Measures of Devotion: Veteran battles back from mental illness, substance abuse

SHERIDAN — The day before he turned 40, Brett Pool woke up in a mental health unit at the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Center with almost nothing to his name.

That was May 8, 2009.

Now the VA is one of the biggest parts of his life.

“The VA saved my life,” Pool said.

Brett had gone undiagnosed with post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders, which coupled with his substance abuse before he arrived at the VA.

“That was the beginning of my road back, the beginning,” he said.

Now Pool helps homeless veterans who are living the same life he was.

Pool served in the U.S. Air Force from 1988 to 1991, working anti-drug missions in South America. After being helped at the VA, working through his mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, Pool took a job at Kmart.

“I went from making a lot of money and doing a lot of good things, except for managing my life, to working replenishment at Kmart, which was room for advancement and exactly what I needed at the time.”

He also helped out at the Senior Center doing Meals on Wheels and shoveling snow for some of Sheridan’s seniors during the winter.

Then, he got a call from the VA one day, asking if he would be interested in a job with the organization.

The position was with the Homeless Veterans Supported Employment Program, which served veterans around the state.

He got the job, and still works in a similar role today.

“You get people who come in, like I was,” he said. “No ID, no driver’s license, they have mental health issues, medical issues, legal issues, all of those things that pile up when you’re homeless and using.”

His job is to help them from beginning to end, the end being gainful employment and housing in a stable environment.

“You get someone their Social Security card, their ID, and it’s amazing the transformation that takes place when, I hate to say it, they feel like they’re somebody again,” Pool said.

He said one of the first cases he worked was with a homeless veteran in Casper.

“One of my first assignments was going down to Casper — a homeless veteran hadn’t worked in 10 years, had been on the streets for 11,” he said.

The man wanted to get back to work, so Pool asked him what he needed.

“Basically it came down to warm clothes, good shoes, appropriate dress clothes, some interviewing skills, and we went over everything,” he said. “Brought him to the Wyoming Behavioral Institute, there was a job opening, and he started there. Three weeks later, (he was) making more money than I do. And he’s still there.”

But it doesn’t always work out that well.

“It’s tough with co-occurring,” he said “When you have an individual with PTSD and substance abuse, or bipolar or schizophrenia and substance abuse — it’s hard to keep them employed, so our success rate isn’t really great. It’s a tough row to hoe.”

But VA employees don’t give up, no matter how many times a person has come through the system and lapsed back into their habits.

“You really do not know when it’s going to click for someone,” Pool said.

After all, it clicked for him.

Pool is going to school now for psychology, with a goal to finish his undergraduate degree, intern at the VAMC and go on to get his doctorate in psychology.

After that, he wants to work at the VA.

But he hasn’t done it on is own.

“Dave and Jenny Heuck have been incredible,” he said.

“When I first started school, my budget was really tight, and they were able to assist me with books,” he added. “Just out of the kindness of their hearts.”

He saves for school now, but even that would be tight without help from a local foundation.

“I can save up enough money to pay for next semester,” he said. “I couldn’t if the Marna Kuehne Foundation didn’t help a little, every semester, as well.”

It’s been a process for Pool, but he has his dreams. He has goals.

But even those goals he attributes to the VA.

“I learned a lot of discipline up there and that’s what it takes to remain sober and where you’re at,” he said. “It really does.”

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Zachary White

Copyright © 2015 The Sheridan Press or Sheridan Newspapers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 The Sheridan Press or Sheridan Newspapers, Inc..