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New sober house for veterans in southern Minnesotan wants to treat the real issue: PTSD

Star Tribune - 5/3/2024

Organizers behind a new veterans sober house in southern Minnesota say they're starting a new model for veterans sobriety that — they hope — could turn into a nationwide model.

The Bravo Zulu House, located on a farmstead outside Winnebago about 28 miles south of Mankato, broke ground last week. Organizers aim to help veterans stay sober by addressing the root causes of their issues: their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"There are zero all-military sober houses in the U.S. that can help a veteran coming out of treatment and then eventually deal with their real problem, which is PTSD," said Tim Murray of Trinity Sober Homes, the faith-based sober house network that runs Bravo Zulu House.

Murray credits his own sobriety to Col. Martin Fleming, who ran a sober housing program in St. Paul for decades before his death in 2018. Murray began exploring an all-veterans home during COVID after hearing about the need for more sober houses for veterans.

There are more than 16.2 million veterans living in the U.S. About 330,000 live in Minnesota, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. National data trends suggest more than one in 10 veterans suffer from PTSD.

A recent survey from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found more than 1 million veterans in the U.S. are dealing with substance abuse and PTSD.

Veterans Affairs programs usually revolve around treatment centers, but offer few resources for residential, peer-to-peer programs according to Mike McLaughlin, head of Blue Earth County Veterans Services. McLaughlin has worked with state and national groups on veteran issues and said the lack of step-down programs like sober houses for veterans is a growing issue across the U.S.

Such homes typically are handled by private groups and available to everyone, which can be an issue for veterans, many of whom can feel like they won't be understood by their civilian peers or counselors.

"They tend to gravitate toward other veterans for help," McLaughlin said.

There are sober housing programs for veterans, but advocates say they don't offer the same sort of recovery process Bravo Zulu House is proposing.

As Murray and other veterans put it, sobriety is important for veterans suffering from addiction, but it's not enough if veterans are dealing with PTSD.

"These guys go to treatment and when they're done they didn't have any places to go," said Jack Zimmerman, a veteran advocate who has worked with veteran treatment courts in the Mankato area. Zimmerman is a sponsor behind the Bravo Zulu House because he hopes other sober housing groups will take up PTSD treatment in the future.

The Bravo Zulu House is expected to take on 13 men once it's completed in the fall. The men will work with an on-site licensed drug and alcohol counselor as well as attend PTSD counseling from therapists via telehealth. Rent is $600 per month for private rooms and the men are expected to work part-time jobs for 20 to 30 hours each week as part of their stay.

They'll also grow some food of their own with hydroponic farming and be responsible for caring for their own dog — what Murray calls "sneaky therapy."

"There's lots of data that says PTSD therapy is enhanced and improved if you give somebody the responsibility of taking care of another living animal," Murray said.

There's no time limit to the program. Murray said Trinity Sober Home residents typically stay an average of 18 months before they leave, but they're free to leave when they're ready.

Murray and Trinity Sober Homes are raising $600,000 toward renovating and adding onto the Winnebago farmstead they've purchased. With luck and cooperative weather, workers plan to start the addition work in less than two weeks and wrap the project up by November. Murray also is negotiating with area medical providers to secure health care for the residents. Murray has plans to build a veterans sober home for women.

If the program works, Trinity Sober Homes could expand veterans sober housing options throughout the state.

"Our guys deserve the absolute best, so why wouldn't you hold yourself to the best possible standard?" Murray said.

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