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For chronic pain, the human connection is the intervention

Group setting where a younger man has his hand on the shoulder of an older man, comforting him.
In VA’s Veteran-to-Veteran Chronic Pain Program, participants connect with others, learn pain-reducing techniques and have a platform for sharing their pain story. These weekly groups meet in more than 10 sites nationally.

There is hope for Veterans living with chronic pain.

Addressing pain with understanding 
John Evans, a health science specialist with Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center’s Center of Innovation for Veteran-Centered and Value-Driven Care, teamed up with Dr. Joseph Frank with VA’s Chronic Pain and Wellness Center to address chronic pain—persistent or intermittent pain that lasts more than three months.  

In 2021, they wrote a grant to the VA Office of Rural Health to pilot a mutual aid-style group for rural Veterans with chronic pain. Within this format, Veteran volunteers, who also live with chronic pain facilitate the group for others experiencing similar pain challenges. 

The grant was approved in 2022, birthing the Veteran-to-Veteran Chronic Pain Program at Rocky Mountain Regional VA.  

“This is a program where Veterans connect and come together,” said Evans, a U.S. Army Veteran. “Our facilitators can understand and be compassionate in ways others cannot.” 

Connection as intervention 
Currently, five Veteran-to-Veteran groups meet weekly throughout the Rocky Mountain region. The program focuses on providing rural Veterans access to care and uses two group formats—storytelling or real-time challenges.  

Storytelling involves a narrative, allowing Veterans to tell their pain story. Evans said some participants have never put words to their stories in the presence of others who understand.  

“The human connection is the intervention, and we believe that in itself has healing properties,” he said. “It’s effective in treating many chronic conditions. Veterans are more likely to connect and be open and honest with folks who understand their experience.” 

The second group format strengthens care navigation. It incorporates real-time, day-to-day challenges people face, with Veterans sharing and getting feedback about resources and what has worked for them. It’s about establishing better communication with VA and one’s care team.  

Expanding the program 
In February 2024, 30 newly trained Veteran peer facilitators joined the program to launch Veteran-to-Veteran groups at 10 new VA sites nationally.  

“We are evaluating the program to see how it’s impacting people and improving their quality of life,” said Evans. “It’s about lessening the sense of isolation and alleviating the pain of loneliness. We’re helping build community.” 

The program’s impact
U.S. Air Force Veteran Ken Joslin, age 68, looks forward to listening to other Veterans’ experiences at his chronic pain group in Aurora. He said the meetings provide a platform to voice his opinions and share his pain journey and how he’s working through it. 

“Without exaggerating, it’s my salvation,” he said. “I have pain 24/7. If it weren’t for Veteran-to-Veteran groups and my wife, I would’ve given up a long time ago. The program has taught me how to endure, how to protect myself and it’s given me resources I need for quality of life.” 

Joslin, who has participated for the last two years, said the best tools for dealing with his painful arthritis are mindfulness and breathing exercises that help calm his nerves and muscles, allowing them to relax.  

“Mindfulness taught me to take myself to a place in my mind and become so absorbed in bringing that place to life, my brain is forced to do something different than yell at me about every pain I have,” he said. “I can actually smell the pine trees, hear the stream running and wind blowing through the trees. When I come out, my pain drops from a 10 to a seven, where I can at least handle it. I practice this daily.” 

U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Vanessa Cameron has facilitated Veteran-to-Veteran sessions since the program started.  

“Having that lived experience is an important piece,” she said. “I can share my experience, and there’s value in supporting each other, regardless of the level of pain. We all have a place here.” 

Reaching out for support 
Evans said one group in Denver with about 20 regular members has not missed getting together for more than 100 weeks, including meeting on Thanksgiving.  

“We want to make sure this is a consistent resource for many years to come,” he said. “We’re providing a resource that mirrors our Vets’ conditions, with continuous support when people need it.” 

To learn more about the Veteran-to-Veteran Chronic Pain Program at VA, call John Evans at 720-276-4863. 

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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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