Anne Bunzel, a recreation therapist at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, received the 2022 Bethany Award during an Oct. 5 ceremony in Milwaukee.
The facility’s Veterans Council presented the annual award, named in honor of the late Dr. Jacqueline Bethany, a psychologist with the Milwaukee facility who died in 2016.
Bunzel was nominated for the prestigious award by a Veteran for her work with him in the inpatient mental health clinic. She helped the Veteran address his anxiety and build the confidence he needed to engage more effectively in social settings, according to the nomination letter.
“I interacted more in the groups, opened up with the other Vets, and now I think I will be able to do so in the civilian world,” he wrote.
That’s just the sort of impact Bunzel hopes to make on Veterans each day in her recreation therapy program.
“The fact that our program can cross their mind and help people continue to move forward in their goals is such an amazing impact to be able to make,” Bunzel said.
“But every single day I don’t think of it as work. I enjoy every single day. I enjoy every conversation I have, and I try to be fully present and not treat anyone as a number. I think even if that’s the smallest impact I can make, hopefully it makes a big difference.”
The program Bunzel helps run does just that. Veterans admit to the Recreation Therapy program via a combination of referrals from the inpatient mental health clinic or self-admission. The six-week program runs every day, and each Veteran attends four or five group sessions on topics ranging from anxiety, depression and mental health to post-traumatic stress, substance abuse and other topics.
Each Veteran participates in two recreation therapy groups — a social skills group and a recreation leisure group where Veterans play bean bags, ladder golf, horseshoes, volleyball and more. The focus is on group therapy techniques, building socialization skills and teaching Veterans how to interact so they feel open and relaxed in group settings. Many leisure activities are traditionally associated with alcohol, so the groups seek to make Veterans comfortable with maintaining their sobriety in these group settings.
“We absolutely love what we do, and the fact that it’s making a long-lasting impact is just as important as the impact that we can make while we’re here,” Bunzel said.
Being nominated by a Veteran makes the award more meaningful and humbling, she said.
“It’s amazing. The fact that it comes from a Veteran just blows it out of the water. It actually makes it so real — that the impact you’re making isn’t just on paper. The impact is on Veterans’ lives.”
Bunzel’s supervisor, Tony Wagner, said he was not surprised she was nominated for the award.
“Annie is a hard-working team player,” he said. “She puts patients first with all she does. She regularly volunteers to cover groups for sick or absent clinicians in the (domiciliary).”
Bunzel has only worked in her recreation therapy role for about 18 months, but she’s already made a big impact, according to Wagner.
“She’s a team player who puts the Veterans she serves first,” he said. “She’s very easygoing and approachable. This is one of the factors that makes her a great therapist.”
Bunzel said the personal, genuine, caring approach taken by her and her co-workers might be why a Veteran took the time to nominate her for the Bethany Award.
“It’s actually reaching people and having genuine conversations and making a connection of some kind with every single Veteran who walks through these doors,” she said. “But definitely not treating anyone as a number. Not treating anyone as just another face, but treating them as an individual and catering to their needs.”
Bunzel said she constantly reminds herself that every single person is going through something.
“The more you feel comfortable talking about it, the more you feel comfortable addressing it, bringing it to light and reaching for help when needed,” she said.
Glen Perry, the chairman of the Veterans Advocacy Council, which selects the nominee based on the VA’s ICARE values — integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence — presented Bunzel with a coin and plaque during the Oct. 5 ceremony.
About the Bethany Award
The Bethany Award was established in 2017, after Dr. Bethany’s death in 2016 at the age of 60. Dr. Bethany ran the Compensated Work Therapy program at the Milwaukee VA.
“She was one of those doctors who did 200 percent, but unfortunately she passed away way too soon,” said Dr. Michael McBride, a psychiatrist. “But there are a lot of Veterans here at the VA who always wanted to remember her, and they did that by creating the Bethany Award.”
McBride said Veterans still talk about Bethany and her commitment and devotion to serving Veterans.
“She was an absolute tireless worker for the Veterans,” said James Bonanno, a supported employment mentor and trainer who worked with Bethany. “She was here seven days a week, at least 10 hours a day. There was no telling her to slow down or to relax.”
The VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention now bestows the Jackie Bethany Awards for Compensated Work Therapy Excellence in Vocational Rehabilitation annually nationwide. The award is presented to VA staff members who have been instrumental in the mental health recovery of Veterans.