Editor’s note: This is the final part of a three-part series.
A year after a fatal shooting within its walls, The Pathway Home facility remains vacant. But supporters of the pioneering therapy program for war-tormented veterans are still working to keep its mission alive, and share it with other communities and other ex-soldiers in need.
Napa Valley volunteers continue to raise funds for programs that combat the effects of trauma from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A journalist is distilling Pathway’s treatment and counseling lessons into a guide for other communities to use.
And a former Marine who was treated at Pathway – then counseled other veterans there – has taken up the mission by assisting patients at a similar therapy center in Martinez, less than 40 miles to the south.
What they share is a commitment to give Pathway’s mission a second life beyond the original program, which came to a halt on March 9, 2018 when a recently expelled client shot and killed three staff members and himself.
“This has been our mission for 10 years, and it will go on,” board member Dorothy Salmon said 10 days later at a celebration of life in Yountville for Pathway director Christine Loeber and clinicians Jennifer Gray Golick and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba. “Our mission will go on, because you all care so much. This is their gift and this is their legacy, that we keep this going.”
Preserving Pathway’s legacy
Pathway directors in August ended the home’s lease at the Yountville Veterans Home, but also developed a plan to share its therapy model beyond its walls.
An online guide based on lessons learned at Pathway aims to detail the program’s combination of months-long residential therapy for ex-soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries with building webs of community volunteers to help re-integrate patients into the civilian world.
Since Pathway’s inception in 2008, the home had garnered not only financial donations but the spare time of service group members and Napa Valley residents, who visited the men at the home and led bowling nights and other social outings that eased the men back into the home front.
Suzanne Gordon, a journalist who has written extensively on veterans’ health care issues, joined the effort to create the online guide, which will be offered as a free download for community members seeking to assist patients at existing therapy programs. In developing the handbook, Gordon seeks to emphasize the importance of ordinary volunteers as well as clinicians in helping traumatized veterans thrive away from the battlefield.
A program elsewhere in the Bay Area illustrates the benefits of engaging townsfolk with the recovery of veterans, Gordon said last week.
At a Martinez medical center run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, former troops receive inpatient care for PTSD through the Post-Deployment Assessment and Treatment (PDAT) program, which opened in the same year as Pathway. As in the Napa Valley, volunteers have rallied to the Martinez home’s aid not only by opening their checkbooks but also by lending their time to recovering soldiers, according to Gordon, who has detailed the VA facility’s work in her book “Wounds of War.”
“One of the (points) that’s really important in this guide is that some people may be better suited to give money and items, and some people are better suited to give their time and skills,” she said last week. “Doing one or all is just a different kind of helping.”
According to Gordon, the upcoming guide will describe the ways that volunteers and civic groups can bolster VA-operated treatment programs, with the Martinez community serving as an example – from hiking and fishing outings for recovering veterans to tutoring and educational support. Just as importantly, she added, would-be helpers will be advised how to connect with ex-soldiers left fragile by wartime traumas and often slow to accept help.
“You have to be very careful how you approach” veterans with PTSD, said Gordon. “You can’t just go in like gangbusters. The will and intention is not enough; you need the skill to understand how the person to be helped wants to be helped, whether they want to be helped and how they want to be helped. It’s complex.”
The Martinez Rotary club will use the online handbook to guide its volunteer efforts on behalf of VA clients in their city, and members of a sister club in Brentwood also may do the same, according to Napa Rotarians Gary Rose and Brian Gross.
“The need was there before March, 9, 2018,” said Gordon. “The Pathway Home was wonderful, but it was a very small program in a sea of need. Martinez is a very small program too. You need a lot of people, with a lot of patience and a lot of sensitivity, who are willing to exercise that patience and sensitivity in order to provide help.”
Local fundraising continues
In Napa County, Cycle for Sight & Rotary Ride for Veterans became one of the most visible fundraising efforts on The Pathway Home’s behalf. The program’s quarters at Madison Hall sit locked and empty, but on April 20, the bicycling event will go on – with its organizers steering proceeds to the VA’s Martinez program and other groups in California.
A month after the Pathway attack, the Rotary Club of Napa held its 2018 Cycle for Sight as scheduled, adding a donation drive to benefit the families of the three women who died. This spring, Rotarians will lend their support to Pathway’s surviving counterpart in Martinez as well as to the charity bike ride’s other main recipient, the Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind.
“We haven’t had any letdown in sponsorships,” Rose said of Cycle for Sight. In 2018, it garnered more than $50,000 in contributions – in addition to the $9,300 the Napa Rotary raised for the loved ones of Loeber, Shushereba and Golick by selling special signs paying tribute to the fallen Pathway staffers. “If anything, the shootings illuminated the need for this kind of program.”
Gross, a Napa Rotary board member, remained confident that fundraising will thrive even for a therapy center outside of Napa County, partly because of the support Pathway garnered from outside the valley during its decade of operation.
“Brentwood’s Rotary has rallied to the tune of $100,000, and they’ve never been anywhere near The Pathway Home,” he said. “They’re willing to go outside their community because they see the need. Programs like Pathway and PDAT aren’t programs that every community has access to.”
Pathway alumnus continues the mission
Since 2010, Zach Skiles had become intimately familiar with The Pathway Home – first as a former Marine struggling to leave behind his experiences in the first year of the Iraq war, and later as a peer counselor giving to other veterans the same hand up once offered to him.
When the news broke of the slayings in the Pathway building, Skiles found himself taking a pensive, rain-soaked hike through the Berkeley Hills, then calling board members to discuss the future of the program.
Three women had died at the hands of an Army veteran they had tried to help. Even so, Skiles decided to continue following in their paths, he would recall nearly a year later.
“It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction, but there are things we have to lean into that we have to do,” he said last week. “It’s obvious we need many more of these programs.”
Skiles has put his words into action by counseling patients at PDAT, the VA’s inpatient program in Martinez.
In a setting similar to what Skiles and about 450 other men experienced at Pathway, eight to 10 clients at a time stay for as long as four months for a daily regimen combining clinical therapy, one-on-one sessions and group talks where veterans can share their struggles stemming from combat and its aftermath.
In addition to treating the direct effects of warfare such as PTSD, brain injuries and insomnia, the Martinez VA’s residential program also guides clients through the difficulties many troops face on returning home – substance abuse, communication problems and trouble re-integrating into peacetime life, according to its director Jeffrey Kixmiller.
On and off campus, according to Skiles, much of the program in Martinez eases former troops into the routines and habits of postwar life.
A program called Soldiers in Shelters tasks veterans with training and caring for pets at Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation shelter in Walnut Creek, and Rotarians from Martinez and Brentwood organize recreational outings with patients. Within the VA center, visiting occupational therapists work with clients on cooking and other functional skills, and a “social dining” program puts each veteran in charge of preparing a meal for fellow patients.
The residential program in Martinez has expanded in directions beyond the scope of Pathway’s inpatient care model, with the VA acquiring eight local apartments where former service members can transition into education or part-time work for up to half a year while still remaining close to their treatment. Some clients also receive weekend passes to visit spouses and children in their hometowns – a practice Kixmiller said wins family support for treatment while allowing veterans to test their newfound life skills.
“As veterans change, this is often very new to family members and they have to understand what’s going on to support it so they’re a part of it,” he said. “What we don’t want is to create another sense of deployment to them.”
Five months away from earning a doctorate in clinical psychology, Skiles is planning a career as a therapist within the VA health care system. Meanwhile, he continues to put his own experiences to use – as both counseled and counselor.
“The environments are so similar, I find myself using just about every lesson I learned at Pathway in my work at PDAT, like mindfulness and stress tolerance,” he said. “What I use across the board with everyone is engagement with people, the kind of going out into your community that may frickin’ suck sometimes but is the road to recovery, the next chapter in life we look forward to that gets you out of bed in the morning.”
“… I have continually tried to tap into that humanist idea that each person in front of me has an aspect of them that is a strong survivor that nothing can muck up or touch. That’s what I try to bring out of people; that’s what I try to bring out of guys: that there is something inside of them that can take them further.”
Every town needs to step up
Amid the deaths in Yountville, through the celebration of life for the three Pathway staffers, Pathway’s board members discussed the home’s future – and decided it had none at Madison Hall. The board in July announced the permanent closure of the facility at the Veterans Home, allowing their lease to expire a month later.
“Many of us were personally impacted; many of us felt loss and grief,” said John Dunbar, a board member and the Yountville mayor since 2010. “We lost three amazing women, three brave women, and I personally think of them every day. And I know many others do as well.”
Directors pivoted to finding ways to support other groups continuing the tasks Pathway and its volunteer helpers once carried out. At the same time the home confirmed the end of its Yountville operations, it also announced work on an online guide to help get volunteers veteran-support efforts off the ground elsewhere.
Today, Pathway’s website points visitors to the VA’s rehabilitation programs in Martinez as well as the volunteers – including Rotarians and others who once worked with those being treated at Pathway – lending their time and support to its patients.
“We are advocating for other existing efforts, whether government or private,” said Dunbar, who added Pathway remains registered as a nonprofit despite ending its active fundraising work.
Dunbar did not speculate on whether another intensive therapy program modeled after Pathway would someday call Napa County home, instead pointing to the need for such care in all communities where people struggle with the lasting effects of war.
“My hope, and I’m confident it will happen, is that communities will continue to support our veterans, both privately and through governmental organizations,” he said Wednesday in Yountville. “The need is still there. The desire for communities to lend support is still there – not only in the Napa community but, we hope, throughout the country.”