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The Power of Connection: How a Simple Hug Saved a Veteran’s Life

Army veteran and peer support group leader Deron Santiny helped save a fellow veteran's life with a simple gesture of support.
Army veteran and peer support group leader Deron Santiny helped save a fellow veteran's life with a simple gesture of support.

Deron Santiny didn’t know it at the time, but a friendly hug he offered ended up saving a life.

Deron is an Army veteran who was injured in Iraq. He is peer support group leader for Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) and serves as an academic advisor for veterans at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. He encounters many veterans, each going through their own struggles and triumphs.

Deron has made it his personal mission to connect with veterans in his community regardless of what their needs are or where they’re at in their post-military lives.

In his role at the university, Deron met a veteran who was older than most students. He was in his 70s, and had done two tours in Vietnam, serving as a helicopter pilot. The man was also in the Army during Desert Storm and had done one tour in Iraq. Deron invited him to attend a WWP peer support group meeting, so he could meet other veterans in the area and share his story of service. He had no idea how important extending that invitation would become.

“We were trying to help him find what he was looking for as far as camaraderie and an avenue to speak his mind,” Deron said. “So, he comes to the meeting, and we're sitting there and talking and midway through the meeting, he got up, and said, ‘I’ve got some things to take care of, but I appreciate y'all inviting me and letting me be a part of it.’

“He was talking to the other warriors, he was meeting people, and laughing, and telling stories, because he had a lot of interesting stories. So, when he stood up, everybody stood up, shook his hand, and told him it was nice to meet him. I got up and gave him a hug. I told him, thanks for coming, and that I would see him at school tomorrow.”

As far as Deron knew, it had been a nice, even routine, get-together; an opportunity for the peer group to meet another veteran and hear about his depth of military experiences. When they ran into each other at school the next day, they spoke briefly in passing. During the semester, Deron attended a veterans’ coffee hour at the university. The regular weekly meetings allow veterans on the campus an opportunity to connect and get to know each other.

Making a Difference

It was during one of these meetings, approximately a year and a half later, that Deron was presented a gift from the warrior that completely caught him off guard. The veteran asked Deron to stand next to him and presented him with a handmade Challenge Coin case that he had specifically designed to honor Deron’s career as an infantry soldier.

What he said next caught Deron completely off guard.

"What [Deron] doesn't know is that he literally saved my life,” the veteran said. “He invited me to attend the Peer Support Group and I wasn't sure if I wanted to, but he insisted, and by doing so, he saved my life.”

The veteran then reminded the group about him getting up to leave early because he had something to do.

“I had a plan,” he told Deron. “I was going to take a certain road with one tree on it and I was going to get my truck up to about 100 mph, hit it and kill myself. I couldn't deal with it anymore until you stood up and gave me a hug and thanked me for coming and showed me that I had something to live for. That hug changed my mind, and I took a completely different route to get home. I realized that I still had a purpose for being here.”

With tears in his eyes, Deron accepted the coin case and once again gave the veteran a big hug and told him he loved him and that he will always be his brother.

Deron didn’t know at the time how much his new friend was struggling. He knows in his experience, helping someone in that dark place can take more than an ear, or a hug. But sometimes, in that moment, an ear or a hug is enough.

“To me, it’s proof that the peer support groups work because we’re giving the opportunities to warriors to build that connection,” Deron said.

The Power of Peer Support

Oftentimes veterans feel a loss of purpose and camaraderie when they leave the military. Sometimes it’s hard to explain what you’re going through, especially if dealing with invisible wounds of war like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma (MST), or traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Having a network of fellow veterans who understand the military life, the challenges of transitioning to the civilian world, and dealing with illnesses and injuries can go a long way toward healing.

“It’s easy for veterans to understand other veterans, because [the military] is a much different world than civilian life,” said Trey Ellis, peer leader specialist for WWP. “So, when they have somebody who's gone through the same stuff, it can be easier to connect.”

According to WWP’s Annual Warrior Survey, the likelihood of PTSD symptoms is 57% lower among warriors who have maintained the social support of their military friends. WWP peer support groups give veterans the opportunity to rekindle some of that camaraderie.

“In the group, sometimes they just come because they want to relieve stress and goof off with other veterans,” Trey said. “They may sit in a meeting and not say a word, but they're learning about different programs or resources. Just being with other veterans is helpful.”

WWP peer-led veteran support groups and events are offered across the country, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Through peer support groups, WWP is able to expand its reach, connecting more veterans to each other – and other programs and services.

“Warrior leaders run small events typically, it can be anything from baseball games to dinners,” Trey said.

It’s also a way for veterans to share knowledge and resources to help other veterans with every aspect of their lives, whether their injuries are visible or invisible.

“It’s about getting veterans out of the house and into a place where they can build connections and create support systems,” Trey said. “It’s also a way to share resources, and help with other issues, like how they can get benefits assistance, financial education, and more.”

Learning to Swim

The bond between Deron and the veteran he saved from suicide that day has only grown stronger. The veteran, who is also a grandfather, graduated from college, and started working on a master’s degree. When the veteran returned from a reconciliation tour of Vietnam with his son and a fellow Vietnam veteran, Deron and other veterans met them at the airport at 10 p.m. to greet them.

“We had a bunch of people standing out there,” Deron said. “We were screaming and cheering them on and giving them the welcome home that he deserved [the first time] he came back from Vietnam.”

Deron said the unique experience of veterans, particularly combat veterans, is often hard to explain. Warriors deal with life-and-death situations, see and experience things many others don’t, and learn how to compartmentalize their emotions to do their job, Deron said. Talking about feelings or the emotional scars of military experience isn’t always encouraged during service.

“The whole purpose of the peer support group is to provide that opportunity to say what you need to say, to get it off your chest,” Deron said. “We're not counselors, but we are soldiers, and Marines, and airmen and sailors. So, we do understand if you don't feel comfortable talking about something, but there are people here who will relate to what you have to say.”

Suicide among veterans is a troubling issue, one veterans service organizations like WWP and the VA are working to combat. Veterans are almost twice as likely to die by suicide than nonveterans. According to the Annual Warrior Survey, 16% of warriors have attempted suicide at least once in their lifetimes, and the average number of suicide attempts doubled after military service. WWP peer support groups allow veterans a safe space to talk about struggles, relationship issues, financial concerns – or even football and favorite foods. Learning to open up and feeling comfortable talking about what’s going on is an important part of the process – and for reducing veteran suicide.

Learn more about how to help #CombatStigma

“It's kind of like learning to swim,” Deron said. “When you get thrown in the water the first time, you panic, and you don't know what you're going to do to survive. It's a struggle. Then, you started kicking your feet, moving your arms, and eventually, you’re enjoying yourself. It just becomes natural, and you feel 1,000 times better next time you get back into water. The whole purpose is to survive. And that's our goal – to make sure everybody survives.”

Deron wants veterans from all generations to know they haven’t been forgotten; that their service and sacrifice is appreciated. Deron understands because he’s been there. He wants veterans to know they’re not alone, and that it’s OK to ask for help, and they deserve to receive it.

“You may have to fight, but you're a warrior,” he said. “That's your spirit. You fight.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 (press 1), or texting 838255

Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, pmoulden@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.570.7910

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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