Veterans

This Marine Veteran is pioneering a new VA program to help veterans and their families

Every Marine knows the saying, "Pain is Weakness leaving the body." It's the motto that drill instructors use to encourage recruits to dig just a little deeper during boot camp and it's often repeated when physical training takes a turn from hard to brutally hard. The military, especially the Marines, know that pain is the beginning of resilience, our ability to bounce back from difficult situations and complete the mission. But while some pain often prepares our servicemen and women for strength in war, we are often at a loss for what to do when our families or even children are challenged with pain and stress once we return. So when the VA wanted to start helping veteran families they smartly turned to one of the few and the proud.


Marine Veteran Tess Banko is no stranger to pain. By twenty three years old, she had survived homelessness, a massive back injury (for which she was medically discharged) and the suicide death of her husband, also a Marine. When her world seemed to be coming apart, Tess did the opposite of what most of us would do. Instead of allowing her pain to overwhelm her, she fought back. She dug into her pain both physically and mentally. Along the way, she volunteered to empower and assist others, went to college (she was crowned homecoming queen), and ultimately, found the tools inside to help her (and her family). Tess is the epitome of resilience and now she's bounced back to take on a new mission.

Today, Tess is the executive director of the UCLA/VA Veterans Family Wellness Center, a one of a kind partnership between UCLA and the West Los Angeles VA system. Tess and her team are part of the first VA program specifically designed to help not only veterans, but their families. To support their work, the team is relying on cutting edge research from UCLA just a few blocks from the VA campus. UCLA, the university which revolutionized kidney transplants and invented the nicotine patch, is now offering veterans and their families a state of the art resiliency program. Families Over Coming Under Stress (FOCUS) is a resiliency training regimen for individuals, families with children and couples facing adversity or issues like traumatic stress.

With Tess at the helm, she's not only pioneering a new way of thinking for the VA, she's also helping others find their path through trauma. Tess sat down with We Are The Mighty to discuss her work, passion and journey into resilience.

WATM: First things first, thank you for everything you do for military families. How do you describe yourself and your work here at VFWC?

Tess: Well it's really easy to give a title. I'm the executive director of the UCLA/VA. Veteran Family Wellness Center. But really, I'm a social worker and public administrator.

WATM: And a Marine? What made you join the Corps?

Tess: I think it was really a lot of wanting to be part of something that made a difference. When I was younger I used to go to the [El Toro] airshow with my grandfather and that's the first time I ever laid eyes on a Marine standing there in the uniform. You know guiding people, I mean it was airshow duty. I didn't know at the time probably how much fun that wasn't, but they were motivating and just really interacting with the public, and there were are all these exciting machines and demonstrations. So, it really made an impact on me as a little girl. The wider world was calling.

WATM: Did your family have a history of military service?

Tess: I didn't find out until many years later that my own grandfather was actually in the Army. He never told those stories to the family because I think he was embarrassed. He said that a lot of his friends were being sent off to war but he served two years in a non-combat role, got out and went into aerospace engineering and he was one of the first Mexican-American designers of bomb and missile systems at White Sands, NM. I personally saw the military as one of the only places that you could go as far as your own two feet would take you basically or your hard work that you put into it. That's one of the reasons why I was excited to join.

WATM: Wow.

Tess: And I like a good challenge. The Marine Corps seemed like a good fit. So I joined [as] an engineer.

WATM: Did you find the challenge you were looking for? Especially as a female Marine in the engineers.

Tess: When I joined it was very idealistic. I wanted to be just one of the guys and I saw myself in that way. I never saw myself in terms of being a woman, only a Marine and that actually caused a lot of problems and disappointment at the time as we have only just begun to move more fully into gender integration among the services. And it was really challenging for me because as I said I never saw myself as anything other than a Marine. I always just wanted to do my job.

WATM: What made you transition out of the Marine Corps?

Tess: I got hurt.

WATM: You got hurt?

Tess: Yes. We were training and I noticed that there was something wrong with my back because my leg had stopped functioning. I was in my early 20's and the command atmosphere gave this impression that you had to white knuckle it through anything. I was told, 'There's no problem, there's no problem. You just need to keep going.' It turned out that I had a herniated disc in my back and it was it was crushing the nerve to the point where it began to permanently kill the nerves. I was standing there on the rifle range and I just fell over on my side because my leg finally gave up. They called an ambulance and rushed me into emergency surgery in Japan.

WATM: Did you feel like you had the resiliency skills that prepared you for that experience?

Tess: My life growing up was challenging. My parents were very young when they had children. I was the only person in my immediate family to successfully graduate from high school. My parents had dropped out at 17, which kind of spells disaster for a young couple with four children. And so it was really a life of learning to adapt, moving from place to place, experiencing homelessness as a child, living between motels and being chased by bill collectors. You know all that bad stuff for [a child] but even from a young age I adopted a viewpoint of life that was more curious than anything. It was less 'Oh my God, why is this happening to me?' and more 'huh this interesting.' It was just a minor shift of perspective. I developed that curiosity and a different way of looking at problems and I think that's a key part of resilience.

WATM: Did you know what resilience was growing up?

Tess: I did not. I think it was something that I saw modeled by example. My grandmother was a very kind and giving woman, she taught me so much. She always went out of her way to help people in the community even when she seemed in the midst of a lot of uncertainty in life. So, paying that forward, even on active duty I was volunteering in the local community teaching English to Okinawan children. I've always been so curious about other people and their lives. It's a great education.

WATM: And then you lost your husband (also a Marine). How do you process all of that?

Tess: It was a surreal experience having the casualty assistance team knock on the door. I can remember I opened it a crack. It didn't make sense in my mind what was happening so I opened the door a crack and a Marine stuck his foot to keep me from shutting it. Then I saw the Colonel. And then it finally hit me that it was real. My husband wasn't coming home. When you're actively experiencing shock, pain or trauma it's less thinking about resilience and more survival mode kicking in. It was one second, one minute at a time. The days blurred together. I mean being emotionally injured is much like being physically injured, it can take a long time to wrap your head around. There's no linear pathway. Also, processing trauma is not just about moving through pain but about overcoming fear. There's the fear that you as a person or things in your life will never be the same. Sometimes you don't know what other people are going to think. Usually some of the fear ties back to being afraid that people are going to judge you if you feel broken. And I think that really was hard for me to overcome, but it was necessary. I think that being gentle with yourself is a skill.

WATM: You not only survived but thrived? You went back to college and grad school and now you literally work with Neuroscientists.

Tess: The science behind the brain fascinates me because people that are in pain sometimes seem to think, 'I'm damaged forever and I'm never gonna be able to do or be anything. There is no coming back from this.' I understand where you're at if it's crossed your mind, I've been there too, but there's so much possibility. We can't change what happened but our brain is essentially plastic and able to rewire. The body and mind actively try to repair themselves, and we can support our own process through building resilience. There are a lot of tools for that belt, resilience isn't just a buzzword.

WATM: Is that thesis behind your team's work at the VFWC?

Tess: Exactly. The center is a place of hope and healing. We teach tangible skills, identifiable tools, for veterans and their families to be able to overcome challenges and build better relationships. The FOCUS model that's our cornerstone is pretty incredible.

WATM: Is there anybody else out there that's focusing on families like this?

Tess: Not in this way. From a wellness-based resilience perspective this is the first center of its kind, especially paired with the VA which traditionally only sees individual veterans. They took a huge step to open their doors to couples and families too. When you think about it, though, our families, friends and communities are on the front lines supporting after military service.

WATM: So this is a groundbreaking VA partnership all based in science?

Tess: Yep. That's why UCLA is such an amazing partner because the VFWC is just blocks away from world class researchers. The Center falls under the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and the Nathanson Family Resilience Center which focus on resilience for all families, not just veterans. The research behind our programs is about understanding what drives human behavior and growth. Based on that, VFWC programming is tailored to veterans and their families with really firm research and evidence backing it up.

WATM: Classic, intel drives operations model. But you have specific model for your programs as well. What is FOCUS?

Tess: FOCUS is Families Overcoming Under Stress. It's a holistic model that was co-created between UCLA and Harvard University and currently in use on over 30 active duty military bases around the world. Our center represents the first wider translation of FOCUS from active duty into the veterans community, which are distinctly different populations. It's a departure from traditional therapy models.

WATM: What can veterans and their families expect when they come to the center?

Tess: When somebody comes into the center in general we start with a consultation that helps us to really guide veterans and family members to the resources that they might be needing. It's starting where the individual is. We have individual, couples, early childhood, military sexual trauma, and combat veteran adaptations, plus group sessions and special workshops and events. We keep our doors open for veterans and family members regardless of discharge, benefits or when they got out. The building we're housed in also offers veterans with VA benefits massage, reiki, mindfulness and yoga. There's even a drum circle and Taichi.

WATM: And children?

Tess: Especially children. Research that was done as far back as the Holocaust indicates that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. In cases of post-traumatic stress, suicide and even repeated deployments, the effects of secondary trauma is a very real thing. A lot of the times we see families with children who don't know how to talk to them about certain issues or there's not a huge understanding of the developmental piece of what's behind behaviors. Kids aren't just mini-adults, the human brain is still developing until the age of 25! So, we support both the parents and children to find a closeness and ability to communicate more as they move through the journey.

WATM: That sounds pretty awesome especially for the VA. How would you describe starting the center?

Tess: It's been a lot of pioneering. Improvising. Being resilient. There are so many people who care in the VA system and a whole lot of need. Offering another avenue for assistance is important to the team here.

WATM: What is your vision for the center and the future of resilience in the VA?

Tess: I would love to see the VA expand the VFWC's holistic wellness model to include centers in every facility, especially coupled with a research institution. Veterans and their families would really benefit. Both our families, and wider communities for that matter, are really impactful in our individual wellness. One of the great things about the VFWC is our ability to seek additional community resources. It's a long table and there is no one size fits all for wellness, reintegration, and healing.

WATM: So now you you've gone through your own experience gone through two years here. What does resilience mean to you?

Tess: I think the Marine Corps says it really, well you adapt and you overcome. Sometimes it seems like pull-through comes from out of nowhere because we're born with it, but sometimes life can bring those levels low. Resilience is that wellspring that allows for course correction and being able to bounce back. Resilience to me also means working on saying, "hey something's wrong here" and being open to assistance. First step for me personally of breaking the cycle was my own acknowledgment of what I was facing. For instance, I couldn't talk to my family being sexually assaulted on active duty and I now know that's common to those who have experienced trauma. I simply didn't have the vocabulary, I had to organize the words in my own mind. We really need each other to get through hard times, so it's crucial to develop.

WATM: What does 2019 look like for you and VFWC?

Tess: We're working on piloting a new transition program, TEAM, for those at any point after active service based on the core FOCUS model paired with the ideas of identity ,mission, meaning and purpose. These are four essential elements of transition. Your perception changes along the transition to civilian life just like my perception changed of myself when I got out of the Marine Corps. It really was a rediscovery of who I was, where I was. I had to find a new mission. For me that happened to be serving people, but it could be different for others. It can be challenging to figure these things our while also providing for yourself or a family. We want to offer veterans and their families the resilience tools before they even need them.

WATM: Do you have any advice specifically to the families

Tess: There is no one size fits all to happiness, health and healing. If one thing doesn't work, move forward. No matter what you face, keep reaching out and moving forward. Families, you are vital to service. You're heard and seen. You matter.

Marine Veteran Tess Banko is the executive director of the UCLA/VA Veterans Family Wellness Center (VFWC). To learn more about the center's work or begin your own resilience training please contact familycenter@nfrc.ucla.edu or Phone 310-478-3711, ext 42793.