Fond du Lac volunteer brings understanding, resources to incarcerated veterans

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

On and around Veterans Day, the American Red Cross will stand with those who served in any number of parades and recognitions. This support is foundational to our mission, dating back to Clara Barton’s experiences on Civil War battlefields.

Away from the public eye and events for Veterans Day, just as much is happening to make sure veterans, service members and their families have the resources they need.

For Red Cross volunteer Racheal Bergmann, that included a visit this week for her monthly session with 10 or so veterans incarcerated at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution. Inside the walls of a correctional institution, Bergmann said she is able to bring vital, deeply appreciated mental wellness programming to a veteran population whose situation and needs may be overlooked or disregarded.

“There are so many things to look at in terms of why this happens, why they’re incarcerated,” Bergmann said of the veterans who join her sessions at Kettle Moraine. “I feel strongly about the rehabilitation piece. Doing things that are in these programs will help them be successful in the community. It’s why I do it, I want to have people who come out of the prison system who are going to be successful and meaningful contributors to society.”

Bergmann, a Fond du Lac resident, has been a Red Cross volunteer for more than five years, beginning with Disaster Mental Health roles based on her professional and academic background, then transitioning to more participation with veterans from Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) opportunities. Her professional background included casework with inmates at Taycheeda Correctional Institution, and other family members have worked in similar settings in and around her hometown of Waupun. Her daughters have served in the military, one in the Marines, the other in the Air Force. The culmination of this personal and professional experience crystallized a feeling that she could give back to those who served no matter that they were behind bars.

“I think that the general population [outside of jail or prison] and those who aren’t trained or accustomed to military experience, they don’t understand what that is all like. You’re going from one issue of trauma into other issues of trauma, and then into the prison system, where there is more trauma,” she said, later adding, “This is a way … I can serve those who have served.”

Bergmann is one of two Red Cross volunteers who has helped lead these sessions, the other coming under the guidance of long-time SAF and mental health volunteer Curtis Hossman in northwestern Wisconsin at Stanley Correctional Institution. Locally and in other states, the Red Cross has engaged with departments of corrections to identify places and populations where veterans may be able to take advantage of these programs in a safe, meaningful manner. The incarcerated veterans involved in these programs are a small portion of the 3,300 services cases opened last year in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for service members, veterans and military families in need. However, they stand out due to the recognition that all veterans deserve, which is at the heart of the relationship between the Red Cross and the Department of Corrections.

Essentially, these are the same Mind-Body Wellness programs volunteers led in other community sessions with veterans, service members and their families, at anywhere from V.A.s to college campuses to community centers. Bergmann said that in the monthly sessions, the veterans – ranging in ages, military branches and service experiences – are able to attribute more focus to particular areas of the programs. Relaxation exercises, for instance, are a favorite, particularly the moments of meditation. Bergmann noted that mental health resources can be few and far between at correctional institutions. With that insight, she centers lessons on tools these veterans can used while incarcerated – and in building toward positive next steps once they’re released.

“This is another thing that they can do that’s exclusive to them, and they appreciate that piece. In prison, you can’t call a lot of things your own,” she said. “When you have those opportunities, it’s more meaningful.”

For more on the wide range of Service to the Armed Forces programs and volunteer opportunities, visit here.

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