Honor Veterans, there are 26 million veterans, and one in four Americans who died in 2013 was a veteran.

Specially trained volunteers such as Mike provide veterans at the end of life an opportunity to connect with someone who understands military culture, language, and can help them review their military service in the context of their life. Goals of these visits often include reducing feelings of isolation and breaking down barriers such as stoicism and secrecy, which are not unusual for those who served in combat.

"Veterans I meet with often revisit a time when their life was almost cut short, or was important to them for other reasons," says Mike. "On a battlefield you rely on people to look out for you. It is a sickening feeling when you are out there alone. In this role I can be there for them so they know someone is looking out for them." 

Seasons Hospice Social Worker Allison Givens says serving veterans is a big part of the hospice's culture. That’s why the We Honor Veterans Program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) recently recognized Seasons Hospice in St. Louis as a Level Four Partner. Less than one percent of hospice programs in the nation has earned the prestigious designation.

Givens recruits and trains veteran volunteers, who then help spread the word about the program by making presentations to veterans groups. 

One of the more popular aspects of the program is a pinning ceremony in which all veterans can take part. "The ceremony is a way for all our team members to say ‘thank you’ to all our patients who are veterans. It really makes a difference to the patient – and to us,” says Givens.

For Mike, helping fellow veterans has provided valuable perspective on his combat experiences and is helping turn negative life events into positive ones. He also works with autistic children and is a full-time student at Washington University, pursing a Ph.D. in psychology. After graduation, he hopes to use equine therapy to help children affected by trauma.

"Many veterans want to give back, but don't know how," says Mike. "This and other programs provide meaning to life that can be hard to find after experiencing war first-hand."

 How Veterans Can Become Volunteers

There is a great need for veteran volunteers. If you are or know a military veteran who might want to help veterans who are enrolled in hospice, call (888) 461-7733 for information.