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.