Minnesota veteran helps other veterans facing opioid addiction

This Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. 

But for many military members, the return home from combat can come with challenges of its own.

Veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to die of accidental overdoses, and those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are at the highest risk. But for those who seek help, there's a psychologist here in Minnesota working at Hazelden who can uniquely empathize with the struggle.

Trauma psychologist Don Elverd came home from Vietnam with three purple hearts and a head full of memories he couldn’t shake.

“They didn’t have the diagnosis of PTSD back then. It didn’t exist until 1980, but when I look back now, I had a pretty good case of that,” Elverd said. 

He also had some pretty serious physical damage, which the doctors treated with everything from morphine to tranquilizers, sending Elverd down a dark path of addiction.

“I went through four treatment centers, two halfway houses, I had three seizures and last year I got my 41 years medallion,” Elverd said.

When he got sober, he started helping other veterans. He’s been a trauma psychologist with Hazeldon for 26 years.

“What I learned in graduate school, I don’t find particularly helpful. What I learned in jungle warfare school, I use every freaking day in my job,” Elverd said.

Elverd said much of the addiction he sees among veterans comes from feeling alone. 

“They had a circle over there and they come back here, and they don’t have it any more. They look around at people they don’t think they can relate to, so they suck it up and they withdraw," he said.

The Hazelden Betty Ford connection program for veterans recently received a donation of $10,000 from a grass roots fundraiser, honoring the memory of a veteran who died last month after a decades-long battle with opioids.

That donation will help support long-term recovery support services.

"If you can reach down in the mud and the bull---- and help someone come up out of there and you see them 10 years later and they’re showing you their kid, then I’m going, 'yeah, yeah, yeah,'" Elverd said.

If you want to help a veteran struggling with addiction you can donate to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and sponsor a patient who can't afford the cost of care.