PHOTO: From left, Howard Rodriguez and Greg Simpson at a recent REBOOT Combat Recovery class that they teach at Operation Stand Down Tennessee. Both are members of Brentwood Baptist Church, which has started two programs in Nashville. / Photo by Landon Woodroof
By LANDON WOODROOF
When Justin Allender returned from war he was feeling great. He was in the best shape of his life, he felt strong in his faith and he was excited to leave Iraq behind.
“I got back home and man I was high on life,” he said.
Not long after his homecoming he enrolled in the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and married his wife, Andrea. Everything was working out just fine. Until it wasn’t.
Things began to get bad when Allender was called to start drilling again as part of his reserve duty. Buried tensions rose to the surface, and he began to lose his sense of control.
“I just hit a wall,” he said. “Things just started a snowball effect…I was going crazy, I was a loose cannon and hiding it. Hiding the flashbacks, hiding the anger, hiding the substance abuse. Anything you could do that would block out the memories, you would turn to.”
In the summer of 2008, Allender returned from mountain warfare training in California and found that Andrea was not home. She had left. It was rock bottom, Allender said, but it also ended up being the beginning of him seeking help.
In the ensuing years, he began to try to understand what he was going through, to try to unravel the tangle of post-traumatic stress and anger and anxiety that had almost wrecked his life and his marriage.
Allender, 33, managed to turn things around, but it is still not easy. Staying on top of the negative feelings and emotions takes diligence and perseverance.
That is how he came to find himself at The Church at Avenue South on 8th Avenue in Nashville on a recent Wednesday night. He was there to take part in a faith-based support program for military veterans called REBOOT Combat Recovery.
REBOOT Combat Recovery was founded in 2011 by an occupational therapist at Fort Campbell, Dr. Jenny Owens. It consists of a 12-week course that aims to teach veterans how to heal from the trauma they faced in the service. It offers veterans a space where they can come together, learn and share their feelings and experiences with people who have been through similar situations. The idea is for veterans to heal not just mentally, but spiritually as well.
The idea of focusing on the spiritual aspect of recovery was a big draw for Howard Rodriguez. Rodriguez is one of a number of members of Brentwood Baptist Church who came together and decided to start sponsoring and leading their own REBOOT Combat Recovery courses.
They did so after REBOOT Executive Director Evan Owens was invited to the church in July 2015 and gave a presentation with a veteran who had been through the program.
“My wife and I looked at each other during the service and said, ‘This is where God wants us,’” Rodriguez said.
It took a little over a year for Rodriguez to get properly trained to teach a class. He and other Brentwood Baptist members began leading their first REBOOT session in fall of 2016 at Operation Stand Down Tennessee, an organization that helps homeless veterans. A second concurrent session was added this year at The Church at Avenue South, which is a regional campus of Brentwood Baptist Church.
For Rodriguez, REBOOT’s mission is personal. Not only is he retired from the United States Navy, but his son came back from Iraq with PTSD in 2006.
He said that REBOOT offered something that other programs did not.
“We’ve lived around the military a long time,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen how everything else treated symptoms. You treat the drugs, you treat the depression. You treated all the symptoms, but never treated the underlying causes.”
With REBOOT it’s different. Rodriguez said REBOOT aspires to heal the “soul wounds” that many veterans come back home with.
Rodriguez is currently teaching his fourth class at Operation Stand Down, but he saw positive results from the very start.
One Vietnam veteran particularly stood out to him. When that veteran began the REBOOT class, he had been out of touch with his family for a long time. By the time the course was done that had changed.
“For the first time in over 30 years he was back with his family,” Rodriguez said.
The REBOOT Combat Recovery class centers on different topics each week, from guilt, to forgiveness, to depression and suicide, to moving forward and sharing your story.
An overarching theme, though, Rodriguez said, is to teach every person that they are more than just their military service, that they have inherent value and were made for a unique purpose.
“When you get beat down and told you’re a failure all the time you start to believe what they tell you,” Rodriguez said. “And that’s not the case. These guys are all smart, and they‘ve got a lot to them. They just need to know that someone cares and gives them love for who they are instead of what they were.”
At Operation Stand Down on a recent Wednesday evening, veterans sat down and heard an introduction from Rodriguez and another Brentwood Baptist member and veteran Greg Simpson before they lined up to get dinner.
Different “life groups,” as Sunday school classes at Brentwood Baptist Church are known, provide the food each week to the veterans. This week Martha Popp’s Sunday school class had prepared a welcoming spread of meatloaf, collard greens, potato casserole, homemade rolls and more.
“We all just felt that this would be a great thing to get involved with,” Popp said.
Jim Bonds is another church member involved with the REBOOT program. He does not teach a course, since he is not a military veteran, but he likes to attend and help out as he can.
He said that the decision to have different life groups come each week served several purposes.
“We think it’s important because it gives groups like Martha’s class a chance to see firsthand what’s going on,” he said. “And it shows the people here that it’s not just one or two people that are caring about them, but multiple people each week.”
One of the veterans in attendance Wednesday at Operation Stand Down was Ken Simmons, 42.
Simmons served in the United States Army from 1994 to 1998, first in Colorado, then in Germany and then as part of the first wave of U.S. military responding to the crisis in Bosnia.
Readjusting to life outside the military was challenging for Simmons. He got back to the small town he had been living in and realized that time had not waited for him.
“You come back and everybody you know has moved on,” he said.
While Simmons had traveled around the world serving his country, his friends and family had gone on with their lives, pursuing careers and other ventures. Simmons felt in a way like he was four years behind everybody else.
Simmons went back to school on the G.I. Bill, getting an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines. Over the next few years he worked, but then suffered big financial losses in a series of unsuccessful business pursuits.
By the beginning of 2014 he was surfing couches. A little bit later he tried to move back home, but that did not work out.
“You see a lot of networks you think you have or think you should have are gone,” he said.
At that point, Simmons became homeless.
He spent several months in California, then Las Vegas. He managed to stay a little while at his dad’s house in Texas, but knew he would be on the streets again soon. He decided to give Nashville a try.
He eventually made his way to a local veterans affairs facility and was told about Operation Stand Down. After about a week he had a place to stay.
Simmons is honest. One of the main things that attracted him to REBOOT Combat Recovery was the food. He noticed it was the best out of all the programs on offer at Operation Stand Down.
He came to appreciate, though, how REBOOT seemed likes less of a classroom, where you were getting talked to, then a conversation, where veterans could share their stories with each other.
“REBOOT is the first one that really tried to bring everybody together in that big community classroom,” he said.
That is important for people with the life experience that Simmons has had. He compared being homeless to being a veteran returning home to a small town and finding no other veterans around.
“It’s the same on the streets,” he said. “There’s a lot of isolation.”
REBOOT cuts through some of that isolation.
Simmons has already been through the REBOOT program once, but he still likes to sit in and listen to the other veterans talk about their lives. He said just recently he witnessed one of the best discussions yet.
“Personally, I don’t know if it matters so much that it’s veterans than that it was just a good group of people,” he said.
Since 2011, over 2,900 graduates have gone through the REBOOT Recovery Program. It boasts an 81 percent graduation rate and a 95 percent graduate rate, according to member surveys.
Allender still has a few weeks until his graduation.
He has come a long way since he first signed up for the Marines right out of Brentwood High School, a decidedly unusual choice for a kid from his background.
“If you went into the military people thought there was something wrong with you,” he said of the prevailing sentiment in Brentwood at the time.
Allender got his orders to go to Iraq when he was 19. He turned 20 there.
“There’s a lot of things that we did, that we saw,” he said. “I’ll tell you it was rough, needless to say, especially in 2004 in Fallujah.”
Allender still reckons with his experiences every day, even after he has gone on to be a father of two who has enjoyed a successful career in the car business and the mortgage business.
“To this day I can do all these things, and I can be self-aware but I still have anxiety, I still have anger,” he said. “And with kids you don’t want to be that guy that they see as waking up angry or having that anxiety.”
He acknowledges that it can be difficult to talk about his experiences. It’s hard to call up those memories of close calls, of injuries, of constantly not knowing what danger the day might bring.
But he is in a better place than he once was, and he is at REBOOT to really connect with other veterans and build on the progress he has made so far.
“I’m here at REBOOT to just continue educating myself because the older you get the more you realize it’s hard to live sometimes with those memories,” he said.
Like Rodriguez, he believes in the REBOOT mission. His personal trials have convinced him that it is essential to treat more than just the symptoms of his trauma.
“You can’t fix yourself,” he said. “There’s no way. You have to look to the left and the right and seek support. You have to seek the Lord.”
And so far, REBOOT has given him the opportunity both to try and help others who are closer to where he was at 10 years ago and to help heal himself.
“It’s awareness,” he said. “It’s being around brothers and sisters that have gone through the same thing you have, and it’s really good.”
If you or someone you know would like to participate in a REBOOT Recovery Course locally, you can get in touch with Brentwood Baptist Church or consult this list of other locations where the REBOOT program is available.