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Veterans Socials foster connections to combat the epidemic of loneliness

Smiling elderly man with glasses, wearing military shirt and hat. He sits at a table with a plate of food and others socializing in the background.
Having a positive social support system in place can improve mental and physical health. Making friends at a VOICES Veterans Socials helps reduce loneliness.

Military police officer Jessica Mack left the U.S. Air Force never expecting to face social isolation and loneliness as a civilian. With undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a severe brain injury, she struggled to find her fit in this “new normal.”

Implications of isolation
“I felt alone in a room full of people,” she said. “My problems were perceived as not real.”

Mack tried to cope by working long hours. She also began isolating. 

Realizing her mental health was in jeopardy, she quit her job and went to school. Her relationships remained surface-level until she accepted an invitation to a local coffee social. 

Building bonds
This coffee gathering stemmed from VA Bedford Healthcare System’s VOICES Veterans Socials (VVS), started in 2014. VOICES — Veteran Outreach into the Community to Expand Social Support – welcomes Veterans, their families, caregivers, survivors and other supporters to help foster social connection.

Dr. Jay Gorman, VA Bedford clinical research psychologist, has cared for Veterans with mental health and substance use issues since 2015. Two years ago, he transitioned to VA’s Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center, researching ways to decrease social isolation.

Social connection is so vital to health and wellbeing that the U.S. Surgeon General labeled the epidemic of loneliness a public health crisis. Social isolation is linked to higher mortality rates and a 2023 study found it increases the risk of early death by 32 percent."

Connection over loneliness 
Co-led by Veterans, particularly VA peer specialists and volunteers from community Veteran service organizations, 100 Veterans Socials now exist in 18 states and Puerto Rico. These weekly meetings are held in libraries, diners and other public spaces outside VA, offering opportunities for people to bond in a relaxed environment. 

Gorman calls them “friend-making social groups,” since many participants spend time together outside of regular gatherings. 

“We’re leveraging the connections made in VOICES Socials to reach people who aren’t using VA services but want to connect with others,” said Gorman. “A survey we administered showed we were reaching almost 40% of people with no VA care, and one in four of those Veterans eventually received VHA services after the Social.”

Mack attended Veterans Socials for four years, making deeper connections and learning how to approach social situations. She also found her fit as a supervisory peer specialist with VA Bedford. 

“I was allowed to be myself,” said Mack. “They didn’t pressure me into social norms."

Gorman said the VA Bedford team saw Veterans who have a positive social support system experienced strengthened mental health. The Surgeon General’s report went further, finding that sustained social connection can improve overall health, including reduced risk of heart disease, anxiety and diabetes. 

Gorman said social connection also provides a protective factor against suicide. 

Rocky Mountain region Socials
Michael J. Moore, U.S. Air Force Veteran and Cheyenne VA peer specialist, brought Veterans Socials to Wyoming and Colorado in 2021. 

Now led by Michael Leeman, U.S. Army Veteran and Cheyenne VA peer support apprentice, these groups encourage social connection across the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System. 

Leeman co-leads two of three VVS groups in Wyoming and northern Colorado. He is working to start a fourth group in Laramie. 

“Veterans are willing to talk about concerns in front of fellow brothers and sisters,” said Leeman. “They also become less apprehensive about giving VA a chance to take care of them.”

To connect with a VOICES Veterans Social, visit

To learn about starting a VOICES Veterans Social, email: or visit Socials YouTube

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April Love is a writer-editor on the VISN 19 Creative Task Force. She began working for VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in 2016 and lives in Aurora, Colorado.

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