In Need of Resurrection

Posted by Paula Paine on September 29, 2014 in "Your OU" There’s a place – a dark place – that closes in on you. You’re still alive, but it’s a grave just the same, and it slowly suffocates all direction, all joy, all purpose from the corpse of existence you cling to. As the grave’s last glimmer begins to fade, you recognize the decision that must be made – will you let the darkness take you – even aid its coming? Or will you fight and begin to dig your way back toward the light?

On July 8, 2005, Brandon Coleman was in that place. He was high on methamphetamine and numb with alcohol; he was already dead inside; he had the gun. In the darkness, he made his way to the veteran cemetery and the grave he had visited so many times before – that of Lance Corporal Michael J. Williams, the first Arizona casualty of the Iraq war. There was something about being there with the fallen fellow Marine that had often brought him peace. This time, though, Coleman found himself wanting to join him. Yes, he had three children. But he was tired of them seeing him this way. Tired of this fight against the drugs, the anger, the failures; against this so-called life that he no longer knew how to live.
 
The cemetery was the last place he expected to find a flickering flame of hope for living again. But there, at the grave of Lance Corporal Michael J. Williams, Coleman came face to face with the courage that Williams demonstrated when he joined the Marine Corps at the age of 30 because he wanted to fight for his country after 9/11; with the courage to give his life to something greater than himself rather than succumb to a life of alcohol and drugs. The Marine Corps had saved Williams’ life at that time, and now Coleman knew Williams was saving him. He simply couldn’t take his own life when his fellow Marine had so bravely sacrificed his.
 
On July 9, 2005, Coleman became clean and sober, and that day began his incredible journey back to the light that he now shares with other veterans in need of resurrection from their lives of substance abuse.  
 
His first step was to contact the Veterans Administration (VA) to see if they would send him to truck driving school to earn his commercial driver’s license for a job he wanted with a local aerospace company. The VA counselor sensed immediately that Coleman was setting his sights too low.
 
“You seem pretty smart,” the counselor said. “What would you do if you had it to do all over again?’” Coleman admits he had little faith in the VA at the time and tried to convince the counselor he was only interested in learning to drive a truck so he could feed his kids. She wouldn’t have it. “No, Brandon,” she said. “Tell me what you would do if you had a chance to go to college.” So he told her he would have given anything to be a high school English teacher. “Well, let’s shoot for that then.”
 
After enrolling in the Vocational Rehabilitation program for disabled vets, Brandon spent a year taking classes five nights a week at a local community college, but he knew he couldn’t keep up the pace. So his VA counselor, Linda Shuttleworth, came to the rescue. After showing him some options for programs at other universities that required only one or two night-a-week attendance, Coleman met with faculty member and advisor Jan Stone at Ottawa University’s Phoenix campus, and it was a done deal.

“Jan’s father was a WW II veteran, and she and I instantly built a bond that lasts to this day,” he said. “She helped guide me through my undergrad program.” With a double major in Secondary Education–English and Human Services, Coleman was disappointed when, upon graduation in 2009, Proposition 101 hit Arizona, barring illegal aliens from attending public schools and crippling his chances of securing a teaching job.  
 
But there was a silver lining, once again uncovered by his VA counselor. While attending OU, Coleman had met a number of disabled veterans like himself who struggled with substance abuse, and he naturally referred them to Linda. He sought her out again himself to explore what he should do now that his degree had been rendered ineffectual.
 
“She looked me square in the eyes and said, ‘Brandon, you are not meant to teach high school, but you are meant to help other veterans. You are meant to be a substance abuse counselor.’” Intuitively, he knew she was right. THIS was his calling. This is why he had been saved.
 
So she rewrote his vocational rehab plan, and Coleman continued at Ottawa University in pursuit of his Master of Arts in Counseling with a concentration in Substance Abuse Counseling. After completing the degree in 2011, he began pursuing his PhD in Psychology Cognition and Instruction from Grand Canyon University and is on a completion track for the summer of 2015.
 
Along the way, Coleman’s calling took on a more definitive shape. He got a job at the VA Regional Office as a legal administrative specialist, which eventually led to a 300 hour, five-month internship for his master’s in the VA hospital’s Substance Abuse Clinic. That was followed by six additional months in an unpaid work-study position working 30 hours per week.
 
“It was worth every minute, because shortly after completion, I was able to earn a position here at the hospital as an Addiction Therapist,” said Coleman. “I have been here ever since.” 

In that position, Coleman’s calling was further formed when the VA sent him to a weeklong Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) seminar in 2012. He fell in love with the MET and Motivational Interviewing (MI) techniques and soon implemented them into a program he developed to address a problem he had identified in his work with veterans.  
 
“I had seen countless veterans come through our clinic who were court ordered,” Coleman said. “They would come through and attempt to complete whatever type of treatment the courts or probation made them, but nothing more. They would go right back to using substances. I knew something had to stop that revolving door.”
 
So Coleman developed an outpatient curriculum called Motivation for Change (M4C) for the most at-risk veterans involved in legal issues and required by the courts to seek treatment. The program is up to 52 weeks in length and consists of five phases. After completing the program, graduates speak in court about what they have learned about themselves and how the program has changed them. During that court session, Coleman presents each graduate with his 1/9 Marine coin.
 
“I tell each veteran how proud I am of them, and I give them the coin so no matter where they go, they will always have a Marine with them,” explained Coleman. As a result of the program’s success, the courts have begun to back M4C and recognize its viability in the recovery process. Since introducing the program in October 2012, 33 veterans have successfully completed the program, with many released from adult probation 12-24 months early.
 
Coleman is in the process of obtaining an affiliation agreement between Grand Canyon University and the VA in order to conduct research on the program for his doctoral dissertation. It’s Ottawa University he credits, however, for taking him down this path and giving him the skills to do what he’s doing.
 
“Ottawa helped me to gain a quiet confidence – a swagger,” said Coleman. “I learned how to converse professionally and exchange ideas with my fellow learners. I learned that I was meant to become a counselor. Because of Ottawa, I now have two jobs that I would do for free. I get to help veterans get their lives back on track each and every day. I can never repay Ottawa for all it has done for me.”
 
In addition to being a therapist at the VA, Coleman does mobile crisis response work one day a week for community healthcare organization Terros, which allows him to help women and children in crisis, as well as assist with suicide prevention. He is married to Becki and together they have five children.
 
“Everything that I have overcome has made me the loving husband, father and teacher that I am today,” he said. “I am already proud of all of my kids and all they are doing in their lives.” But he admits that one thing stands out. “There is nothing better than seeing your kids become Marines at the very place that you did.” His oldest son, Brandon, Jr., is a U.S. Marine currently serving in Afghanistan, and his other son, Trace, leaves for Marine Corps boot camp in October.
 
When Coleman finishes his PhD, he hopes to teach at his alma mater in the counseling program as yet another way to offer a new lease on life to others.

A Life-giving Encounter

Brandon Coleman never got to meet Lance Corporal Michael J. Williams, but he always wanted to thank him for saving his life. A little over a year ago, he finally got that chance.
 
The last Wednesday of every month at Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, the Military Family Support Group (MFSG), members of the community and high school students come together to pack 300-400 boxes with donated goods to send to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the packing event, the MFSG president recognizes the “Gold Star” moms and families in attendance as a way of honoring their children who have been killed in action.
 
One particular Wednesday, Williams’ mother, Sandy Watson, was at the event. That same night, Brandon and his family just happened to be eating at the restaurant for their evening meal. When he heard Sandy’s name read as the mother of LCpl Michael Jason Williams, his whole body reacted and he knew he had to meet her.
 
According to Sandy, “When he finally made his way over to me, he said, ‘You are going to think that I’m nuts, but….’ And he told me the story of the cemetery and how Mike saved his life. I did think he was probably some kind of nut, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and went with him to meet his family. I fell in love with all of them at that moment.”
 
The families have become very close since, and Sandy has come to think of Brandon as her “third son.”
 
“Brandon has come light years up the ladder from the gutter that he was wallowing in, and not only has he survived, but he has accomplished more than most people in a lifetime,” said Sandy. “Mike may have opened the door, but Brandon walked through it and did the work with fortitude and perseverance, one tired step at a time.
 
“Mike would have respected and admired Brandon because Brandon has accomplished what he himself wished to accomplish in his life. I believe that Mike ‘spoke’ to Brandon because of their strong connection from both being a Marine and his understanding of where Brandon was coming from. Mike would very much approve of my relationship with Brandon. In fact, I think he engineered it!”
 
While Brandon helps get fellow veterans back on track, Sandy remains highly involved with the Military Family Support Group and works with new Gold Star Moms to help them navigate through their grief. She is the caregiver of a WWII veteran and volunteers at the VA Retirement Home, the VA hospital and with the annual Veterans’ Parade.
 
Sandy knows that nothing can take the place of her deceased son Michael, but she is extremely grateful that Brandon’s life was pulled back from the brink, that Michael played a big part in that, and that Brandon is now part of her life as “an extension” of the son she lost.
 
Life, born of death.