Veterans share their stories on a VA podcast that emphasizes the importance of research

Ensure veterans are heard and communicate research to veterans and the general public in a consistent manner. That’s the goal of two Iowa City VA researchers who host a podcast meant to talk to veterans and give them an open platform to share their stories.

Dr. Levi Sowers and Brandon Rea host the Vets First Podcast, one of six shows on the VA Podcast Network. The podcast is in its third six-month season. Sowers and Rea, who are both associated with the Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Visual Loss in Iowa City VA, have completed about 20 episodes so far. Each lasted 20 to 30 minutes.

One of their guests last year was Army veteran Josh Marino, a veteran peer mentor and education and outreach coordinator at Human Engineering Research Laboratories, a joint venture between the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the University of Pittsburgh. On the show, Marino told a harrowing story when he was deployed to Iraq.

“I moved my brain”

As Marino marched on a road with his army unit in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in June 2007, three enemy mortars landed within seconds of each other. A five-foot high wall protected it from most debris and shrapnel. But the shockwaves permeated the wall and “moved my brain in a way that a brain isn’t supposed to be moved,” he said on the podcast.

Marino was diagnosed with concussion and shock. Later examinations showed traumatic brain injury (TBI) with post-concussive migraines, as well as PTSD.

While deployed, Marino became confused, forgetful, angry, and depressed, and found it difficult to carry out his usual duties. “Depression took me to a very, very dark place, and I was totally ready to kill myself,” he said.

Moments from that fateful decision, he was sitting on the stairs of his barracks smoking a cigarette when a little cat emerged from under the bushes. “I grew up surrounded by animals. They have always had a great influence on my life. So seeing this little, tiny thing that needed help from me kind of made me realize that maybe there’s another way, maybe there’s another way out of rescue, so to speak, away from PTSD, away from depression. Maybe I could do something that could ease my own anxiety while helping others.

Today, with his work at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, he is doing just that.

“We really wanted to give priority to veterans”

Some of the Vets First podcast episodes have featured an interviewee. But the majority paired a researcher and a veteran on separate segments. In the case of their podcast featuring Marino, Rea and Sowers followed up by interviewing Rob Otto, the suicide prevention coordinator in Iowa City VA.

Why the name Vets First Podcast?

“We really wanted to put veterans first,” Sowers says. “Let them tell their stories and explain the problems they have and let the researchers and other veterans hear about them. Then try to show or demonstrate how VA addresses these issues in a way that veterans and researchers can understand. A lot of these topics are super complex, even for someone like me who is in the business. It’s important for us to communicate this clearly to the veteran, as working on mice helps veterans in the long run.

“Often the stories of veterans are not well heard”

The hosts hope veterans will hear the stories on the Vets First podcast and know they are not alone and isolated. They want the podcast to also promote communication and networking between former members of the service.

“Often, veterans’ stories aren’t heard well,” Rea says. “It’s a way for them to communicate what happened to them and what they’re going through, and for the general population to know that the government is investing in research to help veterans. The target audience is also researchers.

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