San Quentin’s Catholic Chapel provided space on June 27 for a small group of Bay Area volunteers to meet with incarcerated veterans who’d just completed a rigorous year-long therapy program designed to help them overcome past traumas, including PTSD.
The program, Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out (VHV), began in 2012 by then-incarcerated Ron Self. Self believes giving military veterans the chance to write about their lives is therapeutic, which is why he says Narrative Therapy opens the door to healing. Self has since paroled but continues to work with VHV.
Several outside volunteers, including Sarah Alexander, spoke to seven of the nine graduates as they received certificates of completion.
“I hope that you can take in your hearts what you’ve given me,” Alexander said. “Our VHV groups are all about connection. You touch people outside in ways that you might not imagine. Each of us has the opportunity to share our stories and be listened to—that’s the reciprocal nature of narrative therapy.
“The theme of today’s stage is the cost of pent-up and repeated traumas with no healthy release.”
Referring to Ron Self, VHV program director Rebecca Haskell said, “This is his heart and this is his life. He is so proud of you. Embracing this program is allowing you to embrace aspects of yourself that you weren’t aware of and didn’t understand. The healing is within you, but VHV allows you to express it.”
Mary Donovan of Cal Vets, who formerly worked with VHV, said, “When we make un-judgmental space for a person tell his story, in their own time, they move to healing. We do this by listening. Listening is the essential act. Listening draws out the story.”
Graduate David Anderson served in the Navy and was honorably discharged twice.
“Probably the most important thing that narration does is allow you to express your emotions and feelings in words,” Anderson said. “There is something very healing in being able to put our experiences, thoughts, emotions and feelings into words.”
Tom Ucko, one of the VHV community volunteers, talked of being nervous the first time coming inside San Quentin and walking around unescorted.
“Sitting in my first group, I was stunned,” Ucko said, after hearing about an extreme- ly violent crime.
Ucko said his judgment faded as he began to learn that the men were no longer the men who committed their crimes—that there was regret and shame exhibited from each story.
“Hearing about childhood trauma was especially challenging to listen to—tears were shed,” Ucko said. “In the safety of the circle, I was able to share my traumas and tell my truths. I felt nourished and loved.”
Carlos Smith talked about how VHV helped him with PTSD, the moral injuries he suffered and how his actions have consequences.
“This program has given me a reason to open my heart and mind and make a positive change deep within my inner beauty,” Smith said. “VHV has shown me that there’s a better solution to solve problems and deal with my de- mons, rather than acting out in anger and violence.”
“Amazing Grace” was sung by Rick Harrell.
“It’s a real privilege to be here with you guys,” Harrell said. “I’m not here to sing to you, but to lead you in singing.”
Haskell acknowledged graduates who’d transferred to other prisons—John Robb and David “Solo” Bennett.
“Everyone in this room is an ambassador for VHV,” Haskell said. “If you feel like this program has impacted you in a meaningful way, scream it as loud as you can.”
The new VHV graduates are: David Anderson, Ian Brown, James Dunbar, Darrell Gautt, Andrew Gazzeny, Jerome Hermosa, Emery Milligan, Carlos Smith, and Paul Stauffer.