Army veteran Rich Verdone

Army veteran Rich Verdone tries to help other vets who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, like he did, with his Sparta Project program, aimed at helping to heal their moral and spiritual injury.

Post-traumatic stress disorder plagues many veterans after they return from overseas combat assignments.

Rich Verdone knows it too well. He returned to Tempe with PTSD after six deployments and five combat assignments during his 15 years in the Army.

Now, he shares his experiences and helps other veterans with PTSD through the Sparta Project, a program that uses alternative, holistic methods.

“We deliberately target the hardest conversation in the part of the veteran that is probably broken,” said Verdone, vice president and a volunteer at Sparta. “We help them identify their broken pieces and assist that veteran in their own beliefs and in their own denomination, spiritual background, whatever it is, work through their issues and give them an education and a repurpose or reinvigoration.”

Often, when armed services personnel return home, it’s difficult for them to adapt to family and community. As Verdone puts it, they’re not comfortable talking about and sharing their emotions, a common symptom of PTSD.

“We take that journey with veterans in a controlled environment that’s completely safe, drug- and alcohol-free,” Verdone said. “That’s why we have a good success rate. That’s where the transformation begins.”

The Sparta Project helps veterans who carry moral and spiritual injuries during a 5½-day program. Sparta believes that when these moral and spiritual injuries go undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to a feeling of hopelessness that, in turn, could lead to suicide.

Sparta claims that 22 veterans commit suicide daily. That’s more than 8,000 a year, which is roughly 20 percent of the national suicide total in the U.S. That is significant considering that veterans make up less than 9 percent of the population. 

Sparta is privately funded and provides its service free. All of the information that a veteran shares is private.

Verdone received help from the Sparta Project upon returning. He already was showing signs of PTSD on his final deployment.

“The very last deployment I had, I just started having little visions or occurrences that weren’t normal or natural to me,” Verdone said.

He said the Army doesn’t provide much help to veterans suffering from PTSD. When it comes to civilians, he said they usually go to a private healthcare physician, not a hospital, for mental-health or PTSD issues. That’s not usually the case among veterans.

As a result of help he received from the Sparta Project, Verdone now can help other veterans outside a hospital. He said a hospital is not the best place for veterans to get PTSD help.

“I watched my friends die in combat, as well as smelled and tasted plenty of things that are all traumatic experiences. So, to have to go to a hospital where you can smell decay or where you can experience trauma, and you can watch limbless people” is difficult. They expect your average veteran to go to a hospital to seek help for things that they’re physiological or psychologically traumatized by.”

Verdone joined the military in July 2001 at 17, two months before the terrorist attacks in New York.

“That was our generation’s version of Pearl Harbor,” he said. “So, to be attacked like that, especially while in training, it was very real. It was that moment where everything sinks in. … Things were upon us at that point. Everything was very surreal.”

Verdone remembers the drill sergeants asking whether they had family in New York or New Jersey.

“And I was part of the small number of people that were brought into a room while we were briefed,” Verdone said. “I had been there, and to try and fathom, to try and understand a structure like that that is no longer there, it was breathtaking. I couldn’t imagine in my head that they were gone. That was the words, ‘They are gone, the towers are gone.’”

Verdone did not lose any family in the attacks, but it still had a profound impact on him.

“Looking at 3,000 Americans dying is not something I ever wanted to do,” said Verdone.

“I had been there many times visiting in the summers. I was a huge New York Yankees fan growing up. I just couldn’t imagine. In my head, I couldn’t comprehend.”

He was quickly deployed to Afghanistan in the 3rd Battalion of the elite Ranger regiment less than a year after enlisting and shortly after Operation Rhino, a raid on several Taliban targets in and around Kandahar, Afghanistan. This was during the invasion of the country at the start of the War in Afghanistan in 2001.

“We jumped Kandahar, which allowed conventional forces to go in,” said Verdone, who spent less than a year in Afghanistan.

Upon returning home, Verdone said, it was hard to convey to family and friends the stress he had experienced.

“To put it simply, I don’t think anybody joins the military and expects their average citizen or neighbor to walk in their shoes or to appreciate or value what they’re doing,” Verdone said.

“I certainly didn’t go around and ask my neighborhood before I joined, ‘Hey, will you support me?’ or ‘Hey, are you going to be there for me when I need it?’ I joined selflessly. And I think that’s most of our veterans.”

Another common theme for military members is becoming hyper-vigilant because they’re “in imminent danger to hostile-threat environment,” Verdone said.

“They already tell you if you need food, if you need water, if you need shelter. You pay attention to sounds, smells. And you start living like this, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“So when you come back 12 months later, consciously, you’re still enjoying life, the same things, but subconsciously your brain is physiologically adapted for that imminent danger, hostile environment.”

The Sparta Project helps veterans adapt to situations so when they come back, they can go to a ballgame or a concert and be able to feel comfortable in a crowd of 20,000 people.

As Verdone explains, “It’s hard to come back home and not react to the environment in the same way.” 

“When you leave this country, your brain already knows you’re in danger,” Verdone said. “This is a controlled environment in the U.S., but it’s not a controlled environment in Afghanistan or Iraq. The bottom line is that your brain switches on and it starts programming and flooding you with adrenaline even if you’re just changing a tire or cooking dinner. You’ll be over-stimulated because of the environment that you were in for a chronic period of time.”

Verdone adds that if a veteran is not aware of this, it can impact their daily life, including their ability to hold a job, go back to school or manage family relationships.

“As a veteran, you’re constantly looking for feedback about your environment because you were in an imminent-danger environment,” Verdone said. 

“My environment is constantly telling me, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you’re terrible at doing this, you’re a great soldier overseas but you’re a (expletive) when you’re home,’” said Verdone.

“That’s really important to understand how a veteran can become hopeless. That hopelessness is the gateway to the worst of things which are typically suicide.”

As far as Verdone, he said he wasn’t able to bounce back after returning home. “There was a steady decline over time for my ability to transition.”

“The military does an excellent job of training you how to be a war fighter, how to do all of the things you need to do to protect your brothers, protect yourself, to protect your country and survive in these outrageous situations. …The military has a non-existent reintegration process.”

As a result of getting help from the Sparta Project, Verdone created a Phoenix construction company that employs veterans. Among his employees is a Navy combat veteran missing an arm. 

“I love veterans and I love our community,” Verdone added.

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