The transition from military to civilian life wasn’t as easy as Tim McGill had anticipated when he left the U.S. Army in 2008 after four years of service. McGill had a tough time readjusting. He felt detached and angry, and eventually turned to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to find relief, which led to encounters with the criminal justice system.

By the spring of 2019, McGill’s future was looking bleak. But after talking to a friend and fellow Veteran, he decided to ask for help from the Butler VA Health Care System in Butler, Pennsylvania. There he met Kelly Fulmer, a Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialist, who connected him with the Moral Reconation Therapy program.

MRT is an evidence-based cognitive-behavioral approach that helps justice-involved individuals make better and more appropriate decisions after experiencing difficulties with substance use and/or involvement with the justice system. Veterans engaged in MRT spend hours working on themselves, then present and share progress with a facilitator and also within a group setting.

“Not all MRT attendees are in treatment court, but most are striving to change the path they are on,” said Fulmer. “I’ve been doing it here at the Butler VA HCS for four years. It revolves around taking personal responsibility, being truthful, transparent, and simply moving on.”

MRT also helps individuals identify depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. It requires self-discipline and perseverance, with participants challenged considerably throughout the six- to eight-month treatment process to analyze their behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. Through group and individual counseling and prescribed homework assignments, the program focuses on reinforcing healthy habits, assessing current relationships, and building a healthy concept of self and positive identity.

Staying connected during the COVID-19 pandemic

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Butler VA HCS suspended on-site operations indefinitely. For McGill and other Veterans in MRT, this proved to be a major setback — until Fulmer had an idea.

“We couldn’t completely halt the [MRT] program because of COVID-19,” Fulmer said. “People are working on some really tough stuff in here. No matter what, we had to keep these Veterans connected.”

Working with the Butler VA HCS and VJO staff, Fulmer was able to obtain donated iPads to distribute to Veterans in MRT who wouldn’t have access otherwise. Once McGill learned how to use the iPad, he was able to resume face-to-face communication with Fulmer, his therapist, and other Veterans.

“Staying connected, not only for me but for other Veterans, is absolutely critical,” McGill said. “When you don’t have a support team or other Veterans to talk to, it makes things incredibly difficult.”

McGill is still using his iPad and is thankful for Fulmer and the treatment team’s perseverance throughout the pandemic.

“The hardest decision I’ve ever made was reaching out for help,” McGill said. “A year ago, asking for help was a sign of weakness for me… but that’s simply not true. There is help out there… you just need to ask for it.”

More Information

  • If you or someone you know is a justice-involved Veteran, email the VJO specialist nearest you for assistance accessing VA health care services:
  • To find up-to-date information and resources on COVID-19, check out VA’s new resource page.
  • Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness should contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).

VA’s Homeless Programs Office assists Veterans in obtaining permanent and sustainable housing with access to high-quality health care and supportive services.

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Published on Aug. 21, 2020

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