YOUNTVILLE— Tucked away in Wine Country, a small mental health organization has found success working with struggling U.S. service members, reducing suicide rates with unconventional treatment methods that include backrubs and cookouts.
Soldiers in the specialized counseling program in Napa Valley receive traditional therapy to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems linked to combat stress. But at The Pathway Home, services expand to social gatherings, photography classes and even swimming with dolphins.
About 380 veterans have gone through the program in the past five years, and only one has committed suicide. The results have drawn the attention of an Army detachment that has stationed itself at the center for training through September.
Military officials say service members respond to the treatment because it acknowledges their unique experiences and helps them adapt to often overlooked aspects of civilian life.
"Here they're not patients, they're residents," said Col. David Rabb who commands the Army's 113th Medical Detachment, Combat Stress Control.
The program "is respecting them for who they are, they're warriors," he said.
At Pathway's four-month program, veterans learn to manage their finances and receive career, legal and educational advice, said Fred Gusman, the organization's executive director.
"When you go to a hospital, they're not going to help you with your legal problems," said Gusman, who helped start the program in 2008. "They might have marital counseling. They might not have marital counseling. They're not about getting you in school, because they're a medical center. Pathway is about the whole person."
On a recent afternoon, smoke wafted from the courtyard as Pathway residents mingled with fatigue-clad soldiers from the medical detachment at a barbecue.
Rabb said the assignment provides his unit an opportunity to "learn from the best" and "also engage combat veterans."
"Where else can you do that in the civilian sector?" he asked.
The cookouts are an integral part of the Pathway program, allowing veterans to build their social skills, Gusman said. Attendees often include Vietnam or World War II veterans and schoolchildren.
"It's that kind of process that makes these men who come here feel they are part of society again, and that they're not a secret, that they're not strange and civilians aren't strange," Gusman said.
Before the gathering, Darint Thong, one of 20 residents at Pathway, rested face down while a masseuse pressed her hands into his broad back.
Thong said the rubdowns available as part of the program help relieve stress. He served two tours of duty in Iraq as a sharpshooter in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. He would only describe what he saw there as "the ugliness of the world."
Thong has been back in the U.S. for seven years but has struggled to adapt to civilian life. He developed a drinking problem, struggled with anger and was arrested for driving under the influence. He sought treatment through the Veterans Affairs hospital, but he relapsed and eventually contemplated suicide.
The Modesto resident has been among the gnarled oaks and shady lawns at Pathway since June.