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After serving two tours of duty in Iraq, James Cote considers himself to be one of the lucky ones.
He feels that way because he made it home alive, unlike the thousands of American men and women who have lost their lives in battle. He is also lucky because, when he was discharged from the military in 2008, his re-entry into civilian life went smoothly. He enrolled in college, suffered no ill effects of war, such as post traumatic stress, and generally had a positive experience about his service in Iraq. Not every soldier is as fortunate as Cote, however.
"A lot of soldiers don't feel this way," Cote said. "There are many soldiers who have difficulty readjusting."
In late 2009, Cote, along with a fellow veteran, started the Soldiers Project CT, based in Cheshire. The group aims to fill in the gaps of services available to veterans, all free of charge. There is a Veterans Affairs office in West Haven, and Cote isn't trying to replace area VAs. Instead, he is focusing on a mental and physical wellness program for veterans as they adjust to life outside of the armed forces.
"We don't provide things any better than the VA. We are there for the inbetween areas and filling in the gap," Cote said. "We wanted to give back to Connecticut veterans. We are doing a lot of investigation and have developed our niche."
At the group's Highland Avenue facility, there are multiple conference rooms to hold one-on-one discussions or group talks. There is also a gym, with cardiovascular equipment and weights. It's a body and mind program that is "neglected in our society," Cote explained.
"I think it's positive for veterans to have this type of experience," Cote said. "Civilians need to know about the needs of veterans and how they are not being met."
According to Cote, discussions run the gamut, from talks about military service and the culture shock of joining a battalion, to "more heady issues," such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how to adjust to the classroom or work setting. Most importantly, however, is the need to raise awareness, as many veterans are unaware of the free services that are available to them after being discharged from the military.
"Many vets coming back don't seek out the services because they don't know it's there. They don't know what is available to them," Cote explained.
Also on board with the team is a licensed psychotherapist, and Cote is working on getting his degree in social work and therapy. While dealing with the mind is part of the regime, a healthy body is also an important piece, he stated.
"It's about mind and body service. It's a complete wellness program," Cote said. "You can't neglect the body and deliver services only to the mind. Hopefully, vets will come in, work out, and talk about issues."
Last week on Veterans Day, a fundraiser was held at Soldiers Project CT as the community awareness campaign continues. Cote said there was a "good turnout" during the event and he received "very positive feedback" from those in attendance. It was a success because others in the community have now offered to help veterans and donate their time and services.
"It's not so surprising because I know people are passionate about giving back," Cote remarked. "There is definitely a gap between veteran and civilian life and we want to understand why it's there and how we can fill it."
Cote said there are many things on Americans’ minds nowadays, given the economy and job loss seen nationwide. Perhaps since the war is nearly a decade old, there has been "a fatigue" on the American mind and the "war has faded in a sense."
"But there are still troops being deployed and serving 15-month operations and we still need to show our support," Cote explained. "It's about veterans in the community and vets who are still overseas."
There are issues that Cote and Solders Project CT cannot tackle, such as homelessness, but the group can help with referral programs. Cote acknowledged that, if they don't have an answer, they will find it and direct veterans to the right area. As a member of the VA, Cote has utilized some of the services available to him. He said some contacts with the VA have looked over the Soldiers Project CT program and "said it was good."
Cote hopes to work with the government and share some of his knowledge on the transition back to civilian life and he is currently conducting a research survey on the matter. Those who stop by the group's office can take the survey to find out how these veterans were prepared for re-entry. With the idea of the "American Dream" on many people's minds, Cote thought soldiers feel pressured after leaving the military to achieve it.
"If you don't achieve the American Dream, you are seen as a failure. You are hit with that even harder after getting out of the military," Cote said. "You feel left behind and you have to play catch up. There are a lot of feelings after being discharged and that needs to be understood."
For more information on the Project, call (203) 528-6764.