VA Maryland Health Care System
Fathers’ Group Is Instrumental in Recovery
Livingston Koger, an Army Veteran and a long time drug user, finally had enough. At 52, exhausted by a drug-addicted life, he knew he needed help to kick the habit to become healthy. He knew he needed to get to the “VA downtown,” so he walked. It took six hours to walk from his Pimlico neighborhood to the Baltimore VA Medical Center on Greene Street. That was a little over a year ago. Now Koger is happy to count 14 drug-free months under his belt. “If I could get high off it, I’d take it,” he said. “The VA saved my life,” he added. Koger participated in the VA Maryland Health Care System’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) program’s Fathers’ Group, a therapy group that enabled him to reconnect with his children and family as part of the recovery process.
“I’m excited for this summer because my children who live in a different state will be visiting me,” he said of his children who range in age from 11 to 22. “We used to have a great relationship until I got mixed up with the drugs,” he said, noting that he had to work hard to reestablish the lost trust and bond with his children. “The Fathers’ Group helped me, gave me a shot of hope.” Koger described his whole life as “hopeful,” an adjective he would not have used two years ago. “As per what I learned in the Father’s Group, I changed people, places and things. I’m enrolled in college classes now,” he said, smiling. “Something I didn’t think was possible during all those years of drugging.”
Koger served as the emcee and was one of seven Veterans who shared their stories of addiction and recovery at the third annual Fathers’ Group Father’s Day event held at the Baltimore VA Medical Center on June 25. The theme for this year’s event was “Becoming a Better Parent.” In his keynote address, Congressman Elijah Cummings told the gathering that “of all my roles—counselor, Congressman, lawyer, husband—the one I value the most is father.” Cummings also said, “The things that are said to a five or six year-old child stay with that child until the day he or she dies. Children process things said to them from an emotional point of view, so it’s important to think carefully before saying something hurtful or negative to a child. I called my daughter ‘Precious,’ ‘Beautiful,’ ‘Awesome,’ from the day she was born because I didn’t want her to grow up to think that she had to take her clothes off for a man to tell her she is precious, or beautiful, or awesome.”
“The Fathers’ Group helps Veterans break the cycle of non-involvement and helps them to develop a meaningful and reliable fathering style,” says Mark Arenas, PhD, a psychologist at the VA Maryland Health Care System who facilitates the group. For many Veterans who find themselves in the Fathers’ Group to overcome addictions, they discover that other parts of their lives are also healed.
Baltimore native Mark Lee, a Navy Veteran, who was derailed by an undiagnosed case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) into a lonely life of drug and alcohol use even while he internally reprimanded himself about his life passing by him, devoid of meaning, also got tired. “After 10 years, I got tired of having a meaningless life, and I knew I had to make a change,” he said. Lee made his way to the Baltimore VA Medical Center seeking help to get clean. “After I got to the VA, I was diagnosed with PTSD in regard to some things that took place in the Navy and I was admitted for treatment as an inpatient. Some of the reasons for getting high were to forget those things I experienced or witnessed in the Navy,” he said.
Lee, the father of two children, a son 22 and a daughter 18, had worked on an aircraft carrier where people, weapons and airplanes merged with sometime fatal consequences. At the Baltimore VA Medical Center, he also joined the ACT Program’s Fathers’ Group, which helped him reconnect to his children as part of the recovery process. “It’s not always easy to reconnect with children especially after having no relationship for many years, but the fathers in the group helped me deal with situations that arose by sharing how they dealt with similar situations,” he said. Clean a little more than a year, Lee is working on creating a meaningful life helping others. He is training to be a Peer Support Volunteer for other Veterans, and now active in his church, he’s working on starting a Father’s Group at his church for non-Veterans who can use support in regaining their footing in a healthier life.
Evangeline “Van” Harris, 59, the sole female Veteran in the Fathers’ Group and a 28-year Navy Veteran, is a long-time single parent who struggled with alcohol. “I told the Fathers’ Group that, as a single mother, I was both father and mother to my daughter—because I was not moving into a different [therapy] group,” she said. “They welcomed me!” Although Harris worked as a postal worker, her home life deteriorated due to her drinking, eroding her relationship with her daughter and her extended family. “My daughter became my parent and my siblings, and family stopped trusting me,” she said. She so desperately wanted to change her life and to “stop hiding,” to be “like the other people I saw outside my window who appeared to be happy.” Harris understood she had a problem when she was drinking. “I would hide because I was ashamed,” she said. Desperate, she came to the Emergency Room at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. “I felt as if my whole body was attacking me. I was sick.” At the Baltimore VA Medical Center, she found help, and today, she’s been clean for more than a year. “My daughter no longer has to parent me, and my family trusts me again,” she said, beaming. “I can’t tell you how much that means to me, that my family trusts me again to make competent decisions, to drive family members who can’t drive to family events, to count on me again!” Harris, who recently retired from the U.S. Postal Service after more than 39 years of government service, now volunteers at the VA Maryland Health Care System. She also recently competed in the 47th Annual VA National Golden Age Games, a sporting competition for Veterans enrolled in the VA health care system across the country. Sober and serious about giving back to others, Harris can now look forward to a future in which she is as happy as the people she saw and envied outside her window at the height of her drinking days.
“If I can get clean and have a relationship with my kids again, anyone can do it,” said Koger, filled with marvel at the extent of the changes in his life. “You got to be willing to do the work and the Fathers’ Group is always there to lend support any way it can. When I was living the drug life, I never envisioned I would be in college, but I am. The VA saved my life,” he said.
Lee and Harris agreed, noting that the fellow Veterans they’ve met as a result of participating in the Fathers’ Group now rank among their lifelong friends. Veterans enrolled in the VA Maryland Health Care System who are struggling with addictions and have not been treated within the past six months, can walk into the Mental Health Clinic of the 6th floor of the Baltimore VA Medical Center for an assessment and a treatment plan. Additionally, Veterans can contact the Mental Health Clinic at the Baltimore VA Medical Center by calling 1-800-463-6295, ext.7309. Veterans struggling with addictions who have been treated within the six month period and who want to participate in the ACT program’s Fathers’ Group, can call Meredith Bryden, a social worker at the VA Maryland Health Care System, at 1-800-463-6295, ext.5570.