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When the phone call came, Eric Arvizu had all but given up on the idea of continuing on.

An infantry machine gunner whose 4? years in the U.S. Marine Corps included urban combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Arvizu was back in the safety of the United States, but he was "literally falling apart."

He suffered debilitating panic attacks that would last three and four days, was gripped by ever-present fear and anger, and could not go out into the world without breaking down and retreating back inside.

"I was weeks, if not days, from taking my life," he recalled.

Then a fellow Marine who had found his way into an innovative North Bay combat-related stress program called Arvizu and extended a lifeline.

"He said, &‘Eric, this place is for us,'" said Arvizu, 31, now a Florida resident.

And it was.

The Pathway Home in Yountville, north of Napa, has provided just what its name suggests to more than 300 soldiers like Arvizu. It seeks to provide a treatment model for the hundreds of thousands of men and women returning from recent wars but unable to transition back to civilian life on their own.

Graduates of the four-month residential program say they leave with the tools they need to cope with the future, the strength to drive their own recovery and a sense of hope — something many said they never expected to experience again.

Over and over and over again, they say the program saved their lives.

"I know for a fact I want to live," Air National Guard medic Mark Rubio said after finishing his work at the center last summer. "I want to thrive, and I couldn't have done that without this program."

"This place taught me that I have the capacity to love myself and the capacity to love other people," said Arvizu. "And that, more than anything, makes me happy — that I'm not dead inside; I'm not a monster."

Housed at the Veterans Home of California in the Napa Valley, the nonprofit program offers treatment free of charge to veterans from all branches of the military, as well as active-duty soldiers, reserve and National Guard personnel suffering post-traumatic stress and related issues.

It was developed by its executive director, Fred Gusman, a Vietnam veteran who created the first post-traumatic stress residential treatment programs for Vietnam-era soldiers. Gusman spent nearly four decades with the Department of Veterans Affairs, recently as a director for the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While the federal departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have programs to help troubled veterans and active-duty personnel, the Yountville program has attracted national attention for taking an innovative and unbureaucratic approach to a difficult problem affecting a growing number of American servicemen and women.

An estimated one in five of the 2.4 million troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade suffer post-traumatic stress, major depression and the related problems that come from continual exposure to life-and-death situations, violent bloodshed, uncertainty and moral ambiguity.

Most have served multiple tours with little time to process their experience between deployments.

Many have mild or moderate traumatic brain injury, or TBI, an invisible injury that has become the signature wound of modern warfare, where troops are repeatedly exposed to percussive gunfire and blasts from improvised explosive devices. TBI symptoms often mimic and overlap with post-traumatic stress.

These "new warriors" finally may be coming back home, but they don't feel safe and don't know whom to trust. They feel they can't relate to their families, and that spouses, friends and civilians in general couldn't possibly understand.

Many are suicidal, end up homeless or jobless. Marriages and family relationships fall apart.

As a nonprofit, The Pathway Home can be more progressive and flexible than the hugely bureaucratic VA. It tailors treatment to the individual and eschews <NO1><NO><NO1><NO>the rigid<NO1><NO> approach that some VA programs use to address<NO1><NO> emotional problems<NO1><NO>. Where the dropout rate is about 40 percent at the <NO1><NO>top VA programs, The Pathway Home loses less than 1 percent, Gusman said.

Participants say the VA's approach emphasizes prescription medications, and say The Pathway Home's eclectic, innovative treatments are more than refreshing: they work.

Opened in January 2008 with a <NO1><NO>three-year, $5.6 million grant, the program builds on what the VA provides with a comprehensive, holistic approach to healing its members and helping them reintegrate into society.

In addition to individual, group and family therapy and intensive trauma counseling, members are educated about post-traumatic stress and how it shapes their thinking and behavior.

They practice specific tools to help them cope in a crowd, some as simple as deep breathing. Participants are taught to use sensory grounding techniques to feel safe, and learn to moderate their emotions and anticipate stressors before they trigger difficult episodes.

They examine how their upbringing and values affect their reactions to the violence of war, and discuss moral and spiritual questions that arise from what they've experienced.

In addition, the program addresses their physical health and the wear-and-tear of war through massage, chiropractics and yoga, as well as recreational sports like biking, hiking and running.

Where necessary, members receive guidance on financial issues, housing and education, or any other logistical "barrier to quality of life," Gusman said. Some stay longer than four months to work on their transition to the outside.

But when they leave, they're part of a system that provides for early intervention if continued support is needed for the challenges that lie ahead.

"We don't abandon you," Gusman said. "It's that sort of code. We don't leave anyone behind."

Many who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder are simply unable to flip the switch on the hypervigilence required to stay alive in a war zone. They may experience flashbacks or other symptoms of past trauma reasserting itself, perhaps causing physiological changes like rapid heart rate and terror.

Some numb themselves emotionally and isolate themselves to avoid experiencing the pain and fear. Many are irritable, angry, despairing and unable to sleep. Many have substance abuse problems. More are suicidal.

One recent graduate of The Pathway Home talked of blacking out and raging against loved ones without having any memory of the experience.

Another had assault weapons scattered through his home and said he was too afraid even to reach his hand out the door to collect the mail. He stayed inside for months at a time, couldn't look anyone in the face and had "been trying to drink myself to death, I think."

Another lost visitation rights with his young son and was convinced he was unworthy of him anyway.

Rubio, who tended to badly wounded soldiers on more than 300 combat missions, had become adept at stuffing away the horror. Later, as his wife was dying of cancer, he was unable to support her emotionally in her last days, he said.

Before arriving at The Pathway Home, "I was wishing and praying daily for death," Rubio said.

Once there, he said, "I felt like home. People understand."

Those in the program credit Gusman and program manager Kathy Loughry with providing a nurturing, non-judgmental place for them to recover.

But they say it's their peers in the program who hold them to account, require integrity and honesty in their interaction and self-reflection, and provide the support and informed understanding that permit them to face up to the darkness.

"It's your friends, basically, that motivate you and call you on your bull----," said Army veteran and October graduate Jason Aubochont.

Another key component to the program is community involvement, through fundraising and the relationships with practitioners who offer body work and other services for free.

Social events and outings with community supporters — whether for fishing, pizza nights or Monday bowling — also permit participants to interact with civilians in a way most assumed was no longer possible.

They find themselves making new friends and learning to mingle again. Many have found special connections with members of local Rotary clubs<NO1><NO>, which have proved very supportive of the program, emotionally and financially, purchasing needed equipment such as bicycles, vans and computers and embracing its members.

These collaborate partnerships — with service clubs, clinicians, the VA facility in Martinez and other organizations — are part of the beauty of The Pathway Home, says retired Army Col. David W. Sutherland, former special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff focusing on the Office of Warrior and Family Support.

After visiting 339 communities and connecting with more than 20,000 service programs nationwide, Sutherland, who is developing a nationwide network of collaborative, community-based services for veterans and their families, said Gusman's program distinguishes itself by challenging the status quo.

"They look at each service member as unique. They don't create cookie-cutter solutions," Sutherland said<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>. "They look at every need and opportunity on a continuum."

Soldiers, he said, go into battle after a lifetime of hearing that killing is wrong. Even if they're fighting for the right reason, it changes them, he said.

At The Pathway Home, "they remove the pathology of it, and they recognize that part of this is just listening," Sutherland said. "Part of the solution is that they don't make it about mental illness or a disorder, but rather a loss of innocence and bereavement, and power, and guilt."

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)