BFA grad co-founds national aid group
ST. ALBANS — When veterans serving in combat zones return to civilian life they are often faced with a new set of challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the effects of traumatic brain injuries, difficulty finding employment, and an overall struggle adjusting to life back home.
To combat the range of issues vets deal with, Brandon Sirois, Iraq war veteran and former St. Albans resident, has co-founded Inspiring Our Heroes (IOH), a national non-profit organization designed to help returning veterans cope in natural ways.
Sirois, who graduated from Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans in 2002, joined the service after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Following high school graduation and basic training, he enrolled in Champlain College, and after one semester was deployed to Iraq.
Initially, Sirois didn’t worry about what life would be like when he returned home from the service. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the general consensus, Sirois explained, was that the country was at war, and everyone needed to come together and focus on training and shipping out.
“I assumed it would be fine,” he said. “When I enlisted in the service, people hadn’t come back from Iraq yet, so there wasn’t an awareness. Now, years later, people have noticed the patterns. Things need to be worked out for future generations,” Sirois said.
When Sirois first returned to Vermont from Iraq, he revisited the routines he had prior to shipping out.
“For six months to a year after returning, I hung out with friends, partied, tried to jump back into what I had missed and fit in with peers. As time went on, I realized that things had changed – that I had changed,” Sirois said. “Nobody prepares you for that.”
At first, Sirois figured his issues transitioning weren’t a big deal, but eventually realized he needed to seek help. “I went through stage where I didn’t want to be around people, I found myself saying, ‘I don’t care,’” he said.
One issue many returning veterans face is confusion over what to do for the rest of their lives in the civilian world. Sirois, for instance, was a medic in the military, but after coming home, struggled to find a job that matched what he was doing in Iraq.
In the military, food and clothes are provided for soldiers, but in the civilian world, veterans have to fend for themselves. The constant concern over expenses leads some to take up jobs they aren’t passionate about just to pay the bills.
Once Sirois became more active in the community, however, he grew closer to finding out what he wanted to do.
“Getting into community and helping people showed me that I did care,” he said.
“Helping people helps you – it’s therapeutic,” Sirois said. “That’s the main pillar of IOH, we want to inspire vets to get help and to create a symbiotic web of people helping each other get through their battles,” he said.
Sirois’ appreciation for helping others led to the creation of IOH. That happened after he took an Outward Bound trip to Utah last September with other veterans. There he met IOH co-founder, Daniel Klaasse.
“[The trip] was an amazing experience. It was awesome to be able to remember how simple life can be, and to find happiness in simple things,” Sirois said.
While on the trip and after examining the issues that they experienced personally, Sirois and Klaasse came up with the idea for IOH. They both have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and their positive experiences in Utah made them realize there were natural ways to cope that vets may not realize.
After the adventure trip, Sirois and Klaasse began working on the non-profit. Sirois now hopes to open chapters everywhere. He now resides in North Carolina, but recently appointed Marianne Green, of St. Albans, to continue the IOH mission in Vermont and New England.
The organization will provide outdoor activities for veterans, such as nature hike events, kayaking and zip-lining outings. Eventually, Sirois wants to offer one veteran event each month for each chapter. IOH emphasizes the healing properties of nature and the endorphins generated from being active.
“There are simple, therapeutic ways of healing yourself that don’t involve medication,” Sirois said. “I’ve seen people get put on medication after medication, and some are miracles, but others are a Band-Aid.
“It tends to be a crutch with a lot of side effects. You would be surprised by how much natural activities like hiking can help. We want to show there are many ways of dealing with things outside of Western medication.” Sirois said.
In addition to the outdoor activities, Sirois also wants to create a veterans’ network through which they can reach out to each others during tough times. Once they get a bigger pool of people, Sirois wants to develop a “battle buddy” system.
Sirois explained that in the military, everyone is randomly assigned a battle buddy based on last name. One of the main goals of IOH is to help veterans build their support systems in the civilian world, and it plans to mimic the battle buddy system to pair vets who reside in the same area.
“When you have your battle buddy, you’re not alone. You’re responsible for each other. It gives you a sense of a support system. When you’re out of the service, you don’t have that, and it’s up to vets to make their own support system,” Sirois said.
Sirois said IOH is looking for people to donate their skills to the organization. For instance, they already have volunteers to assist a mountain bike day trip for one chapter, and are interested in people with similar talents to get involved with the program. They also need volunteers who have experience with service animals so that they can take trips with service dogs and expose vets to them.
Those who are interested can get all the information at inspiringourheroes.org, or by visiting their Facebook Page (facebook.com/inspiringourheroes.)
“We are a hand reaching out, and the only thing we ask is for vets to reach back. Someone who is open to healing will go much further than someone who isn’t,” said Sirois.