Two local med students helping veterans

Nov 16, 2016

Leslie Hopper and John Hurley’s project is designed to provide assistance for veterans transitioning to civilian life.
Credit ECU News Services

 We detail a new pilot program started by two medical students in Greenville that seeks to help military veterans transition back to civilian life.

Veterans Day honors and celebrates the service of all US military veterans.  Now, a new pilot program seeks to make the most of their service.  According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 and 20 percent of those who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD.   Transitioning back to civilian life after war can be incredibly difficult for service members.

“The path that I took was not a very smooth transition.”

John Hurley served as an Army medic for 16 years before leaving the service in 2011.  The adjustment to civilian life he says was a shock.

“And I found myself extremely angry and I went through all the signs and symptoms that anyone would expect with Post Traumatic Stress. I was lucky enough to have a friend who was going through the same thing and we were able to see what was going on in each other and guide each other through.”

Hurley is now a Brody School of Medicine student at East Carolina University in Greenville.  His experience inspired him to start a program that help veterans adjust to civilian life and connect to resources they may need.  As part of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship program, Hurley and med student Lesile Hopper teamed up to create the peer support system called “On Belay.”

“It all starts with the sponsors.  And sponsors come about, anyone and everyone.  We aren’t looking for professional counselors although those are welcomed as well but they aren’t acting in their professional capacity.  We’re looking for people who have a heart to help veterans.”

The name On Belay comes from a rock climbing analogy where someone supports another with a rope during a difficult maneuver.  It’s not counseling, it simply connects veterans with a listening ear to help them understand they’re not alone.

“We have a phone number and a website set up for these veterans to contact when they’re in need or interested in being set up with a sponsor.  So it’s pretty simple, they either email us or call that number and then we let the sponsors know that someone is available and it’s kind of up to the veteran and the sponsor to generate that relationship.  It’s all guided by what the veteran needs and when they’re ready to accept that help.”

Sponsors attend a one-day training session to help them hone communication skills, listen effectively and be supportive.  Hopper says they also learn how identify signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“We also teach the sponsors how to take care of themselves throughout this process because some of the sponsors that are interested may have had some adjustment issues or gone through traumatic stress themselves.  So we don’t want the situation to cause a flare-up of their own past issues.”

The goal is to match 40 veterans with 40 sponsors by the time the Schweitzer Fellowship program ends in April.  They’ve trained 13 sponsors so far, and now, veterans wanting to take part in On Belay are beginning to sign up.   

Hopper spent two years working at a veterans hospital. She says there’s often a gap between veterans and the professional care they need because they don’t often reach out for help.

“There’s fear of being labeled as having a mental disorder if you’re having issues adjusting or going through post-traumatic stress. And so, some people avoid going and finding professional help because they don’t want to be labeled with that stigma of having a mental disorder.  So that’s kind of why we’re here is to still allow them the opportunity to reach out and have someone to talk to without the structure or the labeling that comes along with being seen by a health care provider.”

Currently, the program has limited reach, helping local veterans who live in the Greenville area.  But Hurley says there are plans to broaden the area On Belay serves. 

“If this ends in April, then I’ve wasted a year.  The possibility of it ending in April is not on my scope.  It will continue past because there is a need. And I’m looking for individuals who would like to take it on, whether it’s intergraded into some sort of grant, whether it’s picked up by medical students, or whomever, I would love for it to start here and see that it’s effective and then have it branch to those communities around us and then continue on.”

Hurley says he’s in discussions with officials from Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg to explore how the program can be implemented in those areas.

"If you compare the amount of people who leave the service on a daily basis and those that are reaching out to the VA.  And I can speak from example, I have still not reached out to the VA. This program was set up pseudo for individuals just like me to be able to reach out and have a hand to be able to connect that step.  The gap is really far, and this was set up to just close that gap a little bit.”

Hurley says if veterans or potential sponsors are interested in being involved with On Belay, they can send an email to: or call 252-493-6244. 

“We do not need your name, we do not need what’s wrong with you.  We just need to that you would like us to pair you up with a particular sponsor and you will receive contact from us within 24 hours linking you up with someone.”

The idea behind On Belay is to stimulate conversations, sparking hope for those who selflessly served.