Making Meaning for Our Veterans

Fellowship Vet to Vet

“I get most of the vets,” says Don Elverd, senior psychologist at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Center City, Minnesota, facility.

Don specializes in treating trauma patients seeking recovery. That means he sees a lot of women who have been sexually abused, as well as police officers, firemen, and paramedics who’ve encountered trauma on the job.

But as a Vietnam combat veteran and recovering alcoholic, Don is ideally suited to understanding the issues facing the small but increasing stream of veterans who come to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation after having served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia.

Don grew up in Iowa and was drafted during the Vietnam War. As a sergeant in the 25th Infantry Division, he saw some of the worst fighting of the war. He sustained multiple gunshot and shrapnel wounds and received three Purple Hearts. He spent the better part of two years in and out of army hospitals. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not officially classified as a mental health disorder back then (not until 1980), but looking back, Don is sure he had severe PTSD— nightmares, anxiety, bouts of unpredictable temper and episodes of depression.

He became addicted to painkillers and was “drunk and disorderly for a couple of years” after he returned home. Four inpatient treatments, two halfway houses, and a half dozen detoxes later, he had his last drink. That was 38 years ago last May.

After he sobered up, he began working with returning veterans. He got his master’s degree in psychology, interned at Hazelden—and never left. He’s been at the Center City facility for 23 years. Hazelden sent him to get his doctorate, and he focused his studies on trauma.

Don gets it. He understands the enormous challenges veterans with substance use issues face every day.

Vets have seen things that most people will never see

Recovery is tough under the best of circumstances, but many combat vets have additional challenges that most of us can’t imagine.

“Vets have been in situations that most people will never be in and seen things that most people will never see,” says Don. “It’s hard to shake those memories, and it’s tough to share them with other people. But inside they have demons they need to get out, to come to terms with.”

That’s why Don makes sure his vets feel that they are being treated with great dignity, respect and honor while they’re here. He makes them feel that they are in a safe space, where they can say the things they can’t say to family or friends.

“For many combat soldiers, their world view has been shaken,” says Don. “They have been trained to do things that may be considered immoral or illegal by those unfamiliar with the context or the situation. They often experience a crisis of belief and a loss of a sense of meaning in their lives.” That’s why he believes that part of the counselors’ jobs at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is to help vets work through this crisis and rediscover what they believe in.

Your donations help us give them back their honor

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation relies on gifts from donors to support our work with veterans. Don feels strongly that we all owe the vets a debt of gratitude.

“Our veterans took a pledge to devote life and honor to defend what this country is about. Now, they are coming home. They’re in our communities. Some are having readjustment struggles, and it’s complicated by alcohol and drug use,” he says.

“We try to give them back their honor, to help them make some meaning in their lives.”

Online “Vet to Vet” support meeting available free, open to all with co-occurring conditions

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation hosts a free online support meeting every Sunday at 5 p.m. Eastern (ET) for veterans, active military personnel and others who are overcoming co-occurring conditions.

Vietnam veteran Moe Armstrong, founder of the national Vet to Vet program, facilitates the weekly meeting, at which peers support each other in the process of overcoming substance use disorders and mental health conditions. To attend, join the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s free online Social Community at, click on the Chat Now button at the bottom of the screen and enter Room A at the meeting time.

Want to help veterans struggling against addiction?

Thursday, November 12 is Give to the Max Day: even the smallest gift can help a patient who cannot afford the cost of care. You can schedule your gift now at
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