UNTAMEABLE: Joe LaBranche & Mike Roberts


Northside Marines assist fellow veterans deal with post-deployment issues and reintegration into civilian life.

Written by Colleen Ann McNally
Photography courtesy of Kathleen Stevens Moore

An estimated 370,000 Americans have returned home from the war front each year for the past decade. A hero’s welcome is fitting for those who sacrifice so much to protect our country’s freedom, yet even after veterans return safely from war, they face new, unexpected battles. Trained as warriors, these men and women are radically changed by war trauma and struggle to reintegrate into civilian life. Some civilians are quick to praise our troops and our veterans, but there is a marked difference between appreciation and support.

Joe LaBranche founded AboutFace to help fellow veterans and their families deal with post-deployment issues.

Joe LaBranche founded AboutFace to help fellow veterans and their families deal with post-deployment issues.

Meet Joe LaBranche and Michael Roberts, two Northside veterans to the rescue. These men don’t just bleed red, white and blue; they’ve made it a personal mission to reach out to others in need, refusing to leave a fellow veteran behind. The Battle Inside Former Marine Joe LaBranche of Cumming, Ga., knows these challenges firsthand. In April 1965, LaBranche became a 19-year-old machine gunner in the jungles of Vietnam, but his return home in 1967 was far from a hero’s welcome.

Within 72 hours of leaving Vietnam, he was on the streets of Detroit without a transition period, rehabilitation program or self-esteem. “I figured if I became a Marine that people would be proud of me,” LaBranche said. “To me, that was my ultimate. I’m thinking, ‘I’ll come back, people will be proud of me, people will respect me’ and it turned out to be the worst thing ever.”

LaBranche was heartbroken by the degrading attitudes from civilians and faced name-calling, war protestors spitting at him and employers disinterested in hiring him. Even among his close friends he struggled to assimilate. Unexpected loud noises could send him to the ground while others stared, wondering, “’What’s wrong with this guy?’”

For many veterans, the intense anxiety, recurring memories or nightmares, insomnia and difficulty with concentration are just some of the lasting effects of war. “These guys come back and see life as usual, but are still worried about their buddies overseas,” LaBranche said. “I think 90 percent of [civilians] don’t really think about Afghanistan unless they have a friend or relative in the war zone.”

While a veteran’s spouse, child, parent, grandparent, friend or caregiver can only imagine what he or she is going through, the devastating effects aren’t isolated. Rates of divorce and suicide have reached alarmingly high rates in vets. It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association classified Post-Traumatic Stress Injury/Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a unique mental health issue. Deeper research began, questioning how to best address these issues.

A New Mission
The first – and hardest – step is teaching veterans to ask for the help they need. LaBranche endured decades of self-doubt, anger and destructive behavior from self medicating with alcohol and drug abuse. Constant encouragement from his wife Carol eventually led him to a Veteran’s Affairs (VA) office in 2005. Initially, he was told he wasn’t eligible for benefits. He quit drinking in 2009 and pursued the VA’s help again after referral from a friend. Finally, after 40 years, LaBranche found the support group he needed. With the right support, he said he found his calling in life and found himself again.

“To me, I was put on this earth to help veterans,” he said. “The best therapy I have is helping other veterans. It helps me forget my problems in trying to help someone else with their problems.” Today LaBranche is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion. He has served as the senior vice commander and veterans service officer for VFW Post 9143, located in Cumming where he implemented a new program, AboutFace, Combat Veterans for Christ in 2012. This support and mentoring program helps veterans overcome the transition by providing financial and emotional assistance to both vets and their families. Group sessions in four categories: Vietnam veterans, post-911 veterans, female veterans and spouses of veterans, will be instituted soon at the Cumming United Methodist Church and First Baptist Atlanta.

Mike Roberts (r), founder of Warrior2Citizen, said almost 80 percent of veterans are affected with symptoms of PTSD.

Mike Roberts (r), founder of Warrior2Citizen, said almost 80 percent of veterans are affected with symptoms of PTSD.

Just as he was trained in the Marine Corps to not leave a fellow Marine behind, he aims to help all veterans in need, regardless of military branch. “Everything is of the team,” LaBranche said. “We’d rather charge than retreat.” LaBranche believes support groups such as these, where stories are shared in a group setting, will assist vets and their family members to recognize their struggles are not unique to them. His goal is to administer these programs through partner churches nationwide.

Research for Recovery
Before engaging in this new battle, LaBranche and his wife had joined forces with Colonel Michael Roberts (retired), president and co-founder of Warrior2Citizen (W2C). Carol is currently W2C’s vice president of operations and corporate secretary. Roberts, a resident of Dunwoody, has more than 30 years experience serving as a trusted advisor for military intelligence, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies. As an intelligence analyst, leader, educator and strategic advisor to senior government officials, he developed visionary and pragmatic effective solutions for public health and Homeland Security.

Roberts hasn’t escaped flashbacks and nightmares. “It pales in comparison to what I know many others have suffered,” Roberts said. He added he was lucky to find a natural transition from fighting mode in the intelligence business to a role at the University of Georgia with the Centers for Disease Control. He spent several years improving the nation’s defense against bioterrorism. He learned the importance of helping veterans with disabilities from a different perspective than the LaBranches. It was his wife’s counseling background that introduced him to inspiring chaplains and gave him a window of opportunity to experience caregiving.

“Providence principally helped a great deal because my background is far from the soft side of caregiving,” Roberts said. Together they supported reintegrating veterans on military bases. Roberts realized there is no one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming these struggles; the simple solution to overcoming PTSD can’t be found in a training manual.

“[Warriors are] trained to be hard and fast and follow orders and go through that door, but they are not necessarily trained about their internal clock,” Roberts explained. While this strategy works in the favor of the battlefield, it doesn’t work well in the reintegration as a human being. “Everybody has their own barometer of resiliency,” Roberts said. “Some have more, some have less. Some go through battle after battle and wounds after wounds, and come back and it doesn’t affect them very radically. They go on with life and deal with [it]. But others – many others, we’re finding – are in fact a different way.” That “many others” translates to almost 80 percent of veterans affected with symptoms of PTSD, according to extensive research by Roberts and his team. The collaborative efforts of retired military commanders, prominent military chaplains, researchers from the Georgia Tech Research Institution as well as psychologists and therapists from Georgia State University conducted focus groups and surveys of approximately 3,800 veterans.

Closing Ranks
While the statistics are high, there is hope in the number of new programs to help vets and their families. They are increasing exponentially and a listing can be found in the Directory of Veterans Service Organizations on the VA’s website. “I think we are all a nation of heart, in many respects, particularly in the area of philanthropy and nonprofits,” Roberts said. However, he cautions that just because an organization has good intentions, unfortunately doesn’t mean they have the right answers.

With Roberts’ direction, the Atlanta-based W2C is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) leading the charge statewide with evidence-based practice to find the right answers. His team cataloged which methods are effective for families, children and single soldiers to form what Roberts describes as a blueprint model for a holistic healing, in-residence term. Currently W2C offers the evidence-based, three-phase W2C Reintegration System and a marital enrichment program called the Home Life Transition Program (HLTP), which debuted in May near Pittsburgh, Pa., and was the culmination of three years of hard work and determination.

Roberts said that pilot program has measurable metrics and the couples that attended had nothing but positive things to say about it. HLTP offers virtual coaching, counseling and training and an aftercare program of support for warriors and their spouses. W2C is focused on implementing the same program in Georgia soon with the help of the Georgia National Guard and reservists. Through these two sustainable programs, W2C assists military and veteran families transition “from the war front to the home front,” helping to build a variety of critical skills.

Roberts’ compassion for others extends beyond his line of duty and for people going through life transitions other than from the military. He sees W2C’s unique design and ability to impact rates of divorce, suicide and abusive activity as just a starting point. “This is a program that’s extensive to policemen, to firemen, to emergency responders, to NFL players, to whomever goes through these transitions of reintegrating,” Roberts said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to take these models and build a better society.”

Over the past years, the NFL has gained much experience with traumatic brain injury and has partnered with the military to explore the effects of programs such as Roberts’ W2C, which has also gained support from former NFL player Rocky Bleier, a four-time Super Bowl champion running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Vietnam veteran, who now serves on W2C’s Board of Directors.

Where Roberts needs support most, however, is within strong communities and among good neighbors. “Nobody wins in this equation if we don’t step up as a community and handle the fall-out of years of back-to-back deployments in the war,” he said.

Through programs like W2C and AboutFace, our American heroes can return to a worthy welcome and a brighter future after their military service ends. As we celebrate our nation’s independence this month, we ask that you take hold of any veterans’ outstretched hands and provide support rather than just appreciation. PN

AboutFace – Combat Veterans for Christ