In the spotlight: Veteran Resilience Project

Paul Riedner, executive director of the Veteran Resilience Project. Photo by Michelle Bruch

Paul Riedner writes grant proposals at a Whittier co-working space to fund therapy for veterans, and he knows firsthand what it’s like to return home from a deployment.

Riedner served in the Army beginning in 2006 and deployed with the 86th Engineer Dive Team. His team worked on bridge missions in Iraq and inspected quay walls for explosives prior to U.S. ships berthing in the Middle East. One of his missions involved locating and returning remains from a World War II bomber off the coast of France.

Riedner returned to Minnesota in 2010 to attend business school, and he said it was challenging to return to a community where few shared his experience.

“I felt disconnected. I felt confused. There was very little evidence that we were actually in two wars. And even less that anyone gave two sh–s about it. It’s just not part of everyone’s daily life,” he said.

He’d wake up late at night and go for a drive, using a dash cam to create a video diary of his thoughts. The footage became the basis for an eight-minute documentary shown at the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival.

“I felt like an outsider where I once called home,” he said.

Now he’s interviewing other veterans as part of an ongoing podcast, and he’s working to secure funding for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) for the Veteran Resilience Project.

VRP was founded by psychologist Elaine Wynne, and the organization is pushing for broader use of EMDR.

Riedner explained that people typically process the events of the day during a night’s sleep, but wartime trauma can linger. The smell of diesel fuel or a crowded street, for example, can trigger powerful memories and make a veteran feel they’re back in that moment.

By recalling memories during bilateral stimulation, he said the brain can separate triggers — like the smell of diesel fuel— from the memory, lessening the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In a local pilot project involving 30 veterans exposed to EMDR therapy, he said 74 percent no longer qualified as having PTSD and all saw largely reduced symptoms.

A wait list of veterans is ready to start treatment whenever funding becomes available, he said.

Aside from fundraising, Riedner is preparing to offer cultural competency training to help corporations and other groups understand military culture.

“The culture of office politics and cutthroat competition that goes on in corporate teams kills the kind of selfless, do-what’s-right collaboration and teamwork that many vets are used to,” he said.

He said he wants to clear up misconceptions that PTSD can’t be cured, or that veterans are dangerous or broken and in need of charity.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. … We veterans ARE the help,” he said in an email.  “If you’re going to hire us, then don’t stop there. Don’t leave valuable training, experience, leadership and wisdom on the table.”

Riedner wants all Minnesotans to take responsibility for their involvement in sending people to war.

More than 50,000 Minnesotans have been deployed since 2001, Riedner said, with one-fifth projected to suffer from PTSD.

“We can’t treat all of those vets, but a lot of people want help now,” he said. “We’re acting like it’s not connected to us. [Minnesotans are] known for being healthy, yet our vets are suffering. .. People are dying now. The urgency is different than in other cases.”